Velocity Magazines Editor, John Morris' Opinion Piece: Charles Leclerc continued with his near-perfect start to…
A ‘Hail Mary’ move can be best described as a final roll of the dice. A low percentage speculator when there is really nothing to lose. That’s exactly what Red Bull Honda did at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and it brought Max Verstappen the 2021 Formula One World Championship, or did it?
As we post this report the legalities, accusations and criticisms are flowing thick and fast, with Australian Race Director, Michael Masi, under intense scrutiny for what transpired across those final desperate moments of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton had done everything right. A brilliant start for the Mercedes-AMG Mercedes F1 driver seemed to negate Max Verstappen’s soft tyre advantage as the Grand Prix commenced. He survived a late lunge from the Dutchman at Turn 9 on the opening lap, which sent him off the circuit as the pair appeared to make contact, race across the run off and back onto the circuit proper with a slightly extended lead.
That move frustrated the Dutchman, who told his team. “He has to give that back!”
Despite Verstappen’s protest Race Control deemed that no further action was required.
It was considered to be an important moment in the race. Verstappen had started on the softer tyre and needed to establish an early lead and keep Hamilton behind in an attempt to take the life out of the British driver’s more durable medium compound tyres. Verstappen had one ace up his sleeve, his teammate Sergio Perez. The Mexican had also made a solid start and ran just behind Verstappen which brought him into play strategically as the race progressed as a potential blocker in Hamilton’s progress.
Verstappen’s soft tyres were spent by lap 14 and he made what was expected to be his one and only stop for the hard compound tyres. Hamilton covered that move a lap later. By lap 20 Hamilton had closed to within 3/10ths of a second from race leader Perez with Verstappen a further 8.4 seconds further behind.
“Okay, we’ll be looking to hold off Lewis,” Perez was told by hi engineer. “Okay back him up, back him up,” came another message as he held off two passing attempts from the Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver. And that’s exactly what he did.
By the time Hamilton finally cleared the second Red Bull Honda on lap 21 the advantage over Verstappen had shrunk to just 1.9 seconds. Perez then duly let his teammate by.
“Oh Checo is a legend,” Max Verstappen radioed back to the Red Bull Honda garage. “Absolute animal,” his engineer replied.
Hamilton gradually edged away to a 12 second lead on lap 53, the race win and an eighth Formula One World Championship well within reach.
Then Nicholas Latifi crashed out.
The Williams driver had been involved in a spirited battle with Mick Schumacher for 15the position and had been forced onto the dirty side of the track. He lost the rear and collected the wall at Turn 14. With the car stationary across the track and pieces of rear wing littering the track, Race Control had little option than to call out the Safety Car.
It was then that Red Bull Honda threw the ‘Hail Mary’ pass. As Hamilton led the field towards the Safety Car, Verstappen peeled into the pit lane, took on four fresh soft compound tyres and returned to the circuit still in second place.
Hamilton was in no position to take such as gamble. As race leader he held track position and there was no guarantee that the race would finish under green flag conditions. Had he peeled into the pitlane Verstappen would more than likely stay out and assume the race lead. For the race leader it was all about playing the percentages.
It was in any case a highly speculative move, given that there were only 4 laps left to run and the two leaders were separated by at least five lapped cars.
“Lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake,” Verstappen was told over the radio.
“Yeah, of course, typical decision,” The Dutch driver replied.
“It’s classic,” the team added.
“I’m not surprised,” Verstappen answered.
It was at this point that Christian Horner turned his attention to Race Director, Michael Masi.
“Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out of the way?” Christian Horner asked of Masi as the cars began their penultimate lap of the race.
“Because Christian, just give me a second. Okay, my main big one is to get this incident clear,” Masi responded.
Race Control then permitted the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to move past the Safety Car, however Daniel Ricciardo and those other lapped cars behind Verstappen were not permitted to do so. It was a critical moment in the race.
Had all lapped cars been allowed to overtake, the Safety Car would not have been in a position to leave the circuit before the conclusion of lap 58, the final lap of the race. It set up a rather lop sided single lap dash for the win and the World Championship crown.
“Michael this isn’t right,” Toto Wolff told Race Control as the Safety Car was about to end.
Hamilton looked to back up the field and slowed to a crawl in the final series of corners. Verstappen moved alongside the race leader and momentarily crept ahead as he cycled through acceleration and braking to generate tyre temperature.
As the #44 accelerated away on well worn hard compound tyres, Verstappen closed on the super sticky soft tyres. At late lunge at Turn 4 saw Verstappen move ahead as Hamilton opened his steering wheel to avoid contact. In that moment the Red Bull Honda was gone and with no DRS for 2 laps ,so was the World Championship.
“No Michael, No Michael, that was so not right,” Wolff called out to the Race Director in those dying moments of the Grand Prix.
Hamilton closed for one last chance at Turn 9 but it proved to be a fruitless exercise.
Wolff spoke with Michael Masi once more as the drivers completed their cool down lap.
“Go ahead Toto,” Masi said to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas chief.
“You need to reinstate the lap before, that’s not right,” Wolff explained.
“Toto, it’s called a motor race, okay. We went car racing,” Masi replied.
Mercedes-AMG Petronas were already in the throes of appealing the Safety Car conclusion and restart process as Hamilton and Verstappen moved towards the podium.
“Firstly a big congratulations to Max and their team,” Lewis Hamilton said to Sky Sport. “I think we did an amazing job, my team, everyone back at the factory and here worked so hard this year. It has been the most difficult of seasons. I’m so proud of them, so grateful to be part of the journey with them. We gave it absolutely everything this last part of the season and never gave up and that’s the most important thing. I just wis everyone to stay safe during this part of the pandemic, have a great Christmas and we’ll see about next year.”
Verstappen was not surprisingly jubilant at the win and the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship title, which was at that point ‘provisional’.
“It feels incredible to be World Champion and I couldn’t have asked for a more insane last race of the year. It was a bit of a rollercoaster, from not really having a chance of winning until the last lap, everything came together, and we had to go for it. I kept saying to myself, I am just going to give it my all and I have until the end and that is what we did. Of course, with that safety car restart in the last lap we had the fresher tyres but you still need to do the move – luckily it worked out. I want to say a big thank to Checo, because of his performance today, I won the Championship, he was driving his heart out for this Team. Today showed exactly what great teamwork is, he’s an amazing teammate. Mercedes won the Constructors’ and we won the Driver’s Championship so it really shows that throughout the whole year we pushed each other to the very end. Lewis is an amazing driver, there is no discussion about it. Of course, we had our moments throughout the season but I think you know that after everything we had an amazing fight this season and I think both teams gave it their all.”
Race Stewards reviewed the protests which were quickly dismissed. They declared that “Once the message ‘safety car in this lap’ has been displayed, it is mandatory to withdraw the safety car at the end of that lap” and “notwithstanding Mercedes’ request that the stewards remediate the matter by amending the classification to reflect the positions at the end of the penultimate lap, this is a step that the stewards believe is effectively shortening the race retrospectively, and hence not appropriate”.
“Accordingly, the protest is dismissed,” the stewards report concluded.
The team subsequently released a statement declaring their intention to lodge an appeal. It read:
“We have lodged notice of intention to appeal the decision of the stewards under Article 15 of the Sporting Code and Article 10 of the Judicial and Disciplinary Rule.”
So what were the points of controversy during those final moments of the race?
The issues centre upon Race Control’s efforts to end the season with a last lap dash to the chequered flag and not some anti-climatic single file parade behind the Safety Car. It was perhaps a most noble gesture and one which was never going to please everyone. After all it wasn’t Race Control’s call to pit Verstappen or keep Hamilton out on track when the Safety Car intervened.
The decision to allow a portion of the field to pass the Safety Car also freed up Verstappen for a single lap to fight Hamilton head to head. It was the very thing that Christian Horner had alluded to in his radio message to Masi.
That direction to allow some, but not all, of the lapped cars to move past the Safety Car is open to debate. It is not mandatory to let any car pass, or for all to do so. However, the decision to let those five overtake was an excellent move in the interest of time saving. There may also be a moot point in the time between the move to allow lapped cars to pass and when the Safety Car period should end.
For now Max Verstappen remains the 2021 FIA Formula One World Champion. It was a rather controversial ending to what had been a very different, contentious, yet highly competitive season of racing. The end of the current generation of F1 car as a new era is about to dawn in 2022.
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