The safety car regulations that Michael Masi ignored to 'go racing' at the end of Abu Dhabi GP


An unconventional safety car procedure, which diverted from F1's sporting regulations added a further twist to the drama of the 2021 season, helping Max Verstappen to take the title

Safety car leads Lewis Hamilton in the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP

The safety car call ultimately deposed Hamilton from his championship-winning position

Lars Baron/Getty Images

It was the final act of Michael Masi’s stint as Formula 1 race director: his unprecedented call to speed up the end of the safety car procedure, made in the frantic closing laps of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The championship-changing decision halted Lewis Hamilton’s apparent cruise to race and title victory. Rather than seeing him crowned champion from behind the safety car, Masi managed to squeeze in a final lap of racing, which had the effect of handing Max Verstappen the advantage in a last-lap duel.

The fallout was a global outcry; the constructors’ champions boycotting the prize-giving ceremony; the sport’s superstar seven-time world champion appearing to be on the brink of quitting; and, ultimately, Masi losing his job.

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His error was to allow only the lapped cars between leader Hamilton and second-placed Verstappen to unlap themselves, then to bring the safety car in at the end of the same lap. It delivered a thrilling finale but also diverted from the procedure set out in article 48.12 of F1’s sporting regulations.

This article lists the sequence of events that lead up to a race restart after a safety car, and states that “any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car” — with our emphasis.

It goes on to say that the safety car would normally circulate for a full lap, once all unlapped cars have passed it, stating: “Once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”

Abu Dhabi safety car controversy: sequence of events

Lewis Hamilton looked to be on course for victory and an eighth world championship in Abu Dhabi after what amounted to a dominant display for the 2021 season. The Mercedes driver had been able to maintain a comfortable lead over Verstappen for most of the race and the Dutchman looked powerless to stop him, even though he had fresher tyres.

Then, with six laps to go, Nicholas Latifi lost control and hit the barrier at the exit of Turn 14, bringing out a safety car as the wreckage was removed. A brake fire slowed the recovery and it looked as if the race was effectively over, with at least two laps needed to bring the safety car back to the pits.

But with millions watching the action from around the world, Masi decided to speed up the procedure. It would set up a final one-lap battle between Hamilton, who was on worn, hard tyres, and Verstappen, who had been able to fit fresh soft tyres under the safety car without fear of losing position on track — an option unavailable to Hamilton.

Max Verstappen overtakes Lewis Hamilton in the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Soft tyres helped Verstappen snatch lead on the final lap

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

Initially teams were told that lapped cars would not be able to to unlap themselves, which would leave five lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton. It prompted Red Bull team principal Christian Horner to jump on the radio to Masi.

“Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out of the way?” asked Horner. Masi responded that he was more concerned with clearing Latifi’s car. “We only need one racing lap,” said Horner.

Red Bull’s sporting director, Jonathan Wheatley then radioed to Masi: “Those lapped cars, you don’t need to let them go right the way around and catch up with the back of the pack,” he said. “You only need to let them go, and then we’ve got a motor race on our hands.”

“Understood,” Masi replied and he went on to take the course of action that Red Bull requested: a sequence that would later ignite suspicions that the result had deliberately been fixed in favour of Verstappen.

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On lap 57, the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen were told that they could unlap themselves but those further back in the pack had to remain where they were — a decision without precedent.

Almost simultaneously, the lights on the safety car went out, indicating that it would be in at the end of the lap.

“Michael, this isn’t right,” complained Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff over the radio. His fears were realised as the race resumed; Verstappen picked his moment and took the lead from a compromised Hamilton. As the fireworks went off, the Dutchman was crowned champion.

“It’s called a motor race,” said Masi when Wolff complained again. “We went car racing.” Masi’s echoing of Wheatley’s earlier message in the “motor race” phrase was later picked up as an indication that he had deliberately favoured Red Bull.

Mercedes appeals the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix result

Mercedes appealed immediately. The team — which had flown a QC out to Abu Dhabi in the event of a dispute — argued that the procedures under Article 48.12 had not been followed because not all lap cars were allowed to unlap themselves and because the safety car did not complete an extra lap before returning to the pits.

It called for Hamilton to be declared the winner — and champion — because he would have won the race had the regulation be followed.

Michael Masi defends his Abu Dhabi safety car decision

Masi gave evidence to the stewards, saying that the purpose of Article 48.12 was to remove lapped cars that would interfere with the leaders — in this case Hamilton and Verstappen.

He also said that teams had agreed that it was “highly desirable for the race to end in a ‘green’ condition (i.e. not under a safety car).”

Mercedes appeal is rejected

That evening, still at the track, stewards dismissed Mercedes’ complaint after finding other areas of regulation that also applied, in addition to Article 48.12.

The first was Article 15.3, which gives the race director ultimate control over the use of the safety car — including its deployment and withdrawal, said the stewards.

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The second was article 48.13, which sets out that the ‘safety car in this lap’ message is the signal that it will enter the pit lane at the end of that lap.

Stewards found that this overrode Article 48.12, so displaying the message meant that it no longer had to complete an additional lap following the unlapping procedure.

Mercedes announced its intention to appeal the decision. Its continued call for Hamilton to be declared champion appeared to put the FIA’s prize-giving ceremony in jeopardy.

However, the FIA announced that it would investigate the incident and look at changing the regulations, leading Mercedes to drop the appeal ahead of the ceremony.

Formula 1 safety car procedure: what the 2021 rules say

The safety car procedure is part of F1’s sporting regulations, and has a defined sequence. Parts of this are set out in article 48.12 and 48.13.

Article 48.12

“If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message ‘lapped cars may now overtake’ has been sent to all competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.

“This will only apply to cars that were lapped at the time they crossed the line at the end of the lap during which they crossed the first safety car line for the second time after the safety car was deployed.

“Having overtaken the cars on the lead lap and the safety car these cars should then proceed around the track at an appropriate speed, without overtaking, and make every effort to take up position at the back of the line of cars behind the safety car.

“Whilst they are overtaking, and in order to ensure this may be carried out safely, the cars on the lead lap must always stay on the racing line unless deviating from it is unavoidable. Unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”

Article 48.13 (extract)

“When the clerk of the course decides it is safe to call in the safety car the message ‘safety car in this lap’ will be sent to all competitors via the official messaging system and the car’s orange lights will be extinguished. This will be the signal to the competitors and drivers that it will be entering the pit lane at the end of that lap.”

Standings - 2021 F1 World Championship