Formula 1 stewards have rejected protests by Mercedes after their driver Lewis Hamilton lost the world title to Red Bull rival Max Verstappen in controversial circumstances on the last lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Hamilton and Verstappen had started the day level on points at the top of the F1 championship leaderboard, and despite early drama on the first lap when Hamilton left the track in a tangle for the lead with Verstappen, the Brit had seemed set for a record eighth world title as he opened up a big lead.
But there was a dramatic twist with five laps to go of the 58 when a crash by Williams driver Nicholas Latifi brought out the safety car.
Chaos ensued as Red Bull first used the opportunity to pit Verstappen for a fresh set of tires while Mercedes kept Hamilton out so that he would not lose track position.
There were five lapped cars between the two title rivals in the line behind the safety car, meaning that Verstappen appeared to face significant obstacles to getting within striking distance of Hamilton.
All that changed when race control issued an order that the lapped cars could join the back of the queue on the penultimate lap under the safety car, meaning the race restarted with one lap to go with Verstappen directly behind his British rival.
The Dutchman took full advantage, streaking past Hamilton on turn five of the last lap and holding off the Mercedes driver to take the checkered flag and a maiden world title with it.
Here’s how the season ended with Max Verstappen crowned the 2021 F1 Champion pic.twitter.com/5CO2qDIMgE
— Maury Brown (@BizballMaury) December 12, 2021
Mercedes were furious at the developments and lodged two protests with F1 bosses about incidents surrounding the use of the safety car.
However, after a tense wait it was confirmed that both protests had been dismissed.
“We are going to go and celebrate this championship now. Thank you very much,” said Red Bull team principle Christian Horner on being given the news.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 12, 2021
The first protest had focused on whether Verstappen had breached the rules by overtaking Hamilton when the safety car was out.
Ultimately, the stewards determined that although Verstappen did briefly move slightly in front of Hamilton at a time when both cars where accelerating and braking, he had then moved back behind the Brit and was not in front when the safety car period ended.
Regarding the second protest lodged by Mercedes regarding the use of the safety car, FIA officials said: “Article 15.3 allows the Race Director to control the use of the safety car, which in our determination includes its deployment and withdrawal.
“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.
“That notwithstanding Mercedes’ request that the Stewards remediate the matter by amending the classification to reflect the positions at the end of the penultimate lap, this is a step that the Stewards believe is effectively shortening the race retrospectively, and hence not appropriate.
“Accordingly, the Protest is dismissed.”
— Rachel Brookes (@RachelBrookesTV) December 12, 2021
Race director Michael Masi had come under intense scrutiny for his actions at the end of the race, after appearing to first say that cars would not be allowed to overtake before reversing that order.
Mercedes director Toto Wolff had furiously said on the team radio that the situation was “not right.”
It remains to be seen whether Mercedes will pursue the matter through appeals with the FIA or potentially even the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
Here's Masi basically saying they just decided to wing it pic.twitter.com/v3oPTAbDSE
— Jay Rigdon (@jayrigdon5) December 12, 2021
Verstappen, 24, became the first Dutchman ever to be crowned Formula 1 world champion while Red Bull also ended the seven-year stranglehold that Mercedes had on the drivers’ title.
Hamilton, 36, missed out the chance to win a fifth consecutive crown and move ahead of Michael Schumacher in the all-time title stakes, but was nonetheless gracious in defeat as he congratulated Verstappen.