F1 chaos: What exactly happened during the crazy closing laps in Abu Dhabi?

What is being hailed as the most dramatic conclusion to a Formula 1 season in history has left a lot of sports fans scratching their heads, so here is how Max Verstappen squeezed past Lewis Hamilton to claim his first F1 crown.

WHY WAS THE SAFETY CAR DEPLOYED?

With Lewis Hamilton in the lead of the race and on course for the Drivers’ Championship as the final Grand Prix of the 2021 F1 season inched closer to its conclusion, the television cameras cut to something which at first looked to be innocuous, but would eventually play a large part in determining the destination of the title. 

That image was of Williams driver Nicholas Latifi, who had crashed out of the race on lap 53 of 58. 

Latifi’s accident would require the introduction of the safety car, something F1 fans are well accustomed to over the years to safeguard drivers from wreckage or any other debris on the track which could potentially cause further accidents. 

The car remained deployed while Latifi’s stricken Williams was cleared from the track. 

WHAT HAPPENED WHILE THE SAFETY CAR WAS DEPLOYED?

This is where things got interesting… and slightly complicated.

The FIA rulebook states that any lapped cars behind a safety car can overtake and un-lap themselves, should such a situation present itself.

Just five of the racers who had been lapped overtook the safety car in Abu Dhabi: Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel.

Three lapped racers didn’t – Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll and Mick Schumacher – but that trio didn’t seem to been given a chance to do so after a controversial call by race director Michael Masi.

Per the rules, once all cars un-lap themselves, the safety car can leave the track on the next lap.

All five cars that did un-lap themselves had been between Hamilton and Verstappen, meaning there was now no impediment to the Dutchman directly attacking the Brit, which he duly did. 

Had the remaining cars been afforded an opportunity to un-lap themselves then the race would have finished under a yellow flag, with Hamilton being declared the winner and the 2021 world champion. 

WHY DIDN’T HAMILTON PIT WHEN VERSTAPPEN DID?

Hamilton’s Mercedes team decided against bringing their driver in for a late pit stop because doing so would have surrendered the lead to Verstappen unless he did the same.

But sensing an opportunity after Hamilton opted not to do so, Verstappen’s Red Bull team did bring their man in for fresh tires.

This proved to be the decisive moment of the race as once the race resumed after the safety car was removed, Hamilton’s advantage had been eaten away and he was now trying to keep a driver with fresher tires at bay. 

His lead didn’t last long. Verstappen passed Hamilton on the way into turn five and batted away the British driver’s attempts to return the favor in the two straights which followed to cross the finish line as the new Formula 1 world champion.

WHY HAVE MERCEDES COMPLAINED?

With Verstappen’s reign as world champion barely an hour old, Mercedes revealed that they would be filing an appeal against the conclusion of the race.

In fact, two formal protests were filed: one related to cars overtaking while the safety car was on the track, and the other stems from a complaint regarding Verstappen specifically overtaking during the safety car.

FIA race director Masi left himself open to accusations of flip-flopping after appearing to change his mind during the extraordinary denouement by first ruling out cars being allowed to overtake, only for them to be given the green light to do so.  

WHAT WAS THE RESULT OF THE PROTESTS?

After a tense wait for both teams, it was confirmed that both Mercedes’ protests had been dismissed. 

Regarding the issue of Verstappen overtaking Hamilton under the safety car, it was ruled by stewards that although the Dutchman did briefly move slightly in front of the Brit at a time when both cars where accelerating and braking, he had then moved back and was not in front when the safety car period ended.

READ MORE: F1 officials reject Mercedes title protest

The second appeal regarding broader use of the safety car and overtaking was also rejected.

In a convoluted response, the gist was that race officials had acted within their rights to withdraw the safety car when they did, and that there had been no wrongdoing regarding overtaking – or lack of it – by cars which had been lapped. 

Mercedes have already said they will seek a further appeal with the FIA, and beyond that could even take it up with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland. 

That means the saga might not be over just yet, following a remarkable conclusion to a compelling F1 season.   

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