A Farce With Flags: How Formula 1’s Race Officials Caused Chaos in Saudi Arabia

Last weekend’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix was a crucial race for Formula 1, the drivers’ world championship, and the teams’ championship. There was a lot at stake as the series took to the track for the first time at a brand new circuit in a country surrounded by controversy. Formula 1 needed a race that provided great on track action with no drama or controversy, instead they got a race that is still confusing fans, the drivers, and the teams.

Two red flags, a driver brake-checking another in the middle of the race track, a negotiated penalty, unclear requests from officials, and a mess that has everyone questioning how the sport officiates races was the end result of a chaotic race. 

The race needed strong and steady leadership and officiating, instead it got chaos and controversy.

The first incident compromised everyone’s safety and race strategy

The first big incident happened on lap 10 when Haas’ Mick Schumacher, son of F1 legend Michael Schumacher, hit the wall at turn 22 while chasing George Russell in the Williams. Schumacher’s impact with the wall punctured the barrier, which had to be replaced and necessitated a crane to enter the track to remove the disabled car. Normally this would be an instant “red flag” with Formula 1 getting the cars off the track in the interest of safety.

Race control decided to wait, holding off on deploying the red flag for several minutes and maintaining a safety car period. By the time the red flag flew, many cars had already ducked into the pits for fresh tires. 

By deploying a late red flag the drivers that did not pit under the safety car, which included Max Verstappen, earned a “free” pit stop, as tire changes are allowed in the pits under red flag conditions. That meant Verstappen and Red Bull could put fresh rubber on the car without losing any track position.

Formula 1’s race control decided that the race would get underway with a standing restart. As Verstappen led the field around back to the start line, he noticed that Hamilton was lagging behind. The rules state that the cars must remain within 10 car lengths of each other on the formation lap, or they could incur a penalty. Red Bull brought this to the attention of the officials who decided that a restart does not count as a formation lap, which saved Hamilton from a penalty. To say that Red Bull was upset would be an understatement. 

Hamilton shot past Verstappen for the lead of the race at the restart, but a determined Verstappen was not about to give up the position and passed Hamilton at turn one by leaving the track. That move, passing another competitor by leaving the race track is an automatic penalty, but the radio exchange between race director Michael Masi and Red Bull’s Jonathan Wheatley seemed to suggest that both were confused about what to do. 

Behind the leader’s battle, more chaos ensued, and a big crash required another red flag for clean-up and a restart. 

The negotiation for a penalty

FIA Race Director Michael Masi looks on as a press conference is held outside the paddock after for the F1 Grand Prix of Australia was cancelled at Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit on March 13, 2020 | Clive Mason/Getty Images

Masi and Wheatley appeared to have an exchange in which the penalty for Verstappen was negotiated instead of assigned. This, of course, raises many questions but more importantly casts doubt on the authority of the race officials and stewards. After all, who was in charge? Red Bull or Formula 1?

The “offer” was to move Verstappen behind Hamilton and into second place and raised more questions about the penalties for passing off the track. But the real loser would be Esteban Ocon, who had legitimately raced into contention with the leaders. If Verstappen is demoted to second place, that hands the race’s lead to Hamilton and punishes Ocon by relegating him to the third position. A time penalty, such as a five or ten second penalty would have moved Verstappen down the order and given Ocon second position behind Hamilton.

The “offer” to Red Bull was likely not an offer at all. If they had not accepted Verstappen being demoted to second position, race control would have likely exercised their authority and delivered the punishment regardless. But the way in which it was handled, with an apparent negotiation and race control giving Red Bull a chance to accept the penalty seemed odd and contrary to the normal operating procedure.

Red Bull responded to race control, stating that they would accept the penalty only if that meant Verstappen would line up alongside Ocon at the restart. The officials responded that the order would be Ocon in first, Hamilton in second, Verstappen in third, with no further debate.

The fact that there was room for debate is interesting and contrary to how Formula 1 generally hands down penalties. No other penalty, this season, has been handled in this way, causing many to question what was happening between race control and Red Bull Racing.

Another incident leads to another penalty

Having learned nothing from the chaos of the first restart, the drivers lined up for another standing start. Ocon got away first, but Hamilton made a move to pass that opened the door for Verstappen to overtake both cars. As Verstappen took the lead, Hamilton got by Ocon and reeled in the Red Bull. Hamilton made a move to pass but realized that it wasn’t going to work and backed out, preferring to set Verstappen up at another corner of the circuit. Verstappen cut through the run-off area, appearing to block Hamilton. This move got race control back on the radio.

Leaving the circuit to block a competitor is an automatic penalty. This time, race control ordered Verstappen to give up the position to Hamilton. Unfortunately, race control forgot to tell Hamilton that Verstappen would cede the position and was surprised when the Red Bull suddenly slowed in the middle of the straight. Hamilton collided with the back of Verstappen’s car. As they got underway, race control made it clear to both drivers that Verstappen would need to give the position to Hamilton. Verstappen moved aside, Hamilton passed, and Verstappen immediately re-passed to retake the lead. That was short-lived, and Hamilton found a way around the Red Bull and held that lead until the checkered flag.

After the race, both Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen met with race control about driving standards and the incidents on the track. Verstappen was issued an additional 10-second penalty for dangerous braking, not affecting the race results. 

The problem with inconsistent penalties and confusing directions from race control

Esteban Ocon of France driving the (31) Alpine A521 Renault, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 and Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda battle for track position at the second restart during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia on December 05, 2021 | Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Aside from the battle for the world championship, the 2021 Formula 1 season might be known for its confusing and controversial penalties and officiating. The move that Verstappen put on Hamilton in Brazil, pushing him off the track to keep the position, netted no penalty. Still, in Saudi Arabia, a very similar move resulted in Verstappen being penalized and giving up the lead of the race. 

The perception that teams can negotiate penalties during the race creates a lack of confidence in race control and the officials, while at the same time undermining their authority. 

Formula 1 cannot afford to delay decisions on red flags that can compromise everyone’s safety, and they must be consistent with penalties and the expectations of driving standards. If one race is subject to a particular set of rules that another is not, then races and championships can be decided by the mood of race officials and not the action on the track. 

If Formula 1 is to maintain its position as the pinnacle of motorsport, then it will have to do a better job of providing consistent and transparent officiating on race weekends. Anything less will result in questions about the championships’ legitimacy and about manipulated results.

Related: 3 Stories You Missed During The Chaos of the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix