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Hamilton vs. Verstappen: final lap in court?

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

Whether the F1 world champion title of 2021 pertains to Verstappen (as currently celebrated) or Hamilton remains uncertain as Mercedes have announced they have lodged a notice of intention to appeal the decision of the stewards to dismiss their protest over the handling of the last lap restart in yesterday’s race.

What went down?

On Sunday December 12th 2021, the final and deciding race of the F1 Championship title took place at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

With only five laps remaining, William’s driver Nicholas Latifi crashed and the safety car entered the track. Mercedes decided not to call Lewis in for a pit stop as this would lead to the loss of his track position in case of a restart, while Red Bull opted to use this moment to their advantage to put Max’s car on a set of new soft tyres. While doing so, the gap between him and Hamilton grew to five and Race Control informed the teams that lapped cars couldn’t overtake the safety car, leaving Hamilton as the soon-to-be-announced winner and world champion.

At the last moment during the penultimate lap, FIA overturned their own decision and allowed the 5 lapped cars in between Max and Hamilton to un-lap themselves; which resulted in a nerve-wrecking final lap battle between Max and Hamilton, ultimately won by Verstappen and preventing Hamilton from securing a record-breaking eight title.

FIA Regulations

Right after the race, Mercedes filed two protests alleging breaches of the following regulations:

Article 48.8

Mercedes’ front claimed that Verstappen overtook Hamilton while the safety car was still on the track. This protest was dismissed by the FIA Stewards as Verstappen did not gain any advantage and dropped back immediately. Can we then conclude from this statement that cars are allowed to overtake under the safety car if they drop back "immediately"?

Article 48.12

Mercedes claimed that this procedure was not complied with as, in accordance with this regulation, all lapped cars should have been allowed to overtake the safety car and the safety car should have only returned to the pits at the end of the following lap (lap 58). By strictly following the stipulated procedure, the race would have finished under the safety car and Hamilton would have won the championship.

Instead, the Stewards decided to only let the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen unlap themselves and to bring in the safety car right away during lap 57, to let the race finish with a full-on last racing lap battle between the two.

Mercedes requested the stewards amend the classification in accordance with the result of the penultimate lap of the race (before the track returned to green) and award the world championship to Hamilton.

The Stewards dismissed this protest too, on the basis of the following arguments:

  • Article 15.3 awards the race director overriding authority in relation to the use of the safety car, which in the FIA’s determination includes its deployment and withdrawal. What's interesting here is that this stipulation de facto establishes the competences and decision-making powers between the Clerk of the course and the racing director; and in my opinion does not grant full on discretion to the racing director to override the FIA's own regulations.

  • 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.

  • It had long been agreed by all the teams that where possible it was highly desirable for the race to end in a “green condition” (i.e. not under a Safety car); in line with Niki Lauda’s “let them race” motto. To the extent that it interferes with and undermines the FIA's own established protocols?

With both protests dismissed, Mercedes gave notice of its intention to appeal under article 15 of the International Sporting Code, which governs appeals, and article 10 of the Judiciary and Disciplinary Rules. They now have to decide within the next 96 hours whether to push ahead or to withdraw their appeal. If they were to proceed, the case would be heard by the FIA International Court of Appeal (final appeal tribunal for international motor sport) within the next few weeks.

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