This week we’ve got a roundtable discussion on the controversial ending to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that saw Max Verstappen benefit from race director’s Michael Masi strange decision-making process. First calling off having lapped cars unlap themselves, then reversing the decision, then pulling in the safety car without the one-lap grace period all amounted to a seemingly botched finale to what had been a stellar Formula 1 season. Our F1 writers attempt to suss out the mess.
What do you think would have been the best way to handle the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix?
Alex Gintz – To an extent, it depends on your priorities. Most of us can agree that a title-deciding race should not end under the safety car. Race control was certainly premature in giving notice that the lapped cars would not be moved and may have avoided all the headaches of the evening before they began. A red flag certainly should’ve been on the cards and may be the most inoffensive option race control had. Regardless, I can empathize with Michael Masi’s position, being faced with such an odd situation right before the final laps of what had to that point been one of the greatest seasons F1 has ever seen.
Ava Ladner – The easy answer is to recommend that the race be red-flagged and resume when the track was clear. But calling for the red flag now amounts to having a certain amount of knowledge not available during the race. Latifi’s brake rotor catching fire slowed down the removal of his wounded car and should have brought out the red flag, but race director Masi still felt compelled to stick with the safety car.
That’s when the trouble really began in earnest. Red flag the race for a two-lap shootout, solid move versus have the race end under yellow. Really, the fact that Hamilton had built a 12-bleeping-second lead should have allowed the race to end under yellow without controversy. Hamilton and Mercedes had done their part to secure the championship, but Masi let his control of the race get away from him.
Should races be extended in the event of late safety cars?
Caleb Miller – No. Since there is no refueling in F1, adding laps is not an option because the cars are fueled based on the number of laps, so adding laps would guarantee that some cars won’t be able to finish the race. Also, the teams go into the race knowing that there is a certain number of laps that they will have to run, and they prepare their strategy with this in mind. Adding laps would be like changing the rules of the game mid-game.
Ladner – Nope. Not happening. If refueling existed in F1, maybe but without it, it’s not up for discussion.
What improvements can be made to race control and the rulebook to prevent these situations in the future?
Gintz – Certainly the race director’s power needs to be examined after how the safety-car period was handled. This kind of indecision and backtracking leaves the drivers to benefit and suffer from unnecessary circumstances out of their control. That said, inevitably at some point, we will stumble across a situation where some unusual circumstances arose on track and whoever happens to be the race director will make a call that is too vanilla, and fans will be demanding the power of race control be expanded. So far as I can tell, the best solution is to crystalize the language of the rulebook to leave less room for interpretation, though this will likely continue a cycle of popular opinion swinging from a desire for more strict rules back to a desire for more “letting them race.” Just try to enjoy it.
Miller – I generally don’t tend to think that the rulebook is the issue, but rather the problem is the inconsistent application of the rulebook. A big part of this is that F1 will use different stewards at different events, leading to the decisions being made by people with different interpretations of the rules. F1 needs to create a designated team of stewards who travel to each race and have a wealth of experience in motorsport. They could either be ex-drivers, former team members, or particularly experienced members of the media (all stewards would have to quit any other F1-related role for this position). This would hopefully keep rulings more consistent. I also think the rulebook should include illustrations for situations like forcing another driver off track. These graphics could show exactly how far alongside a driver has to be for it to be considered forcing another driver off the track.
But the real issue at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was Michael Masi’s apparently unchecked power to do whatever he wants with the safety car. While there are rules about when the safety car comes in and how un-lapping cars is supposed to work, Masi and the FIA have simply claimed that a different rule overrides all other rules and allows the race director to use the safety car however he or she pleases. It’s essentially a dictatorship that allows Masi to manipulate the “show” to make it more entertaining. Perhaps there should be a team of three race directors who must vote on each decision or ruling. Or explicit language preventing Masi’s safety car free-for-all needs to be put in place in the rulebook.
Ladner – Both my compatriots are spot on with their assessments here but the biggest thing that needs to happen is the removal of direct communication between teams and the race director. Horner buzzing in Masi’s ear seemed to influence how the final lap transpired and that should not be the case. Jenson Button noted Horner’s influence and lamented that team principal’s should not be able to sway the race director.
One further caveat is that Masi needs a second-in-command. Karun Chandok mentioned how former race director Charlie Whiting used to have Herbie Blash as a reliable and important presence in overseeing races. Masi would do well to have his own lieutenant to give him some assistance.
Will the publicity this brings F1 be a net positive or negative?
Gintz – Truthfully, I think it will be a net positive. The nuances of F1 aren’t widely known to the every-other-week fans, let alone the average viewer who tuned in due to the hype surrounding this year’s championship battle. Whatever fans may think of the way this season ended; they at least get to celebrate a new champion rather than the same old in the form of Lewis Hamilton. That is the fact which first time and casual viewers will remember. F1 still has plenty of room to spin and market this however they see fit. If the situation does end up altered in some way, shape, or form, that will be a clear negative, even if the result is a more fair or appropriate result of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The series that is known as the pinnacle of motorsport deciding its title in a courtroom is a horrid blow, no matter how much justice is served. One hotly debated call standing is better than a high-profile arbitration scene.
Miller – I think the publicity regarding the ridiculous safety car call from Masi is entirely negative. However, the controversy and closeness of the battle between Hamilton and Verstappen drew so much attention, especially in the United States, that the publicity will end up being positive in the long term. For instance, the Daily Show had a whole segment devoted to the controversy, where host Trevor Noah was calling out the contentious safety car ruling. But while Noah’s reaction to the controversy was negative, the fact that a show like The Daily Show even discussed F1 is astonishing and will help boost the sport’s profile in America.
Ladner – It’s never good to have the integrity of a sport called into question. While almost every sport has faced scandal regarding the “purity” of its play in all forms of cheating and officiating, they usually face some form of backlash – unless the sport responds to and makes changes. Should F1 address this issue openly, it will show that the sport is listening to the fans and is willing to better its product. No doubt Ross Brawn is already seeking to tackle the matter. It may not change the results from Abu Dhabi, but it will be the positive move needed to continue F1’s boon.
Would overturning the results of the race/championship be a smart move for F1?
Gintz – How smart of a move it would be to overturn the results of this year’s championship is difficult to gauge. Most of us can agree that until lap 57, this championship was Hamilton’s to lose. That doesn’t necessarily mean Hamilton was short-ended from a sure victory. Hamilton very well may have made a Baku style mistake on the restart and had all lapped cars and Verstappen blow by him and his newly flat-spotted hard tyres. Those same ancient tyres may have gifted him a puncture under braking for turn five. We don’t know. We can be confident in our speculation, but it’s never over. Every driver gets into their car with an understanding that race control may choose to step in, and the racing will have to go on regardless of what decision race control makes and what on-track changes accompany that call. Certainly, we should scrutinize how race control does things, especially when the case that the rulebook has been disregarded is rather strong. At the end of the day, we don’t have the time to chastise Michael Masi into the correct decision in real time, and Max Verstappen and Red Bull capitalized on the circumstances they were given to perfection. Imagine the fallout had the race ended behind the safety car, or if lapped traffic hadn’t adequately moved out of the way and left Verstappen seven seconds behind Hamilton?
Miller – No. Neither Verstappen and Red Bull nor Hamilton and Mercedes were at fault in this situation. The blame lies entirely on Masi. No one expected Masi to change the rules, but when he did, Verstappen seized the moment and got the job done. Stripping him of the championship now would be cruel and unnecessary. Masi is the one who needs to face the consequences, preferably by being replaced.
Ladner – Smart?! Funny question considering that there are some finely intelligent people in F1, and the end of the Abu Dhabi GP was still a total disaster. If one is a rule-based thinker, then yes, the results need to be re-worked. If one is of the mindset that what has happened has happened and that’s that, well then the results are the results.
About the author
As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.
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