The celebrations will continue long into the night for Red Bull and Max Verstappen – but Mercedes have already started poring over the rule books after the jaw-dropping controversy during, and before, the last lap shootout in Abu Dhabi.
In fact, Mercedes – who won the constructors’ championship but were left defeated in the drivers’ standings after Lewis Hamilton was overtaken by his fierce rival – have already lodged an appeal against the official results.
At the time of writing, team principal Toto Wolff is yet to comment on the drama, but Mercedes appear to have a clear case against the FIA. His post-race press conference was delayed, and the backlash will rumble on for quite some time.
So, amid all the chaos at the Yas Marina Circuit, we take a look at how the situation unfolded to explain just how the eyebrow-raising decisions were made.
NICHOLAS LATIFI’S CRASH SPARKS DRAMA
With just a handful of laps to go, Hamilton was in the driving seat and looked on course to take home a record-breaking eighth title. However, it all came crashing down around him after Nicholas Latifi careered his Williams into the barriers.
That meant that a safety car was brought out on lap 53, and Red Bull seized the initiative by bring Verstappen in for fresher tyres. Mercedes, in a move they will now come to regret, opted against also putting new rubber on Hamilton’s car.
So, for the final, pulsating shootout to decide where the trophy would be heading, it was Verstappen who held the advantage in his bid to chase down Hamilton. His tyres allowed him to get off to a flying start, and soon after, he glided beyond his rival.
MICHAEL MASI CHANGES HIS MIND
Michael Masi, the race director, may well find himself in very hot water this evening. Wolff, understandably incensed, called Masi to urge him to reconsider, but was met with a deadpan reply about the sport being ‘motor racing’, which provided no clarity.
Mercedes were, and remain, incensed, after the decision-makers dramatically changed their minds over the span of just a couple of minutes.
Initially, Masi declared that lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen would not be allowed to un-lap themselves, as is normal practice in Formula One.
Un-lapping is the process of driving fast to overtake a car which is one whole lap ahead and has just passed by. If a driver is able to pass them, they will have un-lapped themselves – which is exactly what was expected in Abu Dhabi.
Red Bull complained about Masi’s choice, though, and in a shocking twist, the race director changed his mind.
There were five lapped cars between the two contenders in the queue behind the Safety Car, and these were told by Race Control to join the back of the queue on the penultimate lap.
As a result, Hamilton and Verstappen were placed side-by-side for the restart, and it was the latter and his fresher tyres who triumphed against all the odds.
WHAT HAVE MERCEDES COMPLAINED ABOUT?
Quite simply, the actions of Masi appear to have gone against the sporting regulations. In instructing the five cars in between Hamilton and Verstappen to overtake the safety car, a seismic debate has been sparked – and it will not go away.
In the rulebook, Article 48.8 says ‘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.’
There is also Article 48.12, which says that ‘any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.’
Regarding the first point, Verstappen looked to pull up alongside Hamilton approaching Turn 12 on lap 57, ahead of the race restarting on lap 58 – the final one.
And for the second argument made by Mercedes, Race Control told Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel to pass the safety car ahead of the drama-filled restart.
However, Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll and Mick Schumacher were not given the same instruction.
Article 48.12 also says: ‘Unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.’
WHAT COULD HAPPEN NEXT?
It is unclear what action could be taken, but the investigation is already underway.
Ultimately, if any punishments are meted out, they will single-handedly change the complexion of the title fight – and potentially strip Verstappen of the trophy.
The fact that the tussle came down to the final race of the season means that if there are any alterations to the race result, Hamilton may take home an eighth award.
It will be nothing short of embarrassing for the sport is the outcome is overturned.
But it may also be more damaging for them to leave the result to stand, with rules seemingly conjured up on the last lap of the season to create a soap opera.
Red Bull will now speak to the stewards this evening, with plenty more controversy expected before the day is out.
If Verstappen did move marginally ahead of Hamilton before the safety car pulled into the pit lane, then he may be struck with a five-second penalty.
That would be enough for him to lose out on the victory, and the Championship.
The confusion will presumably be cleared up this evening, but there is the prospect that the drama will be taken to a higher level, such as a court, if necessary.
WHAT HAS THE REACTION BEEN?
‘No, Mikey! That was so not right!’
Those were the words bellowed down the radio by Wolff at Masi after the safety car was taken away, a decision which left Hamilton hopelessly exposed out in front.
Wolff has not voiced his opinions yet, undoubtedly cooling off first and exploring Mercedes’ legal options. It is understood they have even brought in a barrister.
Speaking after the race, Horner admitted that Verstappen benefited from some good fortune with the safety car, but insisted Masi made the right call.
‘Of course he (Toto) will obviously do that (disagree). But it’s unheard of to leave the cars unlapped,’ Horner told Sky Sports.
‘You could see they wanted to get the race going again but they don’t need to catch up the back of the paddock so they made absolutely the right call.
‘(They were) Difficult circumstances for the stewards, we’re all putting pressure on them, but they called it right.’
Verstappen was also questioned on the drama in his press conference, and he said: ‘Everything was clear so why would you run another lap behind the safety car?’
When told about the Mercedes protest, he added: ‘Not much really to say about that. I think it also sums up a little bit the season.’
Williams’ George Russell, who will be Hamilton’s team-mate next season, tweeted: ‘THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!!
Max is an absolutely fantastic driver who has had an incredible season and I have nothing but huge respect for him, but what just happened is absolutely unacceptable. I cannot believe what we’ve just seen.’
THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!!