Max Verstappen’s breakout Formula 1 title campaign ended on the top step of the podium under the Dutch flag after a controversial, but nail-biting, one-lap sprint to decide the championship. However, that sprint is now under protest from Mercedes.
From the race’s start, Lewis Hamilton was on his usual form, maintaining a healthy lead over Verstappen for most of the night. When a poorly timed virtual safety car left Hamilton on track with the same hard tyres he had strapped on for his first pit stop, Verstappen took fresh hards and began to cut into Hamilton’s near 20-second lead.
Despite this disadvantage, Hamilton was stretching his tyres wonderfully and was set to beat Verstappen to the line by at least 10 seconds.
However, Verstappen’s title hopes was saved on lap 53 by none other than Nicholas Latifi. When the Canadian’s back end stepped out, the resulting crash left his Williams stranded right on the racing line at the exit of turn 14.
The resulting safety car was again timed so poorly for Hamilton that Verstappen was afforded a chance to pit for fresh soft tyres, while Hamilton again had to stick it out on his ancient white-walled hards.
But just as the points lead had swung between Verstappen and Hamilton all year, luck looked to swing back to Stevenage for a moment, when race control decided that the lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton would not be permitted to overtake the leader under the safety car.
Historically, the only time race control has kept lapped cars in the line up for a restart has been when visibility concerns in wet races has forced them to. With the final laps bearing down, race control initially stuck to their guns and kept Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel between Hamilton and Verstappen.
All was not lost for Verstappen yet, though. As the queue approached the final sector behind the safety car on lap 57, word came from Michael Masi that the five cars between the title rivals would be sent past the safety car, and the safety car would come in at the end of that lap.
The cars crept through the final sector, waiting for the green flag, with Verstappen pulling alongside Hamilton. His confidence on his new tyres was as ominous as could be.
Hamilton made a decent jump across the line to start the final lap, but with his hard tyres being 44 laps old, Verstappen was in striking distance the whole way through sector one.
Verstappen made a bold dive to Hamilton’s inside entering the newly reprofiled turn 5, and kept the lead to the end, despite having to go wheel to wheel with Hamilton once more through turn 9. Seven corners later, Verstappen became the 2021 World Champion.
Keeping in trend with the rest of the season, race control’s radio was on fire for the final five laps of the race. Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner demanded to know why the lapped cars weren’t being sent by the pace car and out of the way of the two leaders, as is the standard practice. Masi’s defense was that there was no time to do so and still get a lap of racing in.
When the lapped cars were waved by on lap 57, the news that the safety car period was ending came not 10 seconds later. Now it was Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff’s turn to pick a bone with race control.
“Michael…,” said Wolff as the safety car began to streak away from the field.
“Michael, this isn’t right!” Wolff continued.
Right or not, Verstappen crossed the line first to cut Hamilton’s title streak at four in a row.
Mercedes has lodged two protests. One against Verstappen himself, saying that he overtook Hamilton under the safety car. Verstappen did pull alongside Hamilton, but never cleared the British driver, and was fully behind the Mercedes when the cars returned to racing speed.
The second, more serious, element purports that the FIA broke its own rules by only waving by the five lapped cars at the front of the field, rather than all cars one lap or more off the pace.
Such findings have altered race results in the past, the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix being the most explicit example. The Brazil confusion was the result of a timekeeping error, which saw Kimi Raikkonen’s win taken away and given to Giancarlo Fisichella later in the week.
No championship implications sat on that decision.
Update: the FIA stewards dismissed Mercedes’ protests.
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