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

Bryan Edwards

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.

Lap 56 of 58. Still a mess on the track. Michael Masi in his role as Race Director made a decision and it was announced. Contrary to the usual procedure, lapped cars would not be allowed to unlap themselves. If the race were to be restarted, Verstappen would have to cope with the five intervening cars. That would have been a negligible problem: it would have been a simple matter to instruct them all to move to the left on the start-finish straight, informing them that they were to consider a failure to comply, at the first opportunity, with the blue flags that they were bound to be shown would be considered bad driving standards. Would Verstappen have been disadvantaged?

Well, Hamilton would have rushed off, as he would anyway as the first car away under the restart rules. Verstappen would have been held up as he reached the safety car line - but he would almost certainly been closer to Hamilton than before the safety car. So the events would still have played into his hands.

So, fine. All done. Order restored, Verstappen gains an advantage but not enough to result in the race being decided by an official. Verstappen is caustic: implying that he considers that decision to be a fix. Horner, who really is becoming an annoying little whiner, complained to Masi. Masi told Horner to go away because he was trying to sort out the mess on track. Masi seemed determined, as he had in the rain at Spa, to get some racing in regardless of safety or, even, practicality. So, it was clear: come Hell or high water, the race would be restarted as soon as the crane was off the circuit. That meant no more than one lap because the cars were about to start the lap before last and still behind the Safety Car.

Lap 57 of 58 . Masi announced that the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen - and only those cars - would be allowed to unlap themselves: this means that they would overtake Hamilton, pass the Safety Car and, because they were now in front of it, return to racing speeds. That brought Verstappen up onto Hamilton's tail. Then Masi made an astonishing announcement: seconds after the cars passed, he said that the Safety Car would be withdrawn at the end of the current lap. This is absolutely unprecedented: the argument has always been that any restart is one lap after lapped cars pass so that they, by definition far slower than the leaders, can get out of the way before the leaders catch them. It turned out that the five, who were having their own race, shot off at speed so safety was not an issue. But it might have been. At some point in all of this Norris picked up a "slow puncture" that cost him vital points and a championship position. How and where he got that problem is not known: was it from debris on the track by the shattered Williams? Was enough time allowed for a proper clean-up? It's just another question that remains.

Verstappen out-psyched Hamilton: his mind-games coming up to the restart were brilliant. If we hadn't seen the flood of emotion when he won, it would have been easy to see Verstappen as a sociopath, such was his brutality of psychological assault on Hamilton. He went too far and put his nose in front of the Mercedes. That was a breach of the rules. It was utterly calculated. It was not a mistake.

By then, Hamilton knew he was going to lose and Verstappen knew he was going to win. At the line Hamilton shot off: by the first corner, Verstappen was on him. LH44 didn't give up but he didn't do what many people suspected Verstappen would have done in similar circumstances and punt him off. If there was a moment where Hamilton's character showed through, that was the first of a series that unfolded over the next ten minutes or so.

Toto Wolff shouted crazily at Masi. One suspects Masi just took his headphones off and if he did, no one could blame him. Wolff's behaviour was unacceptable. Right or wrong, Masi is still the senior official and entitled to respect. Abuse of referees is punishable in most other sports. Wolff really should be reprimanded for unsportsman-like behaviour. It's not the first time this year that he's misbehaved - nor is this the first year.

But out on track, Hamilton driving the dying tyres to their ultimate end and Verstappen on a near-victory lap with half-a-lap to go, the race was done. Wolff had every reason to be angry, just not to behave as he did.

Hamilton's crew were "speechless" - but not as speechless as Hamilton who, F1 TV images show, drove the in-lap, very slowly, his visor steaming up, not speaking at all. He didn't drive to the main straight but instead went to parc firmé where he sat in the car. When he got out there were no smiles, but there was no anger, no sign of tantrum. After a couple of minutes talking to those closest to him, he went to congratulate Verstappen. Hamilton's father went to look for Verstappen's father and gave him a hug.

That's sport; that's sportsmanship.

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