The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and almost the entire 2021 F1 season, was nothing short of controversy and drama. Fighting for the World Championship, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen left absolutely no limits on the track. It was the FIA and its decisions at crucial moments in this championship season, however, that were even bigger talking points.
The seeds for this were laid long back during the British Grand Prix, only to escalate in the closing stages of the championship, with the FIA making questionable decisions during the Brazilian Grand Prix and Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
So when it was time for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the FIA's decision not to investigate Hamilton for a first-lap incident and allow him to carry on with the place was the start of a chain of misjudged calls and errors.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Closing Laps: Rules vs. Reality
When Williams' Nicholas Latifi crashed in the final sector on Lap 54 of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Hamilton was leading the pack with almost 11 seconds and five lapped cars separating him and Verstappen. With the safety car deployed, Verstappen got a 'free' pit stop to switch to a fresher, grippier soft compound tire for the remaining 4-odd laps of the race.
At this point, the FIA announced that lapped cars could not overtake and unlap themselves. Everyone, including Mercedes and Red Bull, assumed that the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would finish under a safety car. But with one lap remaining, the FIA suddenly announced that only cars between Hamilton and Verstappen can unlap themselves, and the safety car would come in to have one final lap under racing conditions.
This decision was highly unprecedented in two aspects. Under FIA Sporting Regulations Article 48.12, "any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car."
In reality, only McLaren's Lando Norris, Alpine F1 duo Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, and Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel were allowed to unlap themselves, while McLaren's Daniel Ricciardo, Aston Martin's Lance Stroll, and Haas' Mick Schumacher stayed in their positions.
Another aspect of this decision was the sudden change by the FIA. Earlier in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, they announced that no cars could be unlapped, but as the race entered its closing stages, the FIA changed their decision to have a final rundown between Hamilton and Verstappen.
The aftermath of FIA's Decision
As anticipated, Verstappen, with his fresher tires, overtook Hamilton by Turn 5 on the final lap and went on to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, as well as his first Drivers' World Championship by the barest of margins. It was the first time since 2016 in Austria, that the race winner was decided by a final lap overtake.
While Verstappen and Red Bull celebrated victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, everyone at the Mercedes side was left stunned by the decision. Mercedes even protested against the actions taken during the final laps, which the stewards quickly dismissed. Mercedes has now lodged an intention to appeal with the FIA's International Court of Appeal.
It could be said that the closing stages of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and this world championship per se, as well as the hard-fought battles between Hamilton and Verstappen, deserved a better ending. The FIA's actions under immense pressure left many fans with a very sour taste in their mouths.
Many had predicted this title being decided in the stewards' room. It was not expected that when Hamilton took the lead and Verstappen was chasing him, even an on-track overtake would not be enough for Verstappen to grab the world championship.
It all now lies in the hands of the Court to decide if Verstappen can take that trophy home. Many an F1 pundit, however, feel it's hard to get the decision overturned. Meanwhile, Max Verstappen remains the 2021 F1 world champion.