It’s 01:34am at Yas Marina Circuit as I type these words, and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ended seven hours ago. But the result won’t be known for certain for days, or even weeks.
Was it inevitable that the 2021 Formula 1 season would need to be decided in the stewards room, and failing that the International Court of Appeal? Perhaps. But it wasn’t inevitable that neither team or driver would be the catalyst.
All of the build-up to this weekend was about the potential for collisions, or behavior that was of an “unsportsmanlike manner” that was intended to influence the outcome of the championship.
That talk came as a result of warnings from FIA race director Michael Masi to both drivers in his pre-race event notes. The irony is, you could argue it is now Masi who is the one who influenced the outcome in a way that was not sporting.
I defend Masi a lot. I think he has an impossible job, and people look back on the Charlie Whiting days through rose-tinted glasses. Whiting made mistakes. Big, costly, dangerous ones. But his demeanor and longevity commanded respect in a way Masi hasn’t achieved yet, and perhaps the openness of Masi to allow communications to be broadcast and to face the media opens up the potential for greater scrutiny than Whiting got.
And where I will still defend him is I don’t feel he was biased in any way towards one driver or the other over the course of the championship. The fact that fans of both sides can vehemently claim their driver was targeted by the FIA suggests Masi was pretty close to spot on in terms of impartiality (if nothing else), because he annoyed both sides equally on different occasions.
On Sunday night in Abu Dhabi, too, I don’t think Masi was trying to favor one driver or the other. As his radio message to Toto Wolff suggested, he was trying to let the two title contenders race it out for one last lap to decide who was champion. That’s almost admirable. But the way that came about and the scenario it created leaves him wide open to criticism, and both title contenders hurting.
And that’s just such a sad way for this year to end.
Verstappen is hurting because he had to spend the first four hours as world champion waiting for it to be confirmed rather than celebrating freely, and now faces another wait to see to what the appeals process will be.
Hamilton is also hurting because a race that appeared to be his was then snatched away from him on the last lap as Verstappen took full advantage of a situation that the regulations didn’t appear to permit.
Verstappen did nothing wrong. Hamilton did nothing wrong. Red Bull did nothing wrong. Mercedes did nothing wrong. They all played the hand they were dealt, but whether that hand should have been dealt in the first place is what is now up for such controversial debate.
The only entity that might have done something wrong is the FIA’s race director – or race control as a wider group – and that just isn’t the way this season should have ended. It doesn’t do it justice.
Whoever won the championship should be celebrating the greatest title of recent years. Dare I say it, perhaps ever. Two absolute megastars pushed each other to the highest of highs – and sometimes dragged each other to the lowest of lows – over 22 races and could not be separated until seven corners from the end of the entire season. It’s remarkable.
But there’s a ‘TBC’ against Verstappen’s name for now, and Hamilton surely won’t get even 10 percent of the enjoyment he’d deserve if he is crowned champion by an overturned decision.
I thought it was unfair that so much focus was being put on a potential collision between the two pre-race, and even said so to both drivers. But they took it in stride, because they each knew that aspect was in their own hands.
The way they raced so thrillingly on both the first and last laps showed exactly why, with millimeters between them at times but no contact. A collision was not how either of them wanted to win it.
But waiting so long for confirmation, or to be retrospectively instated as champion via the International Court of Appeal, is not how either of them wanted to win it, either.
It’s not what either of them deserves, and it’s not of their own doing.