Rules and laws are codified so sporting agents can compete fairly against each other. Occasionally situations can arise which are not covered by regulations and so exploitation and loopholes can occur. Examples include Steve Watson’s summersault throw in technique for Newcastle United in the early 1990s or A.T. Myers serving overarm for the first time at the Wimbledon tennis tournament. In cases where certain situations may appear ambiguous the governing bodies can apply, what is known in economics as, a decision rule where outcomes are mapped to appropriate actions to regulate unusual scenarios.
The most recent and very high-profile scenario took place last weekend at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix where Max Verstappen was crowned F1 World Champion. The Safety Car was called in the closing stages with Verstappen in 2nd place behind Lewis Hamilton (who needed to finish ahead of Verstappen to win an 8th World Championship). Verstappen overtook Hamilton on the final lap to win the title in controversial circumstances.
Discussion has raged since this and here are some of the facts:
- Both Red Bull and Mercedes team bosses Christian Horner and Wolff Wolff were lobbying the race stewards via direct radio link during the race. Wolff asked for the safety car not to be used to clear a stranded car earlier in the race. This is a clear safety issue.
- Lap 1: Hamilton runs wide when Verstappen passes him. Hamilton gains an advantage by taking a short cut. Earlier in the season drivers had to give places back or got 5 second penalties for the same action. FIA deemed Hamilton slowed enough following the corner cutting to remove the advantage.
- Lap 35: Giovinazzi pulls off the road with hydraulic issues. Wolff radios race director Masi “Michael please no safety car, it interferes with the race”.
- Lap 36: Virtual Safety Car deployed; Hamilton stays out but Verstappen pits for new tyres and closes the gap to 12 seconds in the following laps.
- Lap 53: Latifi crashes and brings out the safety car. Hamilton leads by 11.9 seconds. Verstappen pit for new soft tyres. Hamilton stays out to keep track position.
- Lap 54: Verstappen is able to close under the Safety Car as the pack bunched albeit with 5 lapped cars between him and Hamilton.
- Lap 55: The race director deemed at that moment lapped cars may not unlap themselves. Horner radios to Masi “Why are the lapped cars not out of the way, you only need 1 racing lap”.
- Lap 57: Some but not all the lapped cars are instructed to pass the leader and unlap themselves. The cars allowed through are the ones between Hamilton and Verstappen. Wolff radios Masi “What are you doing Michael, this isn’t right”. The Safety Car pulls into the pits at the end of the lap to allow racing to restart.
- Lap 58: Verstappen passes Hamilton at turn 5 and wins the race and the Championship.
Why Red Bull felt the rules have been followed:
Team bosses and the FIA came together earlier in the season and agreed for late Safety Car periods to end as soon as possible and to allow the race to continue for the final laps. This has occurred in previous races as can be read about below. Also, it’s not always mandatory for lapped cars to pass. It has been known that lapped cars drop to the back of the pack. This has happened in wet races in previous seasons.
It took Hamilton 57 seconds to get from the point of the final lapped car passing him to the start finish line to begin the final racing lap. It took the lapped cars about 7 seconds to pass Hamilton. If the other lapped cars were allowed through (Schumacher, Ricciardo and Stroll) they’d have easily scampered into the distance in the 57 seconds it took Hamilton to lead the pack over the line to begin the final lap.
Why Mercedes feels the rules have not been followed:
Article 48.12 – “Any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car”. Mercedes feel this was not followed to the written letter of the law. Some analysts have argued that it doesn’t say “all cars” which leaves it open to interpretation.
Michael Masi has 10-15 seconds to decide the outcomes of these incidents. It’s different to football or rugby where the clock can stop while the referees can look over and over at video evidence and come to a decision (occasionally the incorrect decision). The race director used a decision rule within the boundary of the written regulations to get the race going with one lap remaining.
The majority of those watching the race on television will be casual fans or people with a passing interest in a “big clash” event, a bit like the 100metres Olympic Sprint Final or the Super Bowl. They probably don’t know the rules and or previous racing outcomes nor the history of the sport. They will certainly be unaware how many time the Safety Car has been called on in 2021.
Once such spectator was Tottenham striker Harry Kane who tweeted about the injustice of the Safety Car situation. What he and most of those watching don’t know is that the Safety Car has been called on 14 times this season and 20 times in 2020. Kane never tweeted on those occasions complaining the leader’s “hard work” was undone. At Brazil in 2019 the Safety Car was called out on lap 66 and came in at the end of lap 70 to allow racing for the 71st and final lap. Just like on Sunday. Verstappen was leading with Hamilton in 3rd. I don’t remember anyone complaining about that, especially when Hamilton caused an accident on the final lap, with Verstappen’s teammate, costing Red Bull a double podium. I also didn’t hear anyone complaining that lapped cars being allowed to gain a free lap makes it unjust for the last placed car on the leading lap.
Brazil 2019 was a precedent setting action. The teams agreed on this very scenario earlier in the season. Other similar instances occurred at the German GP in 2019 with the Safety Car coming into the pits with a couple of laps to go to allow the race to be run and again at the 2018 Azerbaijan GP with 2 laps to go. No protests were lodged by any team following these Safety Car deployments.
This will likely go down a legal route perhaps at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and the outcome may not be known for months.