At the title decider in Abu Dhabi, F1 Race Director Michael Masi was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Masi had to think on his feet, and Joe explains why he did the right thing.
Time, so they say, cures all. So they say! So, going straight into the Christmas break after the goings-on in Abu Dhabi was, in some respects, useful for F1 to get some time to get over what was obviously an unsatisfactory result.
The finale of the 2021 FIA Formula 1 World Championship should have given Lewis Hamilton a record eighth World Championship, putting him ahead of Michael Schumacher in the record books. What happened after Nicholas Latifi crashed ruined that storyline. Max Verstappen was beaten. In fact, the only hope that he had was for a Safety Car to be despatched. And that’s what happened.
Red Bull saw their chance and instantly called Max into the pits for new Soft tyres. Mercedes, meanwhile, left Lewis Hamilton out on the basis that Red Bull would do the opposite and Verstappen would be ahead on the road. Then, the situation would have been reversed with Max ahead on older tyres and Lewis having a lap to find a way through. You can argue that the race might normally have ended under caution and so Mercedes did the right thing, but this is to overlook something that the Race Director did not overlook: no one wanted the World Championship decided under caution, and the team bosses had previously told Masi that races should finish under green conditions.
Masi was stuck between a rock and a hard place – and he had no time to think about anything. He had to react. If he had red-flagged the race, there would have been complaints because (quite rightly) the incident did not warrant a red flag. If he had finished it under caution, there would have been disappointment and criticism from whichever team lost – and fans of the driver so impacted. And so he cleared the decks as quickly as possible and let the race go live to the chequered flag. It was a rush to get it done and he had to cut some corners, by only allowing the cars between the two contenders to unlap themselves. There was no time to do anything else. Michael did what he thought was best.
After the event, there were all manner of wild – and daft – accusations hurled around by Lewis fans. Masi was a racist, so they said. It was all utter rubbish. The FIA Stewards, who are not stupid people, despite many fans thinking that they know better than the officials, ruled that Masi had done no wrong after Mercedes protested after the race. But what was he supposed to do? His job is to make tough decisions, and he did that. You cannot overturn results and say that Max should not have won, just as Michael Schumacher’s 1994 World Championship will forever be tainted because he clearly crashed into rival Damon Hill to take him out of the running. But what could be done? One could not say that Hill was the champion. If you could overturn unfair results, then Hamilton would already have the record of World Championships that he clearly wants to have.
For me, the fault lies in the regulations themselves. Live sport has a habit of creating situations that no one has previously thought about. So, for me, Masi did nothing wrong. He used the powers he has to do what he felt was best for the World Championship. What happened was no one’s fault. Max was lucky. Lewis was not.
I never want to hear Max complain again that the FIA has got it in for him, and I want Christian Horner to learn a lot about stewarding when he attends the FIA Stewards event later this winter. Initially, Lewis took his defeat with grace and style. Toto and his cohorts reacted as one would expect them to react. In the end, they relented because appealing made no sense for anyone. Losing with grace is better than losing with lawyers. But I feel their pain. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right, but that’s the way the rules are.
Are there better ways to solve such situations? Perhaps there are. I hope that the FIA will spend some time looking at the Safety Car rules and asking whether it’s right that the leader can lose an advantage he has fairly won, without any recourse. I’ve never liked that element of the rules, but what is the alternative? Perhaps there are electronic ways to keep the cars with the gaps that they had before an incident. Perhaps not. NASCAR has some complex rules that can extend races when it’s required. They needed these rules because all too often they had fiddled with races to create a spectacle and the results were unfair once too often. The FIA must consider the options.
In some respects, Lewis has not done himself any favours by not turning up for the prizegiving, which he must do according to the rules. He has left himself open to further punishment, and the Federation can hardly be expected to do nothing, as the precedent would mean that no-one would ever turn up at the prizegiving if Hamilton does not get a rap on the knuckles. For me, it was a churlish thing to do. He lost gracefully on the Sunday, why did he not lose gracefully the following Thursday? Mercedes boss Toto Wolff did not attend, nor did the team send a car to the event. Instead, technical boss James Allison was sent to pick up the trophy. To give full credit to James, he made the absolutely correct speech, saying that Mercedes likes to win and will be back challenging again in 2022. It hit the right note, pained though he might have been to say the words.
But sport is sport. Winning and losing should be done gracefully. No one likes to lose, but respect is important, as is honesty. Fair play requires unconditional respect for opponents, fellow players, referees and fans. If the result is created by dishonesty then I agree it is wrong but I do not, for one minute, think that what happened in Abu Dhabi was in any way dishonest. It was just people trying to do the right thing. And that’s it. That’s the problem with being a race director. You don’t ever get praise when things go right. You only get mentioned when things go wrong. It’s like being a spark plug...
In the end, it is not time that heals. It is the people who heal themselves using the time to shape their present and future feelings. It is up to the injured parties to balance thought and emotion and accept the result. If they remain fixated or hold grudges, they will heal more slowly.
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for over 30 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.