Formula 1's winner-takes-all decider in the desert always had the potential to be controversial. But no one expected drama quite like this.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen denied Lewis Hamilton a record eighth world title on Sunday, becoming the first Dutch driver ever to win the Formula 1 world title, after one of the most dramatic and chaotic final laps to a season the sport has ever known.
Hamilton, who entered the race level on points with his rival, had claimed the lead from pole-sitter Verstappen into Turn 1. And after a controversial first-lap incident, appeared to be cruising to victory.
But a late crash by Williams’ Nicholas Latifi brought out the safety car with five laps remaining, and Red Bull took a quick decision to bring Verstappen into the pits for a fresh set of tyres.
When the 24 year-old came back out he had five cars between himself and Hamilton, who were all lapped.
Race director Masi comes under pressure to make racing call
As the final laps ticked down while the marshals cleared the track, frantic discussions took place between the teams and the race director Michael Masi over whether the lapped cars would be allowed to unlap themselves.
It was going to be a controversial call either way.
Initially teams were told they would not be allowed to, with Verstappen remarking “typical” when he was informed. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was also heard over the radio asking Masi: "Why are we not getting these lapped cars out of the way?" and Masi responded: "Just give me a second, my main aim is to get this incident clear."
Race director Michael Masi eventually allowed the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to overtake, pitting the two championship rivals without anyone between them
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 12, 2021
The race then resumed on the final lap. Hamilton put up a brave fight but on tyres which were by then 44 laps old he was a sitting duck and Verstappen passed the British driver into the Turn 4 hairpin to take the lead of the race. Hamilton tried to pass Verstappen into Turn 5 and Turn 7, but Verstappen fended him off and maintained the lead to the finish line to win his first title.
MAX VERSTAPPEN SNATCHES THE WIN ON THE LAST LAP!! 😰
A FIRST WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP FOR THE RED BULL DRIVER 🏆
📺 Sky Sports F1
#️⃣ #SkyF1 | #F1 | #AbuDhabiGP pic.twitter.com/XyGs0ENZA6
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) December 12, 2021
Mercedes fume, Red Bull celebrate
“Michael this isn't right,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff desperately over the radio. "You need to reinstate the lap."
"Toto it's called a motor race," Masi replied.
There are no words.
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) December 12, 2021
Red Bull were left to enjoy the rewards from their quick decision-making.
Horner said: "We were screaming at the end to let them race. A great strategy call to make that pit stop and take softs and then it was down to Max to make it happen. It is unheard of to leave the cars unlapped. They wanted to get the race going again. They absolutely made the right call.
"I am so proud of Max and of the team for what we have been through this year."
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) December 12, 2021
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 12, 2021
Immediate reaction to chequered flag
Alain Prost, four-time world champion: "It's going to be commented in terms of the rule about the safety car. Very difficult for me to have clear judgement, I can understand they are not going to be happy about that. It was exceptional for the show. Always going to be controversial. I try to feel the happiness for Max and the sadness for Lewis."
Martin Brundle, Sky Sports F1 co-commentator: "Wow! The racing Gods have shined down upon Red Bull. Red Bull played a smart hand with the safety car, and took their chance. This was the best season I've ever seen with a wild finale. There will be a lot of debate about the controversy about the end. Max Verstappen's tears and emotion shows what it means."
Jenson Button, Sky Sports pundit and former world champion: "Staying out was the right thing for Lewis Hamilton to do, but sometimes it just doesn't go your way."
George Russell, Hamilton's new team-mate at Mercedes from next season:
THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!!
— George Russell (@GeorgeRussell63) December 12, 2021
Congratulations to @Max33Verstappen on his first world championship. He’s not to blame for the decisions. He’s an absolutely superb driver and gave us the most incredible season.
— Gary Lineker 💙 (@GaryLineker) December 12, 2021
I don't know what I've just watched but it can't be right. Hamilton's been robbed, surely? #F1
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) December 12, 2021
How the world reacted
L’Equipe focused on the controversy of the world championship season being decided by a sudden final lap race off after Hamilton had appeared to have taken a commanding lead in Abu Dhabi. "UN MAX DE FOLIE" (A lot of madness) was the headline alongside a photograph of Max Verstappen celebrating with a clenched fist.
La Gazzetta dello Sport was generous in its appraisal of both drivers but argued that Max Verstappen had earned the good fortune that ultimately led to his first world championship.
“The last lap reflects this extraordinary season: always on the attack,” they said. “The only possible tactic in front of the battleship Mercedes. Of course, without Latifi's accident the trophy would be at Hamilton's home: but as they say, luck favours the daring. And in any case, victories and poles confirm his superiority.”
Of Hamilton, they praised how he stayed in the world championship race despite having an “inferior” car during the first half of the season.
The Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf led on Verstappen’s comment "Dit was niet goed voor mijn hart" (that was not good for my heart) and their writer Erik van Haren argued that this first world championship “should be a prelude to much more success”.
Former world champion Damon Hill said that F1 was seeing a “new way of running the sport” whereby the race director makes so many decisive and ad hoc decisions.
“Its been a bit too 'guess what I'm going to do now', I think,” he said, before questioning whether the communications - and how Masi was frequently left sandwiched in a heated debate between the two teams - should be broadcast. “Does anyone fancy changing jobs? F1 Race Director? I'd think about it at least twice. And then a couple more times,” said Hill. “Masi has a massively difficult task. Not made easier by communications now being broadcast live globally. Maybe this needs a re-think?”
Outsiders were also baffled by what they saw. England football captain Harry Kane said that there were “some bizarre rules” that produced an unfair advantage. “Why should Hamilton be penalised for somebody else’s crash?” he asked. “He literally raced the perfect race under the highest pressure and gets the world championship taken away from him. Seems like common sense to keep the lead that you’d raced so hard to gain.”
Former England captain Gary Lineker praised Lewis Hamilton’s good grace despite the deeply contentious manner of defeat. “Wonderfully generous and dignified reaction from @LewisHamilton,” he said. “He really is very special, on the track, and off it. Class act to the end.”
Piers Morgan, as ever, also had a forthright take on the controversy. “@Max33Verstappen’s Grand Prix win yesterday was thrillingly unpredictable, sensationally exciting, and also completely unfair,” he wrote. “@LewisHamilton was robbed by rule-bending officials who wanted to give us all a great dramatic TV moment. That’s not sport.”
Mercedes lodge two protests - and the sporting regulations cited
Mercedes, having taken counsel in their garage and with Wolff declining to speak to media, lodged two protests with the FIA just over an hour after the race finished.
One was for what they believed was Verstappen breaking the regulations by overtaking Hamilton under the safety car (Article 48.8). A potential punishment could include a five-second penalty, which would demote Verstappen to second and give Hamilton the title.
The other protest related to Mercedes taking the view that the FIA broke the regulations by not enforcing the safety car rules in an appropriate manner, with racing supposed to resume the lap after backmarkers are allowed to overtake (Article 48.12). In this case, only Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were allowed to overtake it - they were the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen. However Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll and Mick Schumacher were not.
The second protest was against the FIA, rather than Red Bull, although the latter were called to the stewards over the finish to the race.
It is understood that Mercedes feel less confident over winning their protest regarding Verstappen overtaking under the safety car but are pushing their case hard over the second protest on how the FIA implemented their own rules.
Damon Hill, speaking on Sky Sports said: "If they [Mercedes] can prove the rule was wrongly applied then they have got a case, but I don't think any of the regulations are blindingly clear.
"Unfortunately, messages were coming out [from the race director] that were contradictory. I do think this championships has been run in a different way - they have tried to let the racing happen and race on track to the very end."
David Coulthard, former F1 driver and Channel 4 pundit, added: "This is a complex sport. None of us like the decisions taking place in the stewards room when the champagne has been popped. In hindsight, could the stewards have done a tidier job? Yes. Has there been something played out which is controversial? Yes. This is a really difficult decision."
Asked about the Mercedes protests in his post-race press conference, Verstappen replied: "I don't really have much to say about that. I think it sums up a little bit of the season."
Scene in the Abu Dhabi paddock nearly 3hrs after race finished. Surreal. Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert milling about. Christian Horner has just left stewards' room pic.twitter.com/bWiQwRDofR
— Tom Cary (@tomcary_tel) December 12, 2021
I have a feeling this #F1 result may get overturned. Looking at the sporting regs, it’s hard to say protocol was followed, it’s hard to argue it’s a fair finish…interesting few hours ahead…
— Jake Humphrey (@mrjakehumphrey) December 12, 2021
Mercedes lose appeal - Verstappen crowned champion
Mercedes have lost their appeal against Max Verstappen's victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the FIA has announced. The decision confirms the Dutchman as Formula One world champion.
On the first issue, Red Bull successfully argued Hamilton had not been overtaken by Verstappen but that both were "on and off the throttle" in preparing to restart the race.
The stewards agreed, finding that Verstappen had passed at one stage but had moved back behind Hamilton before the safety car period came to a conclusion.
The title would ultimately not be decided by telemetry but terminology as the second appeal from Mercedes was also not upheld, meaning Verstappen keeps his world championship.
That second appeal referred to an alleged breach of article 48.12 of the FIA regulations.
Documentation from the FIA read: "Although article 48.12 may not have been applied fully, in relation to the safety car returning to the pits at the end of the following lap, article 48.13 overrides that and 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.
"That 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."
The documentation also said: "Article 15.3 allows the race director to control the use of the safety car, which in our determination includes its deployment and withdrawal."