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2021 F1 Season - Deciding The Champion In Court

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

The 2021 Formula One (F1) season has been regarded by many as one of the most competitive and entertaining in recent memory; a high level of competitive racing supported by new tracks, new fans, and now a new F1 World Drivers’ Champion in Dutchman Max Verstappen.

Despite all the hype (real and dramatized), the 2021 season ended in an "insane" and "chaotic" fashion last Sunday evening (local time) at the newly remodelled Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

While the race and the season are now over, the lawyering may have just begun.

This article analyses the protest against the race results (the Classification) established at the end of the 2021 F1 Season (the Competition) by the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team (Mercedes) and the swift dismissal of the protest by the race Stewards (Stewards). The team has notified that it intends to appeal the Stewards’ dismissal. Though it has been reported at the time of writing (early on 14 December (AEDT)) that the Mercedes Team Principal and CEO, Toto Wolff, considered withdrawing said intention, this article also goes through the potential arguments and considerations that Mercedes and the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) may make in appeal proceedings.

What Happened? (And What Didn’t)

After a year of thrills and spills, the two best drivers all season long - seven-time World Drivers’ Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton (who will be officially knighted this week) of Mercedes and Red Bull Racing Honda’s (RBR) Verstappen - came into the finale sitting equal on points, though with Verstappen ahead in the important count of race wins.

After what was becoming an inevitable win for Hamilton, both he and Verstappen ended up duking it out in a one-lap dash to the chequered flag in the final race of the season, the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (the Race). While that may sound like a worthy ending to one of the best seasons of the premier international motor sport category, the actual final lap (lap 58 of the Race) resulted in a predictably lop-sided 'battle' where Verstappen in his fresh soft-tyred Red Bull Honda overtook Hamilton’s Mercedes with its 40 lap-old hard compound tyres, also taking the Race win and Verstappen’s first World Driver’s Championship.

The chaos and confusion in the Race came before the final lap, starting with a crash at turn 14 by Williams Racing’s Nicholas Latifi on lap 53 after a brief tussle for 16th place with perennial back-marker and rookie F1 driver Mick Schumacher (son of seven-time F1 World Driver’s Champion, and legend of the sport, Michael Schumacher) of the Haas F1 Team. At the time, Hamilton had a 12 second lead over second-placed Verstappen and was seemingly cruising to the Race win and his record-breaking eighth F1 World Driver’s Championship. Latifi’s crash caused the neutralisation of the Race with the deployment of the safety car by the FIA Race Director, Michael Masi.

Under safety car conditions, drivers slowed down to follow the safety car, with some diving into the pits for fresh tyres. Crucially, while Verstappen pitted for a set of the faster soft compound tyres, Hamilton was not instructed to pit, Mercedes radioing their greater concern for him to maintain track position, critical to ensure he was best placed on the restart or in the conclusion of the Race under safety car conditions. This left Hamilton at the front of the Race, but on hard compound tyres that were put on the car back on lap 14. When Verstappen re-joined the track, he lined up behind the safety car with five other cars - driven by Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc, and Sebastian Vettel (collectively, the Five Drivers) - now between him and Hamilton.

The safety car remained on the circuit for the next four laps of the Race and the racing was neutralised as track marshals attended to the removal of Latifi’s car and related debris. During this time, team personnel from both Mercedes and RBR communicated with Masi and queried the application of the FIA’s 2021 Formula One Sporting Regulations (Sporting Regulations) in the situation. Understandably, both sides were advocating alternate applications of the Sporting Regulations with Masi.

Masi initially informed the teams that the lapped cars driven by the Five Drivers would not be released to drive ahead of the safety car and rejoin that back of the pack. This virtually guaranteed Hamilton the Race win and the title of 2021 World Driver's Champion as Verstappen would have to attempt to navigate his way through the lapped traffic on one or perhaps two remaining laps to contend for the title. Confusingly for Mercedes, Hamilton, the drivers and teams of lapped cars behind Verstappen on track, and many fans watching along, on lap 57 - the penultimate lap- after a query from RBR Team Principal, Christian Horner, Masi announced his new decision that the cars driven by the Five Drivers between second and first place (but only these cars) would be released and that the safety car was returning to the pit lane on that lap.

The new decision from Masi effectively engineered the lop-sided finish to the Race, or what Masi referred to as “a motor race” in his final broadcast radio communication with Wolff.

Verstappen was in essence handed his first championship in F1 - and first in any major category of motor sport. All was not lost for Mercedes on the day, as they finished the Constructor's Title in first place and won that important championship (some regard it as more important than the driver's title as it linked to financial rewards for teams).

Mercedes Protests

As the RBR team and Verstappen were celebrating his win, Mercedes filed two protests.

The first protest, detailed in a FIA Summons to RBR (Verstappen noted as the driver of Car 33) and Mercedes (Hamilton identified as the driver of Car 44) timestamped at 7.25pm and 7.30pm (local time) (respectively) set out a: “Protest by Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team against Car 33, alleged breach of Article 48.8 of the 2021 FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations” (the First Protest). The First Protest related to Mercedes’ claim that Verstappen 'overtook' Hamilton while the safety car was deployed and during lap 57. We see this to be the 'lower priority' and ‘weaker’ of the two protests.

RBR argued against the claim that Verstappen had overtaken Hamilton under the safety car. The Race Stewards considered the First Protest to be admissible but dismissed it in a decision issued at 10.15pm (local time) on the basis that:

“… although Car 33 did at one stage, for a very short period of time, move slightly in front of Car 44, at a time when both cars where accelerating and braking, it moved back behind Car 44 and it was not in front when the Safety Car period ended (i.e. at the line).

The second protest, detailed in a FIA Summons to RBR (Car 33) and Mercedes (Car 44) timestamped 7.33pm and 7.34pm (local time) (respectively) set out a: “Protest by Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team against the classification established at the end of the Competition, alleged breach of Article 48.12 of the 2021 FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations” (the Second Protest). The Second Protest was in relation to Masi’s application of the procedure in the Sporting Regulations to allow lapped cars to be released while under safety car conditions and rejoin the cars lining up behind the safety car in order of position in the race and the return of the safety car to the pits. We see this as the stronger of the claims by Mercedes and is considered to be the main priority in the protests.

The rest of this article now focuses on the Second Protest.

Why Mercedes Filed the Second Protest

Mercedes filed the Second Protest due to two alleged breaches of Article 48.12 of the Sporting Regulations. Article 48.12 is extracted below (emphasis added):

"If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message "LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE" has been sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car…

Unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.

If the clerk of the course considers track conditions are unsuitable for overtaking the message “OVERTAKING WILL NOT BE PERMITTED” will be sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system."

It is clear that Article 48.12 provides the Race Director with significant discretion and the ability to exercise their judgment within the ‘field of play’ that is a safety car situation during a race.

Again, at first, Masi, directed (per Article 48.12 of the Sporting Regulations) that all lapped drivers "will not be allowed to overtake". His subsequent reversal of his initial decision with respect to only the Five Drivers on lap 57 appears contrary to the references in Article 48.12 that: the message to allow overtaking must be sent to all drivers; and "any cars that have been lapped by the leader" have to unlap themselves. (Masi’s new decision left drivers of the three other lapped cars behind Verstappen on track rather confused as a result.)

The issue of when the safety car is supposed to come into the pits was the second plank of the Second Protest. Per Article 48.12, the safety car can only return at the end of the lap after all lapped cars have passed the leader.

Though not all lapped drivers had passed the leader (Hamilton), let’s assume for the sake of the argument that the Five Drivers’ passing Hamilton on lap 57 satisfied this requirement. Even then, a literal reading of Article 48.12 would require that the safety car come in at the end of lap 58, the final lap of the race. In effect, the race would have to end under a safety car, which is hardly befitting of the finale many may have anticipated to such an outstanding year of racing.

Instead, the safety car came in at the end of lap 57 and racing resumed at the start of lap 58. Hamilton’s 12 second lead on lap 53 was now reduced to Verstappen starting the final lap directly behind him on fresh tyres. Verstappen was thus neatly placed on a path to victory in the race and effectively handed the F1 World Drivers’ Championship.

In this regard, Mercedes argued that if the alleged breaches had not occurred, Hamilton would have won the race. They requested the Stewards to amend the Classification under Article 11.9.3.h of the FIA International Sporting Code (the Code) such that it reflect the field as at the end of lap 57.

What the Stewards Decided

The Stewards ruled against Mercedes’ Second Protest. Their decision was based on three points:

1. Article 15.3 of the Sporting Regulations provides Masi with (to quote the provision) "overriding authority" in "the use of the safety car";

2. even if Masi acted contrary to Article 48.12, Article 48.13 requires the safety car, in any case, to come in at the end of the lap during which the message, "Safety Car in this lap", is displayed (here, lap 57); and

3. Mercedes’ desired remedy would comprise "effectively shortening the race retrospectively".

Hence, the Stewards retained Masi’s decisions and, in essence, confirmed Verstappen as the 2021 World Drivers’ Champion.

Note that this is would not have been the first time in Formula 1 that the Stewards ruled after a race, including in a manner which affected the final Classification:

· After the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, the Stewards disqualified Ayrton Senna from the race for rejoining the track illegally. Given the points standings, that decision ultimately handed the World Driver's Championship to his title rival, Alain Prost.

· After the 1997 European Grand Prix at Jerez, Spain, the FIA stripped Michael Schumacher of all of his 78 championship points from the 1997 season after he collided with title-rival and eventual Champion, Jacques Villeneuve.

· After the 2017 United States Grand Prix, Verstappen himself was given a five-second time penalty for an illegal overtake, which demoted the Dutchman to fourth.

(A very good explainer of the role of the Stewards, and an overview of similar F1 disputes is provided by Autosport.)

Mercedes’ Appeal

Shortly after the Stewards handed down their decision, Mercedes notified them of their intent to appeal it to the International Court of Appeal (ICA), per Article 10.1.1.a d) of the FIA Judicial and Disciplinary Rules (the Rules), and Article 15.1.5 of the Code.


Mercedes are required to notify the Stewards of their actual appeal within 96 hours of that notification, per Article 10.3.1 a) of the Rules. At 7.02am (AEDT) on Monday 13 December 2021, Mercedes posted on Twitter that: “We have lodged notice of intention to appeal the decision of the Stewards under Article 15 of the Sporting Code and Article 10 of the Judicial and Disciplinary Rules.”

Article 10.6.4 of the Rules gives Mercedes (the Appellant) at least fifteen days to "submit… grounds for appeal", following which the FIA (the Respondent) will have fifteen days to file its response, subject to the decision of the President of the ultimate Hearing. Per Article 10.9.1, the Hearing will be an adversarial one (like a common law court proceeding). In arriving at its decision, the ICA will have "all the decision-making powers of the" Stewards, per Article 10.10.1. Note that the ICA is not bound by its previous decisions, per Alfa Romeo Racing(Decision) (Case No ICA-2019-06 and Case No ICA-2019-04, 3 October 2019) at para [33] (Alfa Romeo).

The governing law of the ICA is set out in Article 14.4 of the Rules: "The applicable law is the regulatory texts of the FIA (Statutes, Regulations, other binding rules), as well as French law."

So how may the chips fall before the ICA in any appeal proceedings?

What May Mercedes Argue?

Firstly, given the above analysis of why they filed the Second Protest, Mercedes have an arguable case that the provision was not complied with by Masi. The Stewards accepted this possibility by stating, "Article 48.12 may not have been applied fully, in relation to the safety car returning to the pits at the end of the following lap".

Secondly, Mercedes is also likely to argue that the Stewards’ invocation of Article 15.3 of the Sporting Regulations in their dismissal of the Second Protest is incorrect. From their perspective, the Stewards invoked the "overriding" discretion which the provision grants to the Race Director to justify Masi’s potential failure to apply Article 48.12 properly, as above. Mercedes’ counsel can highlight that while Article 15.3 affords the Race Director with powers, it does not allow a Race Director to override the Sporting Regulations. Instead, the provision merely provides the Race Director, in essence, a power of veto over the decisions of the clerk of the course (a person appointed by the FIA’s ASN, or the local national motorsport governing body) in relation to the matters which the provision lists, including "use of the safety car". We contend that Article 15.3 merely operates to make the locally appointed clerk of the course subordinate to the FIA’s Race Director in relation to the matters set out within.

The provision does not expressly provide either official the power to disregard the Sporting Regulations. It also does not appear conceivable that the FIA drafted Article 15.3 with the intention to provide such a power by implication from the words of the provision. This is because Article 2.1 of the Sporting Regulations expressly binds all Formula 1 officials (emphasis added):

"... to observe all the provisions as supplemented or amended of the International Sporting Code (the Code), the Formula One Technical Regulations (Technical Regulations), the Formula One Financial Regulations (Financial Regulations) and the present Sporting Regulations."

The structure of the Sporting Regulations reinforces the importance of this obligation: Article 2.1 is the third provision of the Sporting Regulations.

If a Race Director is required to comply with the Sporting Regulations, why would the FIA seek to legitimise what the Stewards themselves have acknowledged is the potentially incorrect application of the Sporting Regulations?

That too after Masi himself commented after the 2020 Eifel Grand Prix that:

There’s a requirement in the sporting regulations to wave all the lapped cars past. From that point, it was position six onwards that were still running [on the lead lap], so between 10 or 11 cars had to unlap themselves. Therefore the Safety Car period was a bit longer than what we would have normally expected.

In his own words, Masi has stressed the obligation of the Race Director to observe Article 48.12 of the Sporting Regulations, in full.

Thirdly, Mercedes may seek to undermine the Stewards’ belief that Article 48.13 of the Sporting Regulations overrides Masi’s potential failure to apply Article 48.12 fully and correctly. The first paragraph of Article 48.13 reads as follows (emphasis added):

"When the clerk of the course decides it is safe to call in the safety car the message "SAFETY CAR IN THIS LAP" will be sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system and the car's orange lights will be extinguished. This will be the signal to the Competitors and drivers that it will be entering the pit lane at the end of that lap."

Since the stated message was sent to all drivers in Lap 57 (putting to one side again the fact that not all lapped drivers were allowed to pass Hamilton), Article 48.13 requires the safety car to come in at the end of Lap 57, which it did. This was a result contrary to what a literal application of Article 48.12 would require — that the safety car come in at the end of Lap 58, as above. Article 48.13 does not expressly empower the Race Director to rule on the withdrawal of the safety car in violation of Article 48.12. It is unclear how such a power can be implied, given the arguable intent of the FIA in drafting the Sporting Regulations, which is evidenced by Article 2.1, as above. Mercedes can run an argument similar to that which can be deployed concerning the Article 15.3 issue: that Article 48.13 cannot authorise the breach of Article 48.12.