Formula 1: Where next for sport after Verstappen and Hamilton title drama?

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ABU DHABI – Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, is under intense scrutiny in the wake of the controversial end to the 2021 world championship in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

The handling of the sport’s rules during the safety-car period that ultimately decided the drivers’ title in Max Verstappen’s favour has focused a deeper discontent that already lurked beneath the surface of the sport.

F1 teams and drivers were dismayed by the events at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, after a season in which many have complained about the consistency of the FIA’s decision making.

Many felt the rules were not followed correctly at Yas Marina, and now a number of F1 insiders believe that changes need to be made at the FIA.

The subject is controversial, so senior figures have not been prepared to speak on the record in the immediate aftermath of the race.

But a number have told BBC Sport that at least half the F1 teams have lost confidence in race director Michael Masi, and that many of the drivers have concerns as well.

Why was Abu Dhabi so contentious? Masi is at the centre of the controversy because, as race director, he was the man who made the decisions at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and has been involved in other contentious moments through the past year or so.

The key concern is whether Masi correctly followed the FIA’s rules in the operation of the safety car and the restarting of the race for one final shootout lap.

Concern focuses on two areas:

His decision to allow only some of the lapped cars to overtake – the five between Hamilton and Verstappen – and not the others, for example the two between Verstappen and third-placed Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari. The timing of the end of the safety-car period.

Both questions, and those over the decision of the stewards to reject Mercedes’ protest against Masi’s decisions, are dealt with in detail in this article.

But the over-riding concern is that controversial decisions, which seem to many to be contrary to the FIA’s own rules, had a direct influence on the outcome of the championship.

Mercedes’ appeal process aside, it’s important to point out that none of these wider questions within F1 should be seen as being about the specifics of who should and should not be world champion. They are about a concern for fair and equitable competition.

Are there problems with the stewards’ decision? In the context of a year in which consistency of rule application has been a hot topic, Masi’s operational calls in Abu Dhabi, and the stewards’ decision defending them, raise further questions.

In 2020, there was a safety-car period during the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. Both Hamilton and Verstappen complained it had been unnecessarily long.

Masi was asked about this after the race. He said: “There’s a requirement in the sporting regulations to wave all the lapped cars past.”

So, he seems to have changed his mind on the meaning of the relevant rule over the last year – he followed one course of action with regards to lapped cars in Germany last year, and another in Abu Dhabi.

What other problems have there been? The entire season has been littered with questions over the consistency of penalty application and decision making, much of it surrounding Verstappen.

At November’s Brazilian Grand Prix, Verstappen was not penalised for forcing Hamilton off the track as the Briton tried to pass him for the lead.

This decision caused consternation among many drivers, who felt the move should have earned him a penalty.

McLaren’s Lando Norris, who had been penalised in a similar situation in a fight with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez in Austria earlier in the year, was among them, as were Sainz and his Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc.

At the subsequent race in Qatar, all the drivers discussed this with Masi and the stewards to try to establish a definition for what was allowed in wheel-to-wheel racing. After the meeting, a number emerged saying that the situation was still not clear. They had been told that forcing a driver off the track was not allowed but that the matter was at the discretion of stewards’ panels at each race.

The race after that, in Saudi Arabia, Verstappen pulled an almost identical move on Hamilton – and was given a five-second penalty. Little wonder, then, that he entered the final race of the season complaining of inconsistency and saying that he was treated differently from other drivers, saying: “The only thing I ask is that it’s fair for everyone. That’s not the case.”

Regardless of the debate over Verstappen’s aggressive driving, and whether he was right in the specific incidents he was referring to, his underlying point reflected the concerns of many drivers.

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