JT – The season finale, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was set to be a battle between Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton for the championship. Max Verstappen ended up winning the world title on the last lap of the race, overtaking Hamilton in the wake of a safety car to win the grand prix.
On lap 53, Williams’ Nicholas Latifi crashed bringing out the safety car. Hamilton stayed out without pitting, while Verstappen pitted behind him for a fresh set of soft tires. Following Verstappen's pit stop, he remained in second place with five lapped cars - Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc, and Sebastian Vettel - between himself and leader Hamilton. Lapped drivers were initially informed that they would not be permitted to overtake during the safety car. On lap 57, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner asked race director Michael Masi why the lapped cars were not instructed to overtake. Masi then directed that only the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen were to un-lap themselves.
Just after Vettel passed the safety car to join the lead lap, race control announced the safety car would enter the pits at the end of the lap to allow for a final lap of green-flag racing, leading to angry radio comments from Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.
Much has been made of Masi’s decision to allow the lapped cars to overtake the leader and put Max right behind Lewis on new, soft tires with the restart taking place on the penultimate lap. Fans are divided on the outcome and Mercedes protested the decisions made by Masi. But the result stands. What’s your take on the race?
SJ – First, I guess it’s positive for F1 that everyone is chiming in, that there’s so much passion for either side, Lewis or Max. Whether it’s intentional or not, the entertainment value of this controversy has gone through the roof.
But I think there has to be a balance somewhere because the decisions Masi made make no sense on any level. His decision completely ignored any level of common sense as to what would have been a fair way to handle the situation.
The only way it should have been done was by doing what you’d normally do and indeed what he did in the race prior. As soon as they deployed the safety car with five laps to go they should have red flagged the race. That’s the only way to keep it level and keep the excitement until the end. You would have had everyone come into the pits while they clear the track, put new tires on and go from there like they did at the Saudi Grand Prix when Red Bull rebuilt half their car and put new tires on.
Had that been done you could have had a fair five-lap shootout for the championship. Making the decisions he did and then changing his mind completely at the very last moment absolutely handed the race on a plate to Max and Red Bull after Lewis had done a flawless race. He did everything he had to do to secure the championship, including making a perfect start.
I did some interviews before the race where people were asking me to predict the results, and my comments were that I hoped I would be wrong, but my prediction was that the race would not be decided between the drivers but rather by race control, making yet another random call, as we have now seen far too often in the past seasons. This last race was just the culmination of a series of incredibly bad calls that somehow seem to have escalated as the year went on.
I appreciate that race control is under a huge amount of pressure and the decisions must be made within a very short time frame, but the job of being race director is not for the faint of heart and it obviously takes a pretty special character, with a deep understanding of the dynamics of racing both from a driver’s perspective and from a team perspective. I don’t know much about the background of Masi, but it’s clear to me that he lacks a fundamental understanding of the basic dynamics of wheel-to-wheel racing and what is acceptable as far as racing lines go. Some of the moves in the past four races were disturbing and it’s hard to watch this happening in F1, which is meant to be the pinnacle of Motor Sports. Charlie [Whiting] (ex-race director) had been around the block a few times and knew every trick in the book, there’s just no way he would have allowed things to escalate to the point where we are now where every race seems to end up in controversy of some kind.
With that in mind, the way Lewis drove the last four races, basically not putting a foot out of line and maximizing every situation, including having the discipline and patience to avoid any altercations with Max, of which there was obviously plenty of opportunity to do so, and then basically have the title taken away from him on the very last lap is gut wrenching. The way he handled it in the aftermath is even more impressive and I think it shows his real character both in and out of the car. I read this quote many years ago and I always kept it to remind myself at times when things may not have gone the way I felt was fair at the time. “Sports do not build character, they reveal it”. I think the last four races absolutely highlighted this. Like I have mentioned many times in the past, win or lose, I really admire the way Lewis has brought the purity and fairness but hard racing back, I just hope that more of the new generation of drivers coming up will try to emulate that style of driving, it’s a lot harder to be successful doing it the right way rather than driving dirty. Blocking is easy and pushing someone off the track is easy, anyone can do that.
In the end, I think both Max and Lewis deserved to win the title this year, they both drove at such a high level and both their teams operated at equally high levels, and it would have been such an incredible ending to the year to have it decided fair and square on the racetrack. Instead, we now have this endless controversy and polarization. I’m sure the folks at Liberty are not complaining as this has lifted F1 to a whole new level in terms of people following.
But, if this is the direction it will continue, where the entertainment comes before the sport, I think we’re getting into a very dangerous territory, I would hate to see F1 turning into the Motorsports version of the WWF, where it’s just a show and the sport is secondary to the entertainment. The Netflix show has obviously helped lift the profile of F1 immensely, especially in the US. I know how many of the teams and drivers feel about, but you still can’t deny the impact it’s had. Personally, I had to tune out after 15 minutes. I think it’s important to find a good balance going forward, I appreciate social media and marketing from every possible angle is important, but I would hate to see the drivers turning into some sort of comedians and clowns rather than brave young men doing their thing on Sunday afternoons.
The other thing I’m totally perplexed about is what happened in the Saudi race, where race control is suddenly starting a negotiation with the teams during a safety car period, where did that come from! I’ve never in all my years of racing in just about every category worth mentioning ever seen that happen before. I didn’t know that was even possible, or legal for that matter. The only logical answer to me is that there may be pressure from above to spice up the show, which may also explain the equally illogical decision to finish the race the way they did in Abu Dhabi.
JT – The FIA has stated that it will set up a commission to look into the decisions made at Abu Dhabi. That doesn’t seem to hold much promise for reforming the rules or at least requiring consistency in their enforcement. Do you think the drivers could somehow enforce a code of driving standards among themselves?
SJ – The issue we have right now on track is that Max has taken the Senna playbook and the Schumacher playbook to a whole new level. Generally, I think there’s a good code of conduct between the drivers. Most of the current crop of the new generation of drivers are racing very clean but hard, there’s been some really great battles this year but they’re not at the front and therefore it goes un-noticed for the most part. No one cares about the guys in fifth or sixth place.
I don’t have a lot of optimism for the changes from the officials. Every year decisions about driving standards and enforcement are getting worse, more and more muddy with more grey areas. If Max can get away with what he’s gotten away with in certain cases this year, then like Leclerc said, ‘Ok, fine. If that’s how we’re going to race, then that’s how we have to race.’
However, a lot of these incidents would automatically be avoided if they changed the design of the tracks and got rid of the huge run off areas, we currently have on nearly all the tracks. This sanitization of the tracks has brought on more problems than the one’s they were trying to solve in the first place. It’s ironic that we don’t seem to have anywhere near the number of incidents in Monaco for example, where the track limit is basically the guardrail. If the drivers know where the limit is, they will obviously stay within that limit, because if you go past, it you will end up in the guardrail and your day is over. But when you have a run off area the size of two football fields, and no clear rule of what is or is not allowed it becomes a complete joke. Seemingly it’s ok for anyone to go past the track limit on the starts for example, likewise it seems ok to not even attempt to turn until you’re actually on the white line or even past it, when you’re fighting for position. It’s then up to the guys in race control to decide what is right or wrong. It’s a horribly flawed system and there must be a way to avoid this going forward.
Anything except the asphalt that is currently used would be better in my opinion, whether it’s grass, gravel or anything that would actually slow the car down enough to force the driver to lift in order to get back on the track again, or risk damaging the car and he won’t be able to continue. 80% of all the incidents race control has to get involved with at the moment would automatically be avoided.
The drivers will always go to the limit of what is possible, and the way the tracks are currently designed is an open invitation for trouble. None of the drivers have a clear understanding of the rules, even less so the people in race control it seems. It’s frustrating and annoying for everyone involved and could be fixed very easily.
Interestingly, we seem to have similar complaints from the MotoGP people now, where the large run off areas have done nothing to solve the safety issues, if anything, it’s made it worse. I think it’s time for a drastic rethink of the track designs in general and especially the run off areas that are currently being implemented.
JT – Taking Indycar as an alternate example, it’s a top level open wheel series that races not only on road and street courses but on ovals as well with competition that’s unheard of in Formula 1. And yet, there are relatively few controversies about penalties or driving standards in Indycar and certainly none that rise to the level of those we saw in Formula 1 this season or in recent seasons. That suggests that F1 could do a far better job than they have been on race direction and rules.
SJ – I agree and with the right team in race direction I don’t think there should be a problem, even in F1. One of the differences in Indycar is that they always have the same team at every race, the ex-driver stewards are Max Papis and Arie Luyendik, both are well respected and obviously know what they’re doing. By having the same guys in race control for many years now, there is a level of consistency, and all the drivers know more or less what to expect. The other factor that eliminates the interference from race control is exactly the point I brought up before, where the nature of the tracks takes care of most of the problems F1 is dealing with. If you put a wheel off the track, you will get punished immediately as there is no grip once you leave the track limit, it’s either grass or gravel or a dip that’s big enough to force you to lift to avoid a spin, and by doing that you will run the risk of losing position or at least a few tenths in lap time which you will then have to work hard to get back.
JT – If you separate results from the controversy in F1 this year, it stacks up this way for Hamilton vs. Verstappen. Poles – Max 10, Lewis 5. Wins – Max 10, Lewis 8. Podiums – Max 18, Lewis 17. Laps led – Max 652, Lewis 297. Fastest laps – Max 6, Lewis 6. DNFs – Max 3, Lewis 1.
SJ – Like I said earlier, Max deserves the title as much as Lewis, or the other way around. They both were spectacularly good this year in how they raised their game. It was incredible to watch, to see how deep both of them dug in to do what they did.
If you had asked me halfway through the year, I’d have said Max was going to win the championship hands down. Red Bull clearly started the season with a superior car. They were well ahead at the beginning of the year. It was only through a bit of cunning race craft, some bad luck for Red Bull and Mercedes playing strategy better that Lewis got some big points early on, points maybe they shouldn’t have gotten.
Obviously, Mercedes was able to get the car working better and better, certainly in the last third of the season. And I think Lewis was spectacular in the last four races. If he had won the title it may have been the first time I can recall that the best car didn’t necessarily win.
When McLaren and Honda went separate ways and Honda went to Red Bull, I said that Max, Honda and Red Bull would dominate sooner or later… maybe for the next 10 years. I think we’re seeing the start of that now. Max won the Championship in his first real attempt, where he had a car that gave him the opportunity to win, this should worry the rest of the field as he will only get better and better, and he’s got at least a ten-year runway to get it done. I believe this is the start of a new era.
I just wish this season could have been decided in a fair way. I’ve had messages from so many people within the racing industry and they mostly say that was the last F1 race they’ll ever watch. We all love the sport but it’s hard to get enthusiastic when stupid things like this keep happening. There is a definite split though, the people watching that are more fans than actually in the business, they all loved the way it finished, and all the people that’s in the business are really upset and are all talking about tuning out and not bother watching anymore. From the point of view of Liberty, I think it’s quite clear who the winner of the two will be, I just hope there will be a sensible balance going forward.
JT – Though it was overshadowed by the battle between Max/Red Bull and Lewis/Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari fought all year to be best of the rest. It looked as if McLaren would finish third in the constructors championship but they faltered near the end of the season and Ferrari overtook them. Behind them a fairly large group of closely-matched midfield teams scrapped over the other positions. With new rules for 2022, it seems doubtful that the grid will be as close next year performance-wise as it was this year. Do you agree?
SJ – The midfield was certainly bigger this year than it has been for a long time. There are quite a few cars that, when they get it right on the day, can be up there. We saw this with both McLaren and Alpine who won a race each when all the stars lined up perfectly for them.
Had the rules remained the same for next season, I think the grid would be even tighter. I keep saying it but the easiest way to even up the field and get close racing is rules stability. Eventually the smaller, less well-resourced teams will catch up. We’ve seen that many times over the years. But as soon as the rules change, you’ll have one, maybe two teams that have the resources and talent to get it right out of the gate. The rest spend the next three years catching up again.
I’m worried we’re going to have the same scenario again. My gut tells me that with the drastic changes in aerodynamics for next season Red Bull will probably be the team that gets closest to where it needs to be the fastest.