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Opinion: A Deep Dive into the Title Deciding Race

Written by Jishnu Anandh, edited by Harshi Vashee

Max Verstappen deserved the title this year and Lewis Hamilton deserved the win in Abu Dhabi. This year, the Max-Red Bull pairing has been quicker at more tracks than the Lewis-Mercedes pairing and hence why I feel Verstappen objectively deserves the title over Lewis, despite the shocking way in which the title was won at the last race.

All other incidents in the season and the race aside, the crucial factor that helped Verstappen win the race (besides his talent) is the decision by Michael Masi to let the lapped cars unlap themselves by overtaking the safety car AND to bring in the SC on the same lap. It’s clear in the regulations (Article 39.12) that the SC is to be brought in exactly one lap after the lapped cars have been allowed to overtake. However, Masi made the decision to bring in the SC on the same lap. How can he do that? Well, there is also a note in the regulations that the race director, Masi, has the power to override these regulations as he deems appropriate. Why did he do that? I can only think of one reason besides this: To boost the sport’s entertainment value by setting up for a sprint-style showdown between the 2 best drivers on the grid for the ultimate prize. The next question is then: Is it fair for him to override the regulations for the sake of entertainment value? Personally, I think it’s unfair and it did not help that one driver was on fresh softs while the other was on dead hards meaning that it was never going to be a fair sprint. It was a decision that practically gifted Verstappen the win, even though Hamilton had proved on track for the 57 laps prior, that he and Mercedes were the quicker pairing that day.

The regulations in this regard and in a number of other aspects need to be reviewed. The race director should not have the ability to go against the rule book as and when he wishes, just for the sake of entertainment. He should not be able to make offers and deals to the teams on his own terms, and he should not have to listen to the opinions of the team principals at every single instance.

Why didn’t Mercedes pit Lewis for fresh tyres and avoid all this chaos?

I saw this question too many times across many posts so I thought I should address it. Mercedes will explain this better than me in their debrief video but here’s my attempt: On both occasions, had Lewis pitted, he could have lost track position to Max. Having experienced first-hand how difficult it was to pass Perez who was defending with dead soft tyres, it did not make sense to risk conceding track position. Especially in the final safety car period when it was unclear if and when the safety car period would end. Had Mercedes pitted Lewis and ended up behind Verstappen, only to lose the title sitting behind the safety car, it would have gone down as one of the worst decisions in the sport. Ultimately, Red Bull had the advantage of being able to react to the decisions made by Mercedes while Lewis could only stay out and try his best to defend against Verstappen. He certainly did his best on both occasions, going quicker than Verstappen on tyres that were over 20 laps older, while being in dirty air and attempting an overtake on the second occasion with far older and harder tyres.

Does Max Verstappen need to change his racing style?

First I would like to make clear the distinction between racing and driving in my view. Racing involves how a driver battles with another on the track while driving involves how hard a driver is able to push the car and how much performance he can extract from it, amongst other aspects. (Max’s driving style in the Red Bull is undeniably impressive and needs no changing.) Now, in the past, I had felt strongly that Verstappen needed to change his racing style because I felt that it was over the line and it has been the cause of many incidents and controversies, since his early days at Red Bull. However, it is clear that fans love to see the kind of wheel to wheel action that Verstappen’s aggressive racing style incites. Also, none of the other drivers besides Lewis seems to have a strong opinion about Verstappen’s aggression (probably since it does not affect them). For all these reasons, I think it’s not Verstappen’s racing style but instead the stewards’ handling of these incidents that desperately needs to be changed. There needs to be consistency in the handling of on-track incidents and as much as racing incidents cannot really be compared fairly with one another, we cannot afford to have obvious inconsistencies in the penalties for incidents. The comparison between the PER-NOR battles in Austria and the HAM-VER battle in Brazil springs to mind. It’s crucial to have clear guidelines on racing, especially in a tight championship where drivers are obliged to push the limits of what can and cannot be done on the track.

About Mercedes’ protests

Mercedes lodged two protests following the race. The first was regarding the decision to bring in the safety car on lap 57 which we’ve covered above and the decision to allow specifically just the lapped cars between Lewis and Verstappen to overtake. For the latter, I cannot think of any explanation why and I believe neither has the FIA specified any. The second protest was regarding Verstappen’s overtake on Hamilton behind the safety car.

Article 48.8 of the Sporting Regulations: “No driver may overtake another car on the track, including the Safety Car, until he passes the line (see Article 5.3) for the first time after the Safety Car has returned to the pits.”

This was the response: “The Stewards determine that although Car 33 did at one stage, for a very short period of time, move slightly in front of Car 44, at a time when both cars were accelerating and braking, it moved back behind Car 44 and it was not in front when the Safety Car period ended (i.e. at the line)”.

As petty as it all seems, it raises the question: If there is a regulation that is clearly breached by a driver/team, regardless of the extent, should the driver/team be penalized? In Brazil, pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was disqualified from the qualifying session and sent to the back of the grid because the DRS slot in his rear wing was unintentionally 2mm wider than acceptable on one side. In Abu Dhabi, Verstappen intentionally went ahead of Hamilton’s car (by more than 2mm, if one might add) under the safety car period. Yet, the stewards will not be looking at this breach and the response they have given clearly differs from the written regulation. They almost seem to be looking at a different version of the rule book and again, it highlights the clear lack of consistency from the stewards. Of course, fans would be able to find instances when Verstappen might have been at the receiving end of unfair treatment so it’s not about the FIA’s bias to any team/driver but rather their shocking inconsistency.

If there is a best time to review the sport’s regulations and stewarding procedures, it would have been this time last year. But for the sake of future championships, I wish the parties concerned would make the necessary changes before lights out in Bahrain next season. Congratulations to Max Verstappen on an amazing season! Stay safe and have a good Christmas everyone!

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