Anyone who thought the controversy surrounding Max Verstappen winning the Formula 1 championship over Lewis Hamilton in December would fade away in the offseason probably also thinks Domantas Sabonis puts the Sacramento Kings over the top in the NBA playoff picture.
The controversy did die down for a time. It’s back now after a prominent F1 figure noted the significance of two words in the heat of the pivotal moment of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton for the win and the Formula 1 title
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen went into the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix tied in points atop the World Drivers’ Championship standings, and Hamilton was leading on the 53rd of the scheduled 58 laps when Nicholas Latifi’s crash brought out the safety car.
Hamilton stayed out, but Verstappen pitted for tires and returned in second place but with five lapped cars between himself and Hamilton. With the cleanup from the wreck continuing, Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner lobbied race director Michael Masi to move the lapped cars out of the way, which would give Verstappen a clear path to bear down on Hamilton, the four-time defending champion in pursuit of his eighth title overall.
At that point, the possibility existed that the race could end under the caution. However, Masi ruled the five cars between the two leaders should unlap themselves, after which the safety car would exit the track so the race would resume in time for the final lap.
Masi didn’t heed Mercedes principal Toto Wolff’s plea to return to the configuration of the penultimate lap.
“Toto, it’s called a motor race, OK?” Masi said over the radio. “We want car racing.”
Masi’s decision made all the difference. Unimpeded by traffic and driving on fresh tires, Verstappen overtook Hamilton and captured his first championship.
Lewis Hamilton’s fans have the right to feel ‘really uncomfortable’
Former Formula 1 driver Martin Brundle, now a popular commentator for Sky Sports in Great Britain, has connected the dots from two conversations that took place during the final caution period in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. He says Lewis Hamilton’s fans should be “really uncomfortable” about what was said.
Both conversations are part of the public record, conducted over radios as race director Michael Masi tried to sort out the closing laps of the crucial F1 race. However, Brundle connects them in a fashion that no one else seems to have discussed in the aftermath of the Dec. 12, 2021, race.
The first conversation was between Masi and Jonathan Wheatley, Red Bull’s sporting director, as crews worked to clear the wreckage from Nicholas Latifi’s crash.
“Those lapped cars; you don’t need to let them go right the way around and catch up with the back of the pack,” Wheatley said, according to Autosport.com. “You only need to let them go, and then we’ve got a motor race on our hands.”
If the words “motor race” sound familiar, that’s because Masi turned around moments later and used them in the conversation with Wolff noted above:
“Toto, it’s called a motor race, OK? We want car racing.”
The sequence doesn’t necessarily suggest that Wheatley talked Masi into his decision. However, at the least, he seemed to give the race director the words he needed to reject Wolff’s appeal.
Formula 1 will release its findings soon
The conversation between Jonathan Wheatley and Michael Masi has been public knowledge since shortly after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. However, Mercedes dropped its protest on behalf of Lewis Hamilton on Dec. 16 before its release.
“It’s not new news,” Sky Sports commentator Martin Brundle said, “and, also, I think you have to understand that it’s not necessarily telling Michael Masi something he didn’t already know … Of course, it’s really uncomfortable, and a lot of people are unhappy.”
Brundle said the events in Abu Dhabi showed it was a bad idea for teams to have easy access to Masi while the race director was overseeing the progress of the track cleanup while knowing his decisions would have implications for determining the world’s most prestigious racing championship.
That is one of the issues the FIA will address Monday when it releases its report to Formula 1 officials. They likely will disclose Masi’s fate as well. Brundle sees his position as untenable.
“The trouble is that the spotlight will be on him, and every single decision will be analyzed,” Brundle said. “What happens if Lewis is up for a penalty? Will he be lenient on that?”