The FIA’s executive summary of its report claims ex-Formula 1 race director Michael Masi acted “in good faith” in the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix but “human error” impacted how lapped cars were handled.
Last season’s finale descended into late controversy when the rules around the safety car were applied differently in order to set up a one-lap restart.
That influenced the outcome of the race and world championship as it gave Max Verstappen, who had switched to soft tyres under the safety car, the chance to attack and pass long-time race leader and title rival Lewis Hamilton.
The FIA committed to undertaking a “detailed analysis and clarification exercise” that intended “to draw any lessons from this situation and clarity to be provided to the participants, media, and fans about the current regulations to preserve the competitive nature of our sport while ensuring the safety of the drivers and officials”.
Masi’s handling of that safety car period included an unusual initial declaration that no cars would be allowed to unlap themselves, which would have kept five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen at the restart.
That then became a specific instruction for only those five cars – not three others – to be allowed to unlap themselves. This cleared the path for Verstappen to immediately attack Hamilton.
According to the FIA, the manual process of identifying lapped cars meant “human error led to the fact that not all cars were allowed to unlap themselves”.
In response, it has developed software that will “automate the communication of the list of cars that must unlap themselves”.
It had previously been confirmed that the sporting regulations had been updated to clarify that “all” cars must be permitted to unlap themselves – as one of Masi’s justifications was that the rules only stated “any”, which gave license to specify a specific number of cars rather than all of them.
Masi’s other major decision was to call the safety car back into the pits without it having completed an additional lap as required by the sporting regulations – which was necessary to get the final lap of racing.
The FIA said “it was apparent from the analysis that there could be different interpretations” of the rules and “that this likely contributed to the applied procedure”.
Therefore, the FIA accepts the rules would “benefit from clarification”.
One thing the FIA’s executive summary does implicitly reference is the question mark over the integrity of the championship with how this was handled.
Hamilton radioed his team to say “this has been manipulated” moments before the race finished but the FIA says the International Olympic Committee and Sportradar did not report “any integrity concerns regarding the official betting activity” of the race.
In an effective defence of Masi, the FIA said: “It was also considered that the decisions regarding the safety car…likely took into account previous discussions that made clear the Formula 1 stakeholders (FIA, Formula 1, teams and drivers) preference to end races under green flag racing conditions, rather than behind a safety car, when safe to do so.
“In combination with the objective to finish under green flag racing conditions applied throughout the 2021 season, the report finds that the race director was acting in good faith and to the best of his knowledge given the difficult circumstances, particularly acknowledging the significant time constraints for decisions to be made and the immense pressure being applied by the teams.”
The report is critical of the intervention of Red Bull Racing and Mercedes team bosses Christian Horner and Toto Horner for the “negative impact” their messages to Masi had on how these crucial moments were handled.
That is why one of the report’s recommendations – most of which have already been implemented – included banning team bosses from using the radio to contact the race director.
The other recommendations are a new virtual race control support room away from the track to help apply the sporting regulations, a reassessment of lapped car procedures, and a new race management team.
That last point involved Masi being stripped of the race director role. It is now being shared by Niels Vittich – who is in the position for the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix – and Eduardo Freitas.
Other changes are likely though, such as the appointment of a new FIA F1 sporting director and a new senior regulatory legal counsel to provide enhanced legal support on race weekends.
In publishing its executive summary, the FIA said: “The results of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the FIA Formula 1 World Championship are valid, final and cannot now be changed.
“In accordance with the rules, Mercedes made a protest to the stewards after the race, seeking to change the race classification.
“The stewards dismissed the protest and Mercedes then had an opportunity to appeal that decision to the FIA International Court of Appeal, but did not do so.
“There are no other available mechanisms in the rules for amending the race classification.”