Let’s just get this out of the way: Max Verstappen is, even in the elite field of race-winning F1 drivers, an incredible talent. He arrived in the sport too early and not experienced enough—yet he still delivered. He was promoted to a top team too soon—and yet he delivered. He was given a leadership role in Red Bull that sidelined his teammate—and yet he delivered. This year, he took on the task of challenging Lewis Hamilton for the drivers’ championship, something no other driver had managed for half a decade—and, you guessed it—he still delivered.
For most of the year, Verstappen was leading the title and Hamilton was on the back foot. Repeatedly, the Red Bull drew out a title lead that would get reeled back by the Mercedes. And despite several spectacular clashes between the two, there was incredibly close competition. Outrageously close. The kind of close that gets down to the last of 22 races on exactly equal points. To match Lewis Hamilton for 21 races, longer than any previous F1 season has run means you’re a worthy competitor and whichever of them left with the points lead, after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, should have decisively been the winner of a properly amazing title fight.
Hamilton and Verstappen on the podium
That is not how it’s played out. Max Verstappen is the 2021 world drivers’ champion but with the strange caveat of “for now” addended to that. He crossed the finish line ahead of Hamilton, outscored him and stood on the podium higher, lifted the trophy. Then less than 30 minutes after the end of the race, as per FIA rules, Mercedes protested the outcome, and Verstappen’s title was thrown into question for four hours of stewards’ deliberation.
The issue comes down to the last lap of the race. In Abu Dhabi, Verstappen and Hamilton had fought hard but fairly; Verstappen took pole but Hamilton beat him off the line, the 35-year-old flexing a tenth of a second quicker reaction time at the start than the 24-year-old. Then they tussled on track, with Verstappen trying a creatively deep overtake into turn four that forced Hamilton wide but which stewards ruled wasn’t worth looking into. That was probably right. After all, it was the end of the season and we wanted to see them race, not bicker in the stewards’ office.
Arguably, that’s what made the race direction issue an incredibly controversial call at the end of the race. Hamilton had been leading for, effectively, the whole grand prix and was with 10 laps to go to the end. At that point, Nicholas Latifi lost control of his Williams and slammed into the wall of turn 14, a turn that it’s quite difficult to retrieve cars from.
When Kimi Raikkonen did the same thing at the end of a practice session on Friday, the session was red-flagged. The work of marshals clearing the area was just too dangerous with cars on track and maybe that would have been the right call, here. Make drivers line up again, send them back out on another start after an opportunity to change tires.
Hamilton congratulating Verstappen
That didn’t happen. And with moments to go, the safety car peeled in, and specifically the five cars between Verstappen and Hamilton were told to overtake the safety car and get out of the way. Verstappen was suddenly alongside Hamilton on the restart, on much fresher soft tires than the hard compound Hamilton had been nursing around the majority of the race. Verstappen crossed the line first, the roar of Red Bull’s celebrations matched by Toto Wolff howling “NO” at race director Michael Masi over the call and that was that. A victory more pyrrhic than pyrotechnic, despite the Yas Marina display.
Racing is not fair. Things happen that make you want to hurl yourself on the floor and howl. There’s been plenty of that just this season in F1—Lando Norris losing his maiden victory in Russia, Esteban Ocon pipped across the line in Jeddah, Valtteri Bottas’ wheel nut getting hopelessly stuck in Monaco. It’s all part of the heartbreak of sport.
This didn’t feel like that. This was a decision that had been taken. As though the stewards, in an effort to make Hamilton and Verstappen race a final lap to the line had constructed the opposite of that, effectively handing Verstappen the win. It’s nothing either Hamilton or Verstappen did or could do anything about; neither of them were involved in Latifi’s crash, neither of them were on the phone to race direction to argue about what should happen behind the safety car—they were just driving. But it wasn’t fair and it didn’t feel right. The call was made once and then reversed so late, midfield cars being used as creative decoration to the title fight and, specifically, only the title fight. Third-placed Carlos Sainz didn’t get the lapped cars ahead of him moved out of his way, while he was fighting for his own position in the world drivers’ standings.
Mercedes was well within its right to lodge a protest. Two protests, in fact, one against Verstappen and another against the safety car procedure. Both were, after a few hours of deliberation, thrown out. So now Mercedes has filed an intention to appeal, going to a higher court of arbitration than the trackside stewards. Clearly, from the perspective of the team that lost out to this, there’s no option but to try and fight it. If it had been a mechanical failure then, well, there’s no mechanism that can change that but the arbitrary calls of a human being are different.
It’s pretty unlikely anything will get changed. The FIA tend to stand by decisions and although the sporting regulations do say all cars—or none—have to be allowed to unlap themselves to end a safety car, they also say that the race director can make whatever calls he likes, within safety grounds. Michael Masi is the public face of interpreting the hugely complicated sporting regulations of F1 in real-time to team principals. The call was to get them racing and it’s hard to believe that it would feel that much fairer if Hamilton had won the title behind the safety car.
It feels so unfair that it’s gone this way. Unfair on what’s been an incredibly exciting title fight, the best I’ve ever seen in 28 years of watching F1. Unfair for Hamilton, who was put in a no-win situation and unfair for Verstappen, whose first-ever F1 title is now under a cloud of suspicion. Unfair for everyone who wanted to crown a champion last night and instead found themself pouring over FIA regulations to work out if there was a case for Mercedes to challenge. Unfair for Honda, who deserve the right to win a championship after years of derision and then immediately leave the sport because that’s the way Honda does things.
Verstappen with his car after crossing the line
One of my favorite things about F1 drivers is that they’re just “some guys.” Lewis is a nerd whose best friend is his dog and whose fancy sound-mixing music desk has Walmart Christmas tree lights on it. Max Instagrams his cats and Pokémon cards. In all the psychoanalysis of their gladiator potential and godlike, inhuman capacities, they are literally just some dudes whose job is to drive an F1 car.
Max is 11 years younger than Lewis. Whether he’ll ever match Lewis’ achievements, who knows because no one thought that anyone would reach Michael Schumacher’s. No one ever thought someone would win more than 100 races. No one expected Lewis to have been competing for an eighth world title, a properly terrifying number when you think that only 34 people ever have been F1 world champions.
It seems really likely Verstappen would have got there eventually. Same as it feels written that Hamilton will get that eighth title. Neither of them deserved to win or lose it like this.
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