It’s Lap 53, and Mick Schumacher and Nicholas Latifi are somewhat needlessly fighting over second-to-last place, aggression well and truly above adhesion.
Latifi is run wide and into the runoff at Turn 9, picking up a multitude of dust and tyre debris on his own tyres. Five corners later the Williams driver oversteers and slams on the brakes, throwing his FW43B into the wall, bringing out a full safety car.
At the front it’s Lewis Hamilton ahead of Max Verstappen, the Mercedes faster all evening but not fast enough to entirely shake-off the charging Red Bull of Verstappen, or to quickly dispatch of Sergio Perez.
Perez had given Hamilton something to think about several laps prior, Red Bull utilising their second car to good effect which Mercedes were unable to with Valtteri Bottas. Coupled to the helpful slipstream for Verstappen in Q3, Perez definitely displayed an exquisite case study of teamwork across the Abu Dhabi weekend.
“Without Checo I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” pointed out Max Verstappen post-race.
But it was the late safety car that would be the critical factor, the absolute be-all and end-all. A championship battle so tightly fought that the only way of deciphering who would take the top spot in the standings would be a small bout of fortune and misfortune, alongside a strategic dead-end for Mercedes, and masterful teamwork.
Once the SC was called Lewis Hamilton stayed out on his old hard compound tyres and people rightly point out he had absolutely no choice. If he’d have pitted instead, Red Bull will have instructed Verstappen to simply do the opposite. Mercedes had the time to decide either way but decided against it.
If both Lewis and Max had pitted though, Hamilton was still to be the vulnerable party heading down to Turns 5, 6 and 9 – Lap 1 showed Verstappen’s strength to good effect. The compression of the field behind the safety car meant Hamilton couldn’t pit the next lap for fresh tyres either, because he’d have exited the pits way down the order.
If Perez hadn’t held up Hamilton earlier on in the race, costing the Mercedes driver around six seconds in the process, he’d have had more than a pit stop advantage over Verstappen to bolt on fresh softs after Latifi’s accident.
That is a huge factor that lost Hamilton the race. Being out in front, but not far enough to pit into the gap and stay in front of Max, Hamilton and Mercedes had been inadvertently backed into a corner. They were left strategically vulnerable to a VSC, SC or red flag scenario late on.
Perhaps given the rarity of seeing a SC at Yas Marina, Mercedes had assessed all the probabilities they could in the time-frame and weren’t too concerned prior to Lap 53.
Red Bull had been cautious earlier on too, forcing themselves onto a one stop – pitting for hards a lap before Hamilton inevitably reacted and followed suit.
The lapped cars
Once Latifi’s combusting Williams was hastily cleared away, it became apparent to the FIA that we could either get one more lap of green flag racing, or none at all. It wouldn’t have been the first time a championship decider concluded this way – think back to Brazil 2012, but of course that time the SC didn’t have any bearing whatsoever on the outcome.
As Red Bull had chosen to pit Verstappen, this had allowed five lapped cars to sneak into the 20 second or so gap between the top two before the field closed up into a queue.
FIA Race Director Michael Masi had quickly decided to not allow any lapped cars to overtake like they normally would, in fear of adding unnecessary laps to the race.
If he’d have left it this way – leaving five cars in between the two championship protagonists – and Verstappen subsequently failed to reach Hamilton by the end of the racing lap, people would be livid at the FIA for *favouring Hamilton and Mercedes* because that procedure, eventhough legal, isn’t the norm.
Whichever way Masi went, one side was going to be unhappy, so I think this apoplectic social media vendetta against Max Verstappen and Michael Masi is absolutely unnecessary and frankly horrifying.
Masi ultimately reversed his decision and the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen were released and scampered off into the distance. The broadcast showed Norris, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc and Vettel passing Hamilton and the Aston Martin Vantage before Turn 9, leaving only one sector to spare to bring the safety car in and start the infamous one lap shoot-out.
Normal protocol is to leave the safety car circulating for one extra lap to ensure the lapped cars can get far enough away from the leaders to not interfere any time soon. However, we were going onto the last lap – the lapped cars were never going to get in the way later on in the race.
The leaders could not have possibly caught any of the five lapped cars because even after 30 seconds of flat-out racing for them (as the leaders crawled through the last sector) the lapped cars were already halfway around the lap.
In addition, if the other lapped cars further down the order were allowed to make their way through, the gap between them and the leaders when Hamilton was released would have been far smaller, risking him catching the slower cars – an absolute no-no.
The regulations use the word “any”, instead of “all” when specifying which lapped cars can be released so there’s definitely room for interpretation there which was very much taken by Masi.
There was no need, from a safety perspective, to do the extra lap behind the safety car and there was little need to let those behind Verstappen through from a sporting perspective. So why not just go for it, and that’s what Michael Masi and the FIA decided to do.
In a move that surprised those watching as much as it did Lewis Hamilton, Verstappen dived down the inside at the new Turn 5 hairpin in a signature move reminiscent of many of his on-the-edge passes.
Verstappen came into this race effectively ahead in the standings, so could afford to take those risks. That’s simply how the championship panned out heading to Abu Dhabi.
I thought he’d have waited for the Turn 6 chicane again and not risked losing out handing the slipstream to Hamilton on the straight beforehand. But ever the aggressor, Verstappen purposefully caught Hamilton off guard – choosing not to defend until seeing Verstappen sail down his inside.
Without the DRS the lap after a restart, Hamilton didn’t have enough overspeed on either of the two proceeding straights and came home 2nd.
Max Verstappen led only one lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but it was the lap that counted.
For much of the race Hamilton and Mercedes were the favourites and Verstappen and Red Bull had absolutely lost the title. But it’s not over until it’s over.
Lewis Hamilton was a class act until and after the very end. He was humble and gracious in defeat. It’s just a catastrophic shame a great deal on social media can’t be the same.
*Posted to DRIVETRIBE on 13/12/21*