Skip to main content

Longtime Formula 1 fans will never forget the 2021 championship’s result hung in legal limbo when both Mercedes and Red Bull brought in lawyers to challenge the race results. The battle hinged on whether race director Michael Masi’s decisions during the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were such an embarrassing blunder that they had broken Formula 1’s rules. The result is a rulebook that will never be the same.

2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December of 2021, the proverbial bases were loaded. Rivals Max Verstappen (Red Bull Racing) and Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) entered the race tied with 369.5 championship points. Hamilton immediately took the lead and the two spent the race locked in a battle for the ages. Then, four laps before the end of the race, disaster struck.

Lewis Hamilton's green Formula 1 Mercedes leads Max Verstrappen's Red Bull Honda car during the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)and Max Verstappen (Red Bull) at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix | Giuseppe Cacace AFP via Getty Images

Driver Nicholas Latifi crashed while battling Mick Schumacher for position. Race director Michael Masi called for a caution flag and sent the safety car to lead the racers. Then, they began to clear the track of debris. Verstappen was still in second place. He swung into the pits for a new set of tires–hoping racing would soon resume and he’d have an advantage.

But Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes had a dilemma. If it took more than four laps to clear the debris and resume racing, they would all finish behind the safety car, and he would be the automatic winner. The only way he could mess it up would be by stopping in the pits and losing his position. Hamilton decided to try and stretch his Mercedes’ worn tires out for the remainder of the race.

Verstappen rejoined the pack, but five lapped cars stood behind him and Hamilton. As the laps ticked by, his chances of overtaking all six racers disappeared with them. Michael Masi knew this. And part of his job is keeping the races exciting. So he made the controversial choice to direct the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to pass the safety car, getting them out of the way.

The moment the track was safe and clear, Masi directed the safety car to return to the pits, and then he restarted racing. Hamilton and Verstappen gave the final lap everything they had. But Verstappen’s Red Bull car was on brand new tires. When he passed Hamilton, the Mercedes couldn’t take first place back. Verstappen won the race–and the championship.

The Mercedes’ team principal, Toto Wolff, contacted Masi and asked him to reinstate the order from before the flag. Masi’s reply was flip:

“Toto, it’s called a motor race, ok? We went car racing.”

Michael Masi

Could the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have been different?

There’s an alternate version of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in which the safety car stayed on the track for the final several laps of the race. With no passing allowed after the lap 53 crash, race leader Lewis Hamilton would have been the race winner and, thus, the championship winner.

2021 Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix winner Max Verstappen embraces Lewis Hamilton (2nd place)
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)and Max Verstappen (Red Bull) at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Would race director Michael Masi have been within the letter of the law to keep the safety car on the track for the final four laps of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix? With the debris cleared before the final lap, it seems obvious that racing should have resumed. Except that Michael Masi directed some lapped cars to pass the safety car. Usually, if the race director tells the racers to unlap themselves, he keeps the safety car on the track until every lapped driver has passed it–even if this takes several laps. Then, when the entire pack is straightened out, he pulls the safety car and resumes racing.

But to be blunt, race directors do their best to end each Grand Prix under full racing conditions. If Michael Masi had kept the safety car on the track for the remainder of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, he would have knowingly ensured a Lewis Hamilton/Mercedes championship and been heavily criticized for this decision.

A second option would have been to call a red flag, pause the race, unlap every car, and then resume. The only problem with this is there was no damage to the cars on the lead lap or to the track that would have warranted a red flag.

A final option would have been not to clear any lapped cars. In this scenario, racing would have still resumed on the final lap, and Verstappen would have had to attempt to pass five lapped cars before challenging Hamilton for first place–and the championship. Wilder things have happened, but it is unlikely even Verstappen could have worked that miracle.

Aftermath of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Formula 1 race manager Michael Masi speaks with reporters after the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Michael Masi at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix | Andrea Diodato/NurPhoto via Getty Images

After Lewis Hamilton lost the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix–and thus the championship–Mercedes challenged Masi’s decision and the race’s result. The team claimed that according to Formula 1 rules, Masi needed to allow every lapped car to pass the safety car before resuming racing.

The FIA pointed out that the rulebook didn’t say “all” cars must unlap, but that “any” could. More importantly, the rulebook gave Masi “overriding authority” over the safety car. The Mercedes team argued that Masi had made the opposite decision (and also impacted Mercedes negatively) in 2020. But Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes announced they did not want to win the 2021 championship in court and withdrew their challenge at the last minute.

The FIA changed the wording of the rulebook to prevent further controversy. Now, if the race director orders lapped cars to pass the safety car, the safety car must remain on the track until every lapped car has passed it. But that isn’t something Michael Masi will have to worry about, because the FIA has removed him as race director.

The FIA did offer Masi a different job. But Masi instead returned to the Australian Supercar Series, where he first directed races.

Next, read about the embarassing blunder that was the shortest ever Formula 1 race, or see more about the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix controversy in the video below: