A bungled manipulation of rules crowns Max Verstappen the 2021 world champion.
For one of the most compelling and tightly run seasons in F1 history to come down to the last race, level on points, something that last occurred when Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni entered the final round in 1974, the narrative looked set to be one of redemption for Lewis Hamilton having clawed his way back from a seemingly insurmountable points deficit to Max Vestappen by winning the previous three races.
Verstappen had thrown everything at him, car included, in order to halt Lewis’ final charge. By being the most experienced and arguably complete driver in a car in the ascendency in the final part of the season, it seemed all Lewis had to do was bring it home, getting past Max going into turn one at the race start. And with five laps to go, that is exactly what was happening. It felt almost anticlimactic in a season in which such a word had seemingly been embargoed.
Enter back marker Nicolas Latifi, whose unforced error had his car in the wall, drawing a safety car. This allowed Max to dive into the pits to fit a fresh set of soft tyres in what appeared to be the final Hail Mary in the most Hail Mary laden of seasons. The win however, still looked to be Lewis’. He had opted to maintain track position in first place with three lapped back markers, a healthy buffer between Lewis and Max under safety car conditions with the laps ticking down to nought. Cue one of the strangest and unprecedented stewarding moves in F1 history. In order to cap off a most thrilling season and stave off any accusations of F1: the perpetual anticlimax, race director Michael Masi decided to invent a new rule.
With one lap to go, the five cars separating the rivals, and those cars alone, were allowed to un-lap themselves in order to allow Max to close up to Lewis, eliminating the buffer Lewis had heading into the final lap. Box office? Yes. Fair? Far from it. With Max on new soft tyres and Lewis on old hard tyres, Lewis was fighting with one arm tied behind his back whilst Max had sprouted an extra limb. Max passed Lewis and held him off to the line and with that, Lewis had to reluctantly concede defeat in one of the cruellest, skewed bits of adjudication the sport has ever seen.
After the race, many who have followed the sport for years were left scratching their heads by the strange new interpretation of the rules regarding the safety car. Fans were left jaded by the stewards involvement in recent races, feeling that not only were they getting too heavily involved, but that consistency in their adjudicating had felt skewed in the favour of the rather robust and arguably unsafe driving style of Max Verstappen. Others however, subscribed to the more lenient notion of “let them race”, arguing Max was doing everything within his rights as a racing driver to keep the rampant, rapid Mercedes behind him in Brazil or Saudi Arabia with Lewis proving simply too quick for the Dutchman on those occasions late in the season.
Going into the final race, social media and the F1 paddock appeared united in their desire to simply let the two esteemed drivers go head to head, let the race be determined by the best driver, the one who passes the chequered flag first. People were tuning in, in record numbers owing to the hype around the rivalry that had built up over the season, also being bolstered by the success of Netflix Drive to Survive as well as the growing Esports Twitch community fronted by the younger drivers like new F1 favourites Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc. People within F1 seemed hyper aware of the notion that ‘the whole world was watching’ and with this, the desire to simply let the two go racing seemed to be the general consensus before the lights went green on the final race.
Ultimately, it was this burning desire to let the two go racing in that final race in Abu Dhabi which inhibited the stewards’ ability to adjudicate fairly and safel. Here Lewis was forced to cut a corner and remain first owing to a late lunge by Max on lap 1, being adjudged to warrant no further action despite many feelings on any other day. In this instance, Lewis would have been forced to give the place back. And with the “let them race” message ringing in Michael Masi’s ears and five laps to go, he clearly deemed it necessary to let them race at all costs, and therefore sending the three back markers through under safety car conditions, something neither of the two championship rivals could have anticipated. It was this disregard for safety, consistency and protocol over the last few races which ultimately tripped Lewis Hamilton up in those final laps. On another day it could well have been Max Verstappen the victim.
For people to say Max didn’t deserve the title because of this stewarding blunder is a certain overstep. The numbers speak for themselves. Max led 652 laps compared with Lewis' 303 laps. He also left 15 of the 22 races leading the championship including the last seven also having won 10 races compared to Lewis’ eight. In team Red Bull principal Christian Horner’s eyes, David triumphed over Goliath. David, in this instance being financed by a drinks company responsible for selling 7.5 billion units of energy drink in 2019 capable of providing caffeine to more than 80% of the planet versus Goliath; some poxy car manufacturer from Stuttgart.
The upshot from this needs to be that it is not only the cars that will be getting a makeover under heavily updated regulations heading into the 2022 season, but that the stewarding room perhaps needs the same facelift going forward. As for the argument as to what you favour in your sports viewing on a Sunday afternoon; safety, with consistent and correct implementation of the rules over excitement, spectacle, and maybe a small dash of complete farce, that perhaps gets decided by whichever side your favoured driver falls on any given Sunday. Next season, we may get the answer on which school of thought prevails.
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