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F1 Abu Dhabi 2021: no way to run a motor race

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

I'll set out my position in the first line so no one can be in any doubt: Max Verstappen is a deserving world motor racing champion.

But the sport, the drivers and the fans have been done a grave disservice by the Race Director, Michael Masi, who has capped off a season where he has demonstrated that he is unable to make a final decision and that he is easily swayed by the pleas of team principles who have learned that he can be easily bullied.

The Abu Dhabi Formula One race in 2021 was everything it was billed to be. Nearly.

Two absolute titans at what might be - but equally might not yet be - the height of their powers started first and second on the grid for a battle that Lando Norris said before the race he was just going to watch and avoid getting involved in unless Hamilton and Verstappen did something that presented him with an opportunity.

The stage was already set for a high-risk first corner. Hamilton was 8 metres ahead because of the way the grid slots are laid out and he was on medium compound tyres. They were expected to last well into the race. Verstappen was on soft tyres because he made a mistake in qualifying and damaged the set of mediums that he had intended to use. The soft tyres come up to operating temperature more quickly and also give more grip especially from a standing start. The maths would have put the two cars alongside each other in Turn One, probably Verstappen ahead by Turn 2 and Hamilton waiting to inherit the lead after maybe ten laps when his tyres were peaking and Verstappen's were starting to go off. Part of the reason for that is that the Red Bull "switches on" its tyres faster than the Mercedes , even when they are both using the same compound, which amplifies the difference between the two sets giving Verstappen an additional relative boost.

That didn't happen for one simple reason: as in almost every start this season where MV33 and LH44 have been alongside each other, Hamilton's reaction times have been quicker, usually by around three tenths of a second. That means he's already on his way down the road before MV gets going at all.

This time was different: in a sport where times over a whole lap are measured in thousandths of a second, Hamilton's reaction time was more than 7 tenths faster than Verstappen. Seven tenths is huge. Replays showed Hamilton off and running long before Verstappen's leisurely take off. But that soon stopped as the tyre difference kicked in and within one corner they were, as expected, side by side. In Turn 6, Hamilton was around the outside, Verstappen lunged, the sort of lunge that he has been making all his career, the sort of lunge that says "get out of my way or I'll knock you off the track." Aware of the risks of terminal damage which would have given Verstappen the Championship even if they were both out of the race, Hamilton kept his foot down and went wide, coming back onto the track comfortably ahead of Verstappen who was almost amused when the stewards made a decision not to penalise Hamilton for gaining an advantage.

But as of now, it is not clear to me that it was the stewards who made that decision. It has all the hallmarks of a Michael Masi deal-making decision. When Christian Horner in his trademark style of complaining asked for a reason, Masi told him that Hamilton had been told to give back his advantage and he had done so; he would not be required to surrender the place that Red Bull claimed he had gained or preserved because Verstappen had put Hamilton into an impossible position: go wide or crash.

Red Bull, as always, saw this as them being made a victim. But had Hamilton let Verstappen hit him then it is likely that a penalty would have been applied. Other commentators - and I have listened to and read many since the race finished - often have a contrary view and say that Hamilton did gain an advantage and that he should have given the place up. Almost universally, these are the same commentators who say "let them race" and "there has to be more leeway on the first lap." More leeway to be dangerous? They pray in aid the fact that Lewis went off and Verstappen did not, saying that it demonstrates that MV was in control of his car at all times. From my perspective, that makes it worse: it makes it clear that there was, in their mind, intent to make Hamilton go wide or to crash into him. After the next corner, Hamilton, whose tyres were ready much sooner than I expected them to be, shot off, making space that the maths on the tyres said couldn't be done.

The decision was weird: I can't remember any previous occasion when giving up the advantage amounted to an on-track and very short time penalty. Hamilton was told to slow down until Verstappen was within 1.5 seconds behind. He did and, then cleared to travel at speed, off he went again.

Verstappen pushed. Everyone else might have well have parked and gone for a cup of tea. Soon the pair were 18 seconds ahead of who-cares-he's-not-in-it. They were lapping a second and a half, more or less, faster than anyone else in the field. It was, absolutely titanic, edge of the seat stuff. And then tyre strategies came into play and a virtual safety car and then with Verstappen on new soft tyres and Hamilton on worn hards, Verstappen gave chase, needing to make up 0.8 seconds a lap for each of the last 18 laps, a target he hit when the tyres were new but slipped slightly as his tyres performed as the maths said they should. Even so, he was well inside the 25 seconds that an efficient pit stop would take so Hamilton had no choice but to tough it out: there was no point in coming out 10 seconds behind Verstappen on cold tyres that were only a few laps younger - it would have only meant that their positions, as to time and tyres were reversed.

Then Latifi stuffed his Williams. Properly. Into an Armco, not an airwall so there was no safety-related damage to repair. The magnesium rear-right wheel flared and extinguished. His car was in pieces almost blocking the track, the front brakes were on fire leading to powder on the track. A full safety car was ordered.

Verstappen, his 15 or so seconds behind Hamilton suddenly turning to an advantage, was far enough behind to be able to go into the pits without telegraphing his intention to Hamilton who was, in any case, almost level with the pit exit when the Safety Car was announced. Now, the pit-lane deficit was reduced because all the cars were going more slowly but, crucially, Verstappen came out of the pits behind five cars that were a lap down on Hamilton - and ripe for blue flags for Verstappen. The Safety Car cruised, Hamilton lamenting that its lack of speed meant that his medium tyres were cooling. Verstappen's softs could keep their temperature better. At that point Hamilton asked his team "does this mean he'll be right behind me on new softs?" Pete Bonnington's calm response "yes, it does" made it plain: if the race was restarted, Hamilton's hopes were gone. But the Williams was still on the track, carbon fibre more than half-way across, a crane was on its way but with only three laps to go it looked highly unlikely that the car could be moved and the track made safe, even in the approx four minutes it would take to get to the start of the last lap.

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