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Why Max Verstappen’s last-lap win over Lewis Hamilton at 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was so controversial



As has been the case for the 2021 Formula 1 season, the championship-deciding race was rife with drama.

On the closing laps of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi slid off the track and hit a wall, leading to a safety car. That safety car turned out to be the fateful event as it closed the gap between race leader Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, with Verstappen eventually taking the lead on the final lap of the final race of the season.

But the decision to restart the race while several cars were not allowed to unlap themselves garnered criticism and questions.

Here’s what happened:

MORE: Timeline of the Lewis Hamilton vs. Max Verstappen rivalry

What happened on the last lap?

FIA rules indicate that any and all lapped cars that line up behind a safety car are allowed to overtake and un-lap themselves while the safety car is out on the track. That didn’t happen on Sunday.

Of the drivers who were lapped in the race, only five were allowed to pass Lewis Hamilton under the safety car: Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel. There were three more cars that had yet to unlap themselves (Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll, Mick Schumacher), but potentially should have been given the opportunity to do so, per the rules.

Only once all cars unlap themselves is when the safety car can end on the following lap. Instead, the safety car exited the circuit with more cars yet to unlap themselves. Had the cars been given the OK to unlap themselves, it would have taken one more lap and the race would have ended under a yellow flag, with Hamilton winning.

Instead, the race restarted after the cars that separated Hamilton and Verstappen passed Hamilton, leading to the controversial end of the race. 

So, in layman’s terms: If all the cars had been allowed to pass and the safety car rule was followed to the letter of the law, the race would have ended under a safety car, Hamilton would have won his eighth world championship and the finish with Verstappen would have been decidedly anticlimactic. 

It seems as though race stewards would have preferred the championship be decided on one final lap of racing as opposed to under a yellow flag. While that makes for good entertainment and water-cooler talk, it isn’t within the spirit of the rules.

Race director Michael Masi made as much clear with his ambiguous message over team radio.

“Toto? It’s called a motor race, OK?,” Masi said over team coms to Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff. “We went car racing.”

For those wondering why there wasn’t a red flag: According to the Sky Sports broadcast, prior to the start, stewards decided the race was not going to be red flagged had a crash happened in the spot that Latifi crashed into, so that wasn’t an option. 

Mercedes decided to file two formal protests for the seeming breach of rules following the race: One for the cars overtaking, and one for Verstappen potentially overtaking during the safety car. There is much more ambiguity over the second protest than the first.

With Mercedes and Red Bull meeting with FIA officials following the race regarding the protests, FIA had yet to release a statement on the matter at hand. Sky Sports reported that Mercedes had brought a barrister to their meeting with race stewards, so clearly, they were taking the matter very seriously, hoping to earn a favorable decision.

Drivers, analysts and fans alike were confused with the way that the race had restarted:

If the stewards decided that Verstappen did in fact overtake during the safety car — something that’s very questionable — then it’s a five-second penalty and the championship could be overturned in favor of Hamilton.



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