Angry, hurt Mercedes forced to accept a no-win situation - The Race
Formula 1

Angry, hurt Mercedes forced to accept a no-win situation

Dec 17 2021
By Scott Mitchell

Mercedes found itself effectively facing a lose-lose situation as it deliberated on legal action following the Formula 1 season finale, leaving the team’s anger and frustration clear to see.

After the news that Mercedes would not appeal the decision the race stewards in Abu Dhabi made regarding the classification of the grand prix following race director Michael Masi’s handling of the safety car period, team boss Toto Wolff had a lengthy call with the media (The Race included).

You can see this call on YouTube. It’s worth watching because you need to see Wolff and hear him speak – very slow, very considered, but also very stop-start – to understand how tangible his anger and hurt felt. Just saying ‘he was often struggling for the right words’ doesn’t really do that.

We heard from Wolff in English for over half an hour. There were some parts that were clearly on-message and therefore came a lot easier. Many more times it was clearly hard for him to explain how he felt, perhaps because he really doesn’t quite know: “That still seems like a nightmare. It’s why I was in total disbelief on Sunday, and I still am today.”

There is a visceral anger among Hamilton’s fanbase that has been unleashed on anyone not fully on his side in the aftermath of Sunday’s race.

Even Wolff and Mercedes were targeted following yesterday’s news, with criticism of Mercedes’ decision to drop the appeal and accusations that the team is now complicit in Hamilton’s unjust defeat.

There are two things to consider. First is that the FIA has sole authority over sporting issues within F1 so there is no avenue for external legal action (unless there was a non-sporting crime committed).

Tied to that is why the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) was not an option. CAS only has a very specific remit within F1: it is responsible for handling any issues relating to doping.

Second is that the FIA statutes don’t seem to offer any route to alter the race result in a way that would have made Lewis Hamilton the winner, not Max Verstappen.

Dec 16 : Why Mercedes dropped its appeal

It’s easy to argue ‘you should take the classification from the penultimate lap’ but if there’s no mechanism to do that, it’ll fall on deaf ears. The FIA would have wanted to avoid an unprecedented ruling at all costs.

So, you have a twin problem here: an FIA-appointed panel would be judging the FIA stewards’ verdict that defended the FIA race director, and that panel would almost certainly not change the outcome of the result and the championship anyway.

That left Mercedes in the morally correct position and “almost guaranteed” to have the legally superior position in a normal courtroom – yet still feeling there’s no point committing to the appeal. It was either going to lose, or whatever ‘win’ was on the table would not be a real win.

“I can understand the frustrations of many and to be honest I’m also in two minds between my perspective and my judgement on the legal position, and my realism about the outcome of such proceedings,” said Wolff.

“There’s a difference between being right and obtaining justice. I don’t think that at the moment we are set up in terms of our governance to end up in a situation that would have given us remedy, that would have restored the result that was taken away from Lewis before the last lap of the race.

“That’s why, heavy-hearted, we have decided not to appeal because we wouldn’t have got the result back.

“We have the right tools in hand to make sure that the decision making going forward is better.

“We will be holding the FIA and the decision makers accountable for making the sport more robust in the decision making, more robust and more consistent.”

The next-best thing is to guarantee a repeat can never happen and that, Mercedes believes, can be achieved outside of the appeal process by latching onto the FIA’s promised in-depth review and putting pressure on that process.

For the last few days, it was felt that the only way for Mercedes to drop its appeal would be to bargain with the FIA for something. Is the team going to demand a new race director? Is there something in the 2026 engine regulations it needs leverage on?

Wolff said “in the day and age of transparency such decisions cannot be made anymore in the backroom” but insisted the priority is the accountability process.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

This will not be enough to many of Hamilton’s fans. But it isn’t really enough for Mercedes. It’s a search for a silver lining in a process that still feels grossly unfair – what else is there to do when faced with an injustice that will not be corrected?

“Why I am optimistic is that all stakeholders in the sport share frustration with all the decisions that have been made all throughout the year and everyone knows what happened,” said Wolff.

“I have confidence because we will be all pulling on the same rope in the same direction.

“I’ve had feedback from the teams and from the drivers. I’ve had assurances from Peter Bayer [FIA secretary general for motorsport] and Stefano [Domenicali, F1 CEO] that in the next weeks and months we will close gaps that have opened up more and more over the last few years.

“The rules are the rules. The consistency of the application of the rules is important and no decision making should ever happen contrary to the rules just to spice up the action.”

These are nice, strong words, but they are only words. Mercedes had the chance to turn them into action but dropped the appeal.

Despite everything explained above there will undoubtedly be people who still think ‘if you REALLY cared about this, you wouldn’t have given up’ – there are those who believe Mercedes has let the FIA off.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

The reality appears to be that the FIA was never going to be held to ransom. So Mercedes has been forced to swallow a bitter pill, and be strategic.

Wolff says expecting the FIA to admit responsibility was never going to happen while the appeal was a possibility – “it is very difficult in such a situation to compromise your legal position”.

So, had Mercedes chased an appeal, a likely fruitless endeavour, the FIA would probably not have committed to this in-depth review. Because that has effectively been an admission of wrongdoing or failure – something that would be immensely risky amid active legal proceedings.

And this review is clearly considered the best chance of getting meaningful change that improves F1 longer-term and prevents a repeat of what happened in the title decider.

“Obviously as a racer you would wish for a full admission but that is not possible at that stage,” said Wolff.

“I think we have taken a step in the right direction.

“It’s a modest step considering the magnitude of the failures on Sunday night. Better a modest step than none.”

The diplomacy at play here will not appease everyone but Mercedes has made it very clear how deeply upset it is.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

To have Mercedes using phrases like Hamilton being ‘robbed’ by the race director’s decision, questioning its faith in racing, and warning F1 is not “wrestling” – artificial entertainment – because “entertainment needs to follow sport, not the other way around”, is a terrible place for F1 to be in.

Anger and resentment from the world championship winning organisation, a supplier of engines to four teams no less, and the most successful driver in history who is also comfortably F1’s greatest ambassador, is not to be taken lightly.

There is deep concern about how easily and willingly the FIA has justified and defended applying the rules in an unprecedented way that had the biggest possible sporting influence.

Mercedes may have accepted that outcome from a legal standpoint but emotionally it still seems a long way from reconciliation.

At the very least, that will be used to give the governing body a very hard time from here.

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