The conclusion of Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix left a sour taste in the mouths of many Formula One fans – particularly those who follow Mercedes.
But it really did not have to be this way.
From a very distant London, there was a very real sense of bewilderment as the chequered flag dropped at the Yas Marina circuit.
Max Verstappen’s last dash overtake of Lewis Hamilton to win the 2021 Formula One title came with a large smattering of disbelief, considering he had been roundly beaten by Hamilton during the race.
The circumstances of Sunday’s race have been well worn and explained elsewhere, but the thinking behind it has not. There are theories – plausible theories – that the promoters and / or the governing body desperately wanted this showdown to finish under green conditions, but the indecision from race control unravelled that possibility.
By bringing Verstappen in for tyres during the safety car period, Red Bull played the scenario correctly, but it was the only option left open to them and one made given that a majority of safety car periods see all lapped cars removed from the runners on the lead lap.
On the other hand, given Race Control’s reticence to remove the lapped cars in an effort to get the race going again, it is understandable to see why Mercedes played the conservative game. With five cars splitting Hamilton and Verstappen, there is no way the Mercedes racer would have lost the title.
But then minds changed.
The result is now solidified, an inquiry has been announced and any potential appeal by Mercedes has been dropped, but a clearly angry Toto Wolff – Mercedes Team Principal – sees the inquiry as an opportunity to hold the FIA to account.
Such is their fury, neither Wolff nor Hamilton plan to attend tonight’s FIA Prizegiving gala, with the team’s Chief Technical Officer, James Allison, collecting the Constructors’ Championship trophy in Wolff’s place. Mercedes also opted to not send its Formula One or Formula E cars for display at the gala event.
The injury is not necessarily the result, but rather the level and quality of the decision making from race control. The err created a scenario that allowed a deeply unfair battle to take place on the final lap, but perhaps even that is too kind.
The final lap was demonstration in the difference between old and tyre compounds which sat at opposing ends of Pirelli’s available range. To call it a one lap shoot-out would be akin to arming Verstappen with a pistol, while Hamilton’s weapon would be caterpillar. Race control may not play favourites, but their actions greenlighted a favourite.
As a sidenote, the other issue was the unnecessary loss of ground for Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who while running 3rd, missed an opportunity for a win, while Yuki Tsunoda would surely have put himself in contention for a podium had a grander opportunity been made available.
Given Verstappen’s fresh soft tyres, the likelihood of either Hamilton or Sainz ever genuinely challenging the Dutch racer was always low, but the tyre factor did much to kill the race and the championship with half a lap remaining.
There is an old saying that ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ Perhaps some, but maybe not all.
And that is what wrangles. The opportunity was not there: by siphoning off the leading pair, Race Control created a contrived and false scenario, which was always going to be unsatisfactory solution designed to appeal to Formula One’s commercial masters.
It goes without saying that both Verstappen and Hamilton would have been worthy champions, but it is Verstappen’s name that sits upon the record books.
As for Race Director Michael Masi, he is under fire, as his reputation takes a significant hit. There is the caveat of an FIA Presidential election taking place tomorrow and there are no guarantees that whoever replaces the outgoing Jean Todt won’t take action and make swift decisions as to the make-up of Formula One’s Race Control team.
Yet there is little doubt that this episode has greatly damaged the image of the sport for many, but don’t bet on it harming viewing figures. If anything, the controversy and the tension may see 2022 becoming an even better year for Formula One’s commercial prospects, but there is no guarantee that Formula One’s sporting integrity will have escaped unscathed.
And that is a shame.