I start this column with a question, and answer honestly:
If the safety car had beaten the cars to the checkered flag of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, if Lewis Hamilton had been crowned world champion for the eighth time crossing the finish line in slow motion, would you have been disappointed? I do.
After an exciting season, controversies, muscular explanations from the two contenders, that it ends with a procession behind the safety car? No thanks.
And several would have said:
Hamilton is doing well. Not only did he finish the race in slow motion, without straining, but he was lucky in the first lap..
I’m one of those who thinks Hamilton should have been called to order on the first lap when he bypassed the chicane (turns 6 and 7), after there was contact with Verstappen.
He accelerated in the clearance zone to return to the track far ahead of the Dutchman (more than a second).
While Hamilton was expected to return the position to the Dutchman, race director Australian Michael Masi ruled that Hamilton did not have to, as he said Verstappen had forced Hamilton to exit the track after pushing it into turn 6.
However, the Dutchman had succeeded in surprising Hamilton from the inside, certainly with the nerve, by jostling him certainly, but his maneuver had succeeded.
Hamilton was cunning on this one, because instead of losing ground to return to the track in the chicane, which would have dragged him in the standings, he played the game of forced off-piste, and went straight ahead. in front of him by the clearance zone.
Back on track, he apparently slowed down enough for Rule 27.3 to protect him from any penalty.
If a pilot leaves the track, he must return to it safely and without having gained lasting advantage. At the absolute discretion of the clerk of the course, a driver may have the opportunity to return the advantage he has gained by leaving the track.
But by dint of playing with the rules, we can get caught. This is what happened at the end of the race.
With six laps to go, Hamilton was 11.9 seconds ahead of Verstappen, unable to keep up with his rival. Red Bull needed a miracle, and it happened when Torontonian Nicholas Latifi went off the track (and came to a stop across the track) forced Michael Masi to bring in the safety car.
Michael Masi had to make sure that we evacuate the Williams from Latifi, that we collect the debris and that the rail repaired if necessary (which was not necessary).
Once this issue was resolved, Michael Masi had to make sure that the peloton was in the correct order behind the safety car, as stated in article 48.12 of the F1 World Championship sporting rule book:
” If the message: “cars with one lap behind may now overtake” has been sent to all competitors via the official messaging system, all cars which are one lap behind the leader will have to overtake the leading cars and the leader. safety car. “
Michael Masi initially decided not to apply Article 48.12, which left five cars (one lap behind the leader) between Hamilton and Verstappen. But the director of Red Bull, Christian Horner intervened by radio communication from the wall of the Red Bull team.
Why don’t the five cars deviate? We just need a ride [pour finir la course sous drapeau vert], Christian Horner told Michael Masi.
I must first check that the trail is clear, replied the race director.
Michael Masi finally decided to let these five drivers (Norris, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc and Vettel) overtake the safety car so that Verstappen ended up behind Hamilton.
But due to lack of time, he did not allow the others to come back on the leader’s lap, in order to restart the race on the last lap.
This made Mercedes-Benz director Toto Wolff jump, who protested strongly by radio.
It’s not fair, Michael, we could hear from him in the television broadcast.
On the track, confusion in the peloton. Lando Norris, who was one of the drivers who was able to overtake the safety car to regain the leader’s lap, understood the maneuver.
” It was for TV obviously, to offer a last duel to the public “
From there to saying that it was the right decision to make, it’s not for me to judge, added Norris.
His teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who was one lap late, was unable to overtake the safety car.
I was right behind Verstappen and Hamilton on the last lap, and I was a privileged spectator of their duel. I thought about going beyond them, but I preferred to let it go…. No, I’m joking! he said, laughing heartily.
Williams driver George Russell couldn’t pass either, and didn’t like it.
This is totally unacceptable, replied Russell. I can’t believe what happened.
The German Sebastian Vettel was also surprised by the turn of events.
It was too late, said Vettel. He should have let us pass right away, as usual.
But it was not as usual, precisely. There was a world title at stake.
Michael Masi chose to focus on the spectacle, allowing Hamilton and Verstappen to fight in a single pitched lap to decide the world title, to the detriment of the enforcement of rule 48.12:
Once the cars are in the correct order behind the leader, the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the next lap.
However, the next round was the last. Michael Masi did not want the Grand Prix to end in a procession behind the safety car. He therefore brought out the safety car earlier than expected, at the end of the penultimate lap, and returned the green flag for a final lap and a final duel between Hamilton and Verstappen.
Which appealed to enthusiasts, but not Mercedes-Benz. We know what happened in this last lap, which was superb. Hamilton resisted without stumbling before relenting.
Mercedes-Benz has every reason to believe that the drivers’ title was stolen from her, and she complained on two points.
The first point concerned the fact that Max Verstappen apparently passed Lewis Hamilton, in slow motion, behind the safety car. The regulation prohibits it (articles 48.8 and 48.13).
The Dutchman visibly sought to distract Hamilton by tacking behind him, by bringing himself up to him. Could Michael Masi sanction him for that? Yes. Did he want it? To ask the question, is to answer it.
The FIA dismissed the claim saying that on the restart (green flagged) Verstappen was well behind Hamilton. What is true.
The second point concerned the order of the cars behind the safety car and its return to the pits earlier than foreseen by the regulations.
The German team explained that Michael Masi did not apply Article 48.12. The FIA refused to study the protest, recalling article 15.3 of the same rule book:
The clerk of the course has unquestionable authority over the following matters: a)…, b)…., C)…, d)…, e) Use of the safety car.
The FIA ruled that article 15.3 took precedence over article 48, and that Michael Masi had the right to do what he did in Abu Dhabi. The Red Bull team could celebrate the title of its driver.
The risk of appealing
But it is this interpretation that Mercedes-Benz could challenge in court. The German team has indicated its intention to appeal, and they have until Thursday (96 hours after the verdict) to confirm their decision.
Mercedes-Benz team manager Toto Wolff was livid at the end of the race. He strongly contested the decision of Michael Masi by communicating to him by radio communication. After the race, he asked him to give the victory back to Hamilton.
Toto Wolff had to file a complaint because he has the responsibility to defend the interests of the team he represents. Mercedes-Benz must now make a decision by considering its reputation, its image.
If the appeal is upheld, it will be heard by the FIA International Court of Appeal.
What can the court do? It can decide that the appeal is not admissible. She can decide to listen to Mercedes-Benz and reject her arguments. She can agree with Mercedes-Benz, with the odiousness of having to decide.
With the drivers’ world title awarded to Max Verstappen, can the FIA dispossess him? In theory, yes. In practice, it would be suicidal for the image of F1 and for the credibility of its organization.
The compromise that she could consider, if she decided to agree with Mercedes-Benz, would be to cancel outright the result of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and return to the standings before the last Grand Prix.
However, after the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix (the penultimate round), tied on points with Lewis Hamilton (369.5), Max Verstappen led the standings by virtue of the number of victories won and Mercedes-Benz was at the top of the constructors’ ranking.
The Dutchman could therefore keep his title, and Mercedes-Benz the constructors’ title. The FIA would do well, without causing an earthquake.
The FIA still needs to learn from what happened.
In particular, it should study the possibility of cutting off radio exchanges between the clerk of the course and the team directors. Now that the television broadcasts them, we discover that they try without embarrassment to influence the clerk of the course during the races.
This necessarily complicates its task, and weakens its authority. Michael Masi suffered in 2021, but learned too.
Pérez, master of the shadows
The pilot of the weekend in Abu Dhabi? Without question, Sergio Pérez.
The Mexican rider first allowed his teammate Max Verstappen to secure pole position on Saturday by offering him aspiration in his quick first lap of Q3.
The maneuver is difficult to master, because you have to roll in front of your teammate to create an air gap and allow them to gain a little speed in a straight line, but you have to be careful, when approaching the turn, to leave the trajectory at the right time so as not to disturb the downforce of the following single-seater.
Pérez did the job perfectly. Verstappen’s time on this lap was enough for him to get pole position.
Then in the race, Pérez showed his qualities as the No. 2 driver when he had temporarily inherited the command of the event.
With tires that were at the end of their life, he held on to Hamilton from the 15e to 20e lap, cutting its trajectories to close the slightest opening, the time for the Dutchman to get closer. Once again, he did an impeccable job of defensive driving.
If Max Verstappen is world champion today, it is also thanks to Sergio Pérez.