Not since the 1976 season has Formula One seen such an influx of mainstream media coverage about the battle and politics between Max Verstappen, Sir Lewis Hamilton and their respective F1 Teams. 2021 may go down as one of, if not, the best ever Formula One season, resulting in a last lap decider for the Championship, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen clinching the crown from Lewis Hamilton.
In a season fraught with controversy, the final race in Abu Dhabi was no exception. A protest by the Mercedes F1 Team over a late race safety car procedure placed Race Director Michael Masi under heavy scrutiny and calls were made for his dismissal.
So what really happened?
After the checkered flag fell, Mercedes’ Team Boss Toto Wolff argued that it was unfair for the Red Bull Driver to take the win, and accused Race Director Michael Masi of a breach of the regulations, with Hamilton heard commenting on the team radio: “This is getting manipulated, man”. Mercedes filed a protest, but the Stewards of the meeting dismissed the protest, citing that the rule Masi followed was in compliance with FIA regulations. The only real breach of the regulations was when Mercedes Boss Toto Wolff demanded that Masi “reinstate the lap before” to take the win from Verstappen and the Race Director declined his request.
One of the big problems facing F1 has occurred since the passing of former Race Director Charlie Whiting in 2019. Direct communication between the Teams and the Race Director (Masi) was never allowed during Whiting’s reign. After his tenure, Team Principals were able to ask and obtain direct responses to issues during an event without any sort of buffer: this was a mistake. Many F1 Teams subsequently went too far in attempting to manipulate or change race outcomes, with both Mercedes and Red Bull being the worst offenders. During a 2022 Barcelona post-testing interview, Hamilton asked for non-biased Race Stewards, acknowledging that a problem was present during the 2021 season.
On several occasions, Max Verstappen was penalized for alleged on-track offenses which, for many paddock experts, leaned more towards “racing incidents”. Interestingly, it was the same Steward (Gary Connelly) who officiated on these questionable penalties (perhaps Max is regretting calling Connelly an “Idiot” at the 2017 US Grand Prix after losing a podium position to a questionable call).
So one would think that with the 2021 F1 Season done and dusted, things would calm down … no way.
Mercedes Team Boss Toto Wolff let rumors fly that Hamilton may not return to the sport unless the FIA made changes to Race Control (many read this as: “Fire Masi”). Both Wolff and Hamilton boycotted the annual FIA prize-giving, with Sir Lewis suspending his social media accounts during the off season, adding to the speculation about his return. Newly appointed FIA President Mohammed bin Sulayem proclaimed there would no forgiveness for missing the FIA ceremony, as it is a violation of FIA regulations. Initially bin Sulayem also made reference to the Masi controversy, stating that he should stay (along with many drivers and Team Principals in the F1 paddock).
So what happened?
Well, Masi was axed (but has been offered another position within the FIA). So did the FIA cave under the threats of a Team and its Driver?
The FIA has introduced a new system, stopping direct contact between Team Principals and Race Control, as well as a video “referee” to help the Stewards with their assessment of on-track incidents. Perhaps if they had implemented these procedures during Masi’s tenure, the 2021 season would have run more smoothly and with less controversy.
Now we move on to 2022’s first “F1 shake down” in Barcelona, with new race cars and a new set of regulations to help ensure closer racing. Comments by both Red Bull’s Christian Horner and Mercedes’ Toto Wolff at pre-season press events suggest that they both want to move on from 2021 and put Abu Dhabi in the rear view.
Who will be the front runners in Formula One this year?
Pre-season tests are never the best indicators, but looking at laps completed and consistency in Barcelona, it may not be just a 2-horse race between Red Bull and Mercedes. Indicators are that Ferrari is getting its mojo back, and McLaren has a better handle on the “porpoising” issues that have plagued all of the teams during the first test in Barcelona.
Many of the mid-field teams, such as Aston Martin, Alpha Tauri and Alpine, are closer in lap times to the front runners. For Mercedes, we see Hamilton joined (finally) by George Russell after the departure of Valtteri Bottas to Alfa Romeo Sauber where he teams up with F1 Chinese rookie Guanyu Zhou.
Replacing the departing Russell at Williams is former Red Bull driver Alex Albon, getting his second crack at F1. With the season less than a month away, pre-season testing in Bahrain and Netflix’s “Drive to Survive – Season 4” should be enough to keep most F1 fans going until then.
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