The Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team have announced that they will not appeal the result of Sunday's Abu Dhabi grand prix, which saw Max Verstappen Crowned this year's World Champion. Mercedes had initially indicated an intention to appeal as a result of a controversial safety car decision made late in the race.
Coming into Sunday’s race – the last on the 2021 calendar – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Max Verstappen (Red Bull) were level on points at the top of the driver’s standings. Whoever finished ahead would become the 2021 Formula 1 World Champion. As the climax of a fiery season drama was anticipated both on and off the track – at least by Mercedes, who were reported as having brought legal counsel to the race.
On the track, Verstappen overtook Hamilton on the final lap to win both the race and the championship. But controversy has surrounded a decision by the Race Director in the final laps that put Verstappen within striking distance of Hamilton with 1 lap to go.
With 5 laps remaining Hamilton led Verstappen by a reasonable margin and was seemingly on track for a record-breaking 8th championship title. The late-race drama was triggered by Williams driver Nicholas Latifi losing control and crashing into the barriers at turn 11. A safety car was deployed, preventing drivers from overtaking, and Verstappen pitted for a fresh set of tyres. He emerged still 2nd but with several ‘lapped’ cars between him and Hamilton. Hamilton did not pit, with Mercedes seemingly hoping that either the race would end behind the safety car or that the lapped cars would give Hamilton enough of a buffer to stay ahead on the last lap of racing: the lapped cars would have to let Verstappen pass but would still slow him down.
The controversy occurred when, on the penultimate lap, the Race Director directed the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to get out of the way by overtaking the safety car and ‘unlapping’ themselves, but left the rest of the lapped cars behind Verstappen still in position. The safety car came in on the same lap, leaving enough time for 1 final lap of racing with Verstappen (on fresher tyres) right behind Hamilton. When racing resumed, Verstappen dove past Hamilton on turn 5 and held out for the race win and his 1st World Championship title.
Mercedes initially protested that FIA Sporting Regulation Article 48.12 (below – emphasis added) required all lapped cars to unlap themselves and prevented the safety car from being brought in until the following lap (which would have seen the race end still behind the safety car, with Hamilton in 1st place)
“If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message "LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE" has been sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.
This will only apply to cars that were lapped at the time they crossed the Line at the end of the lap during which they crossed the first Safety Car line for the second time after the safety car was deployed.
Having overtaken the cars on the lead lap and the safety car these cars should then proceed around the track at an appropriate speed, without overtaking, and make every effort to take up position at the back of the line of cars behind the safety car. Whilst they are overtaking, and in order to ensure this may be carried out safely, the cars on the lead lap must always stay on the racing line unless deviating from it is unavoidable. Unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.
If the clerk of the course considers track conditions are unsuitable for overtaking the message "OVERTAKING WILL NOT BE PERMITTED" will be sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system.”
The Stewards’ finding
The Stewards dismissed the protest, finding that:
- Article 15.3 gives the Race Director a general discretion in controlling the deployment and withdrawal of the safety car;
- Article 48.12 is also overridden by Article 48.13, which provides for the safety car to be brought in at the end of the lap during which the ‘SAFETY CAR IN THIS LAP’ message is displayed: after the message is sent, the safety car must be brought in that lap.;
- The purpose of allowing lapped vehicles to unlap themselves is to prevent them interfering with racing between the leaders, and that it had long been agreed by all teams that it was preferable for races not to end under safety cars.
Notably, the Stewards acknowledged that Article 14.12 may not have been correctly applied, but did not base their decision on any particular interpretation of that article, instead relying on Articles 15.3 and 48.13. It is not clear from the Regulations whether Article 48.13 does override Article 14.12, or is in fact subject to it. The answer would be likely to turn on wider questions about the scope and proper exercise of the Race Director’s Article 15.3 discretion (including whether Article 15.3 gives the Race Director blanket discretion or merely a narrower authority over the Clerk of the Course). Those questions would have been at the centre of any appeal by Mercedes, who lodged a notice of intention to appeal on 12 December.
However, Mercedes yesterday (16 December) announced that it had withdrawn its appeal. The announcement follows a statement by the FIA (the world governing body for motorsport) acknowledging that the circumstances surrounding the use of the safety car had generated significant misunderstanding and reactions from teams, drivers, and fans, creating a debate that has tarnished the image of the World Championship. The FIA statement announced that a detailed analysis and clarification exercise of the final laps in Abu Dhabi would take place ahead of the 2022 season. Mercedes have welcomed the FIA’s commitment, pledging to actively work with the commission to create clarity for the future.
The controversy and debate will continue despite Mercedes decision, but a significant number of fans will be relieved to know that this year’s World Championship was ultimately settled on the track rather than by a tribunal.
“The clerk of the course shall work in permanent consultation with the Race Director. The Race Director shall have overriding authority in the following matters and the clerk of the course may give orders in respect of them only with his express agreement:
(e) the use of the safety car.”
“When the clerk of the course decides it is safe to call in the safety car the message "SAFETY CAR IN THIS LAP" will be sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system and the car's orange lights will be extinguished. This will be the signal to the Competitors and drivers that it will be entering the pit lane at the end of that lap. […]”