The Farcical 2021 F1 Season
The 2021 season started with puzzlement as it emerged that the Mercedes W12 was showing all signs of being most affected by the 2021 regulations. Much to everyone’s delight, Redbull emerged as the cars to beat; particularly in the hands of Max Verstappen. The surprised world champions continue to battle on, giving Redbull a robust fight inspite of their deficit in speed relative to Redbull. A season that unfolded with the driver’s championship lead changing hands a couple of time and settle into equal points between the current champion and the challenger at the penultimate race of the season at the Jeddah street circuit of Saudi Arabia. The final race of the season was a “winner takes all” duel between seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
The 2021 season was unremarkable for the inconsistency of the stewarding throughout the season. And the last race of the season was a synopsis of the entire season as it featured all the hallmarks of the preceeding races. By mid season, social media was rife with talks of anti-Mercedes impetus within the F1 management operations. By two thirds of the season, there were open murmurings of the need for a change. Even three time world champion Jackie Stewart said the same on open TV.
Max Verstappen was the underdog and had overwhelming support as he took the fight for the driver’s championship to the incumbent seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton. And robustly until the tide changed at the Brazilian GP where Hamilton started a run of three straight wins. The tiger roared in the champion and signs were on the wall that this season’s championship was not going to be won by Redbull under normal circumstances. Up until the very last lap of the season, the Abu Dhabi race win and the 2021 driver’s championship was outside the reach of Redbull and Max Verstappen.
That was until an unprecedented decision of the race director Michael Masi created a totally unexpected scenario that left all spectators in confusion. Confusion played out with dispair for Mercedes, Hamilton and their supporters. But with great elation for Redbull, Verstappen and their supporters.
The Infamous Michael Masi
At Abu Dhabi, Redbull had set up their cars for qualifying. And Verstappen produced a truly magnificent lap to take pole. At the start of the race, Verstappen had an uncharacteristicly poor start and Hamilton took the lead of the race from second. This sets us up for the first controversy of the race. Hamilton in the lead took an unusually wide line through the first corner, leaving an inviting gap that Verstappen duly drove into. He took the corner at such speed, such that he had very little control to take the corner without collision with Hamilton. Hamilton as if anticipating this, took avoiding action cutting the corner but rejoining the race still in the lead.
The stewards found no fault as they thought Hamilton had not gained sufficient advantage to warrant giving the lead to Verstappen. Opinions were divided on this decision. Did Hamilton gain enough advantage that would have prevented Verstappen from overtaking him if both had gone through the corner side by side? Or was it an automatic “give up the place” if you cut the corner? The stewards correctly found that any gained advantage had been given back. They did not think there was enough advantage gained for Verstappen to be ahead. And they also took a hard stance on drivers pushing other drivers off the track intentionally.
The race disintegrated into a farce after Latifi of Williams crashed with about six laps or so to go. The safety car was sent out by Race Control and Redbull instantly pitted Verstappen for fresh soft tyres. Meanwhile, the Mercedes pit wall had opted for Hamilton to stay out on very old medium tyres in the lead of the race. Verstappen rejoined the safety car trail in 7th with five backmarkers between himself and Hamilton.
Race Control informed the teams that lapped cars would not be required to overtake the safety car. The Redbull pit wall became animated and asked for the lapped car to unlap themselves. The whole race turned on one phrase by Horner to Masi; “We only need one lap”. Soon after that exchange, Race Control did a surprising about-turn and instructed only the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to unlap themselves, much to Mercedes’ constellation. The five cars unlapped themselves and brought Verstappen with fresh soft tyres behind Hamiton with very old medium tyres and created a situation that was by no sense of imagination a contest. It was like taking candy off a child. It was the unfairest lap in F1 history. This was not motor racing as Masi put it. It was a sanctioned mugging.
Immanuel Kant states “we cannot know about an object because the object cannot be known”. But the object has the quality of being objective. An event such as what happened on the last lap of the Abu Dhabi GP is essentially an objective defined by certain rules; natural and various governing regulations. Our perceptions of it is however subjective and tinted by our prejudices, the clarity of our moral compass, experiences and influences. As such, how we choose to percieve the event converts our perception into our experiences. And these experiences informs our future perceptions.
Michael Masi faced with a similar situation at the Eiffel GP in October 2020; after Mclaren’s Lando Norris had an engine failure, deployed the safety car and duly instructed all cars to unlap themselves and queue behind the safety car before he allowed racing to recommence. Which contrasted his decision at Abu Dhabi; a year later, where he allowed a partial unlapping of the grid to bring Verstappen directly behind Hamilton for what he described as racing to the line.
His decision has been analysed thoroughly and found to be contrary to the letter of the 2021 regulations. But Mercedes in their wisdom decided not to challenge the apparent overreach of power by the Racing Director. Formula One has come out of the 2021 season with a very damaged reputation and image. Confidence in the outcome of who wins either F1 championship is now believed to be due to the benevolence of the F1 machinery. Talent is no longer the ultimate criteria for success. Up until the 2021 season, this was essentially a determinant within teams; in particular where a team have two strong drivers and the team has a preference of which driver wins the driver’s championship. Webber would certainly argue this point fervently.
The 2021 season poses a number of questions as we go into the new era. “What does it mean to say ‘I am a F1 world champion’ ?”. Would you have won it ceteris paribus? Is Race Control and the stewarding biased or potentially currupt? How invested is the office of the president of the FIA in fairness and proper implementation of the regulations? Is review the sensible response to a fragrant misapplication of the regulations? Should the attitude not be one of investigation rather than review if there is very clear indication of unfairness.
Unfortunately, the formula and its governing body seem to have failed to meet the level of responsibility and duty of care required to enjoy a status of a respectable operation. The FIA has been too casual of what apparently is a perception of unfairness and possibly rigging of the outcome of the 2021 season. The Formula One management appear to be quite blaise about what the fuss is all about. While the Abu Dhabi race alone attracted a huge number of new spectators, it invited them to observe a spectacle full of controversy and confusion. And a broad feeling of unfairness.
One thing is very clear, the F1 of the new era shall never be the same as its preceeding eras for a number of fundermental reasons. The Abu Dhabi incident has devalued the Formula. The new regulations has diluted its core DNA.