Best of 2021: Verstappen overtakes Hamilton on final lap to claim first F1 world championship
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The one thing Max Verstappen requested — over and over and over again — was that the race stewards not interfere with the Formula One title-deciding finale with any questionable or inconsistent calls.
He didn't get his wish.
And yet it played directly in his favor.
How you felt about it Monday depended on your view of racing. Is it sport? Or is it entertainment?
Verstappen won his first world championship Sunday at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with a pass of Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of a riveting season. His 10th win of the year made Verstappen the first Dutch champion and denied Hamilton a record-breaking eighth title.
But it will forever be a controversial victory — Mercedes might call it tainted — because of the role race director Michael Masi played in the messy outcome. Hamilton had a lead of nearly 12 seconds and Red Bull conceded Verstappen's only chance was from “some luck from the racing gods" when a crash by Nicholas Latifi with five laps remaining put the ending in Masi's control.
With the world watching, — thanks Netflix! — Masi tried to figure out what to do next.
“You only need one racing lap!” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said in urging Masi to get Latifi's mess cleaned up in time to give Verstappen one final shot at Hamilton.
“Michael, this isn't right,” Toto Wolff of Mercedes objected as Masi deliberated.
Masi could have sided with Wolff and let the race end behind the safety car with Hamilton cruising past Michael Schumacher into history under yellow. Or, he could have thrown a red flag, allowed all drivers to pit for new tires, and then gone green for a final shootout.
The race director waffled during his decision-making process and in that time, Verstappen indeed pitted for fresh, faster tires while Hamilton stayed out to maintain the lead. Masi then moved the lapped traffic out of Verstappen's way and gave him and Hamilton one final lap over 3.2 miles to decide the championship.
Verstappen caught Hamilton in Turn 5 — “No, Mikey, no!” screamed Wolff, “that was so not right!” — and held him off on his soft, fresh Pirelli tires for the title. The final lap was the only lap Verstappen led all day; Hamilton led 51 of the 58 trips around Yas Marina Circuit.
Wolff was furious but was rebuked time and again by Masi and the FIA.
Masi scolded him over the radio: “Toto, it’s called a motor race, OK? We went car racing," and Mercedes lodged a pair of protests. It took almost five hours for the FIA to deny them both and rule the race official, and Mercedes has now asked for reconsideration from the International Court of Appeal.
F1 was already the top motorsports series in the world but its popularity has exploded in North America over the three-year run of the “Drive to Survive” behind-the-scenes Netflix docuseries. The show has removed the velvet rope for viewers and given them access like never before to teams, drivers and drama. The racing just happens to be what the stars of the show do for a living.
Few television producers would greenlight any script that called for an enthralling back-and-forth season that spanned 22 races across four continents to end under yellow. People want to be entertained and that's what Masi gave the viewers Sunday night with the officiating decision.
But in ensuring a climactic finale to the upcoming fourth installment of “Drive to Survive,” a decision was made that ran afoul of the purity of Formula One. The lack of gimmicks — think playoffs, green-white-checkered flag finishes, stage racing — is what open wheel racing fans love.
IndyCar declined in 2020 to throw a red flag for a late crash at the Indianapolis 500 and Scott Dixon didn't get a final challenge on Takuma Sato, who became the 11th winner in more than a century to collect the checkered flag under caution. Conversely, since NASCAR implemented in 2007 its green-white-checkered flag rule of using multiple restarts to ensure a green-flag finish, eight of 15 Daytona 500s have been decided in overtime.
NASCAR tweaked its rules to give fans the finish they paid for, while IndyCar has resisted attempts to push it down a similar path of instant gratification. Formula One, though, was supposed to be above manipulations and would follow its thick rulebook, boring races and all.
That's changed since American-owned company Liberty Media became F1's parent company in 2017 and “the way it's always been done” no longer reigns supreme. This year saw the introduction of sprint qualifying in three races, which will be doubled to six in 2022, a late red-flag followed by a final standing restart at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and the awarding of only half points for the sixth time in F1 history when rain allowed for a measly one lap run behind the safety car in Belgium.
And yet there was still consternation in the paddock over the ending.
“THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!!" tweeted George Russell, who will be Hamilton's teammate next year at Mercedes.
“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,” added Russell, who retired from the race and was a spectator for the finish.
Maybe it wasn't pure racing and, in the end, unacceptable for F1 standards. But it sure was entertaining and will be talked about forever.