It makes for great entertainment if a competition comes down to the last few minutes. So a dramatic final race in Abu Dhabi should have been the finishing flourish for a Formula One season that has been one of the closest in years, with Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen fighting it out for the championship.

Instead, the last lap generated huge controversy after a decision by the Race Director to allow some cars to unlap themselves, and order the safety car in immediately.

Verstappen won the race and the championship as part of Team Red Bull, but Mercedes, for whom Hamilton drives, cried foul. Public reaction has been vocal, with many suggesting that Verstappen’s win will be tainted as the Race Director gave him an unfair advantage.

Challenging decisions

In any competition, there are winners and losers. There are rules that govern behaviour, and it is these rules that make the competition fair. Everyone knows the game that is being played and can conduct themselves accordingly.

Sometimes there are rules that are not clear. For example, the Code of Driving Conduct on Circuits says drivers “must use the track at all times”, yet also states that “manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are strictly prohibited”. But what is the position when – as happened at the Brazilian Grand Prix earlier in the season – one driver comes into a corner too fast, cannot make the corner and as a result forces another driver off the circuit?

That incident was referred to the stewards, who decided that there should be no penalty. The stewards had to make a decision based on the facts as they saw them. Any challenge to a stewards’ decision would need to ask if the stewards:

  • applied the right rules;
  • understood the rules;
  • had appropriate evidence in front of them; and
  • correctly applied the rules to the facts?

If the stewards have gone wrong in relation to the first three questions then an appeal court or tribunal will usually be comfortable reviewing the decision. If the complaint is just that the complainer thinks the decision should have been different, then the appeal court will usually need to be satisfied that the decision was one that no reasonable steward could have reached. So it is a high hurdle to overcome.

Getting the rules wrong

Challenging a decision where the decision maker has applied the wrong rules is relatively rare, as most referees or Race Directors will have a clear understanding of the rules. However, this is what happened immediately after the finale in Abu Dhabi, as Mercedes complained to challenge the Race Directors’ decision.

Mercedes appealed based on Article 48.12 of Formula 1’s sporting regulations, which sets out what should happen after a safety car period, and states that “if the message "LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE" has been sent to all Competitors… any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car”.

It goes on to say that the safety car would normally continue for a full lap, once all unlapped cars have passed it, stating: “Once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”

The Race Director instead directed that some cars could unlap themselves. This had the effect that Verstappen - on new tyres - was directly behind Hamilton, and the selected unlapped cars gained an advantage on the car immediately behind. The Race Director was apparently keen to get a race lap in before the end of the race, and so did not wait until “the following lap” to call the safety car in.

In considering Mercedes’ appeal, the stewards pointed to Article 15.3 of the sporting regulation that says that the Race Director “shall have overriding authority” in matters including the use of the safety car. This article is at the start of the regulations, and on the face of it sets out the various race officials and their roles and responsibilities. It does not set out any rules in relation to how the Race Director should exercise that authority. It seems reasonably clear that while the Race Director has authority over use of the safety car (and not the clerk of the course), how that authority is exercised is governed by Article 48. Mercedes likely pointed to a basic principle in any argument over interpretation of a rule – what is it there for? What is the point in having the rule there, if it can be ignored?

After its first appeal was rejected, Mercedes decided to lodge another with the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), in an attempt to have this ruling overturned. This has since been withdrawn.

If the media and fan commentary is anything to go by, the main complaint is one of unfairness. Had the Race Director directed that the lapped cars could not overtake, then there would have been a chance of a final racing lap, with Verstappen having to pass five cars. The result was arguably uncertain, but would have followed a clear application of the rules.

Had the Race Director directed that lapped cars could overtake, then there probably would not have been time for a racing lap, but again the rules would have been applied.

Instead, what happened was not anticipated by the rules. The Race Director attempted to achieve a “straight fight” on the final lap between Hamilton and Verstappen, reading “any cars that have been lapped” as meaning “selected cars that have been lapped” and using what he thought was a general authority over the safety car. In the end, the result was a foregone conclusion given the different tyres on the cars.

For more information please contact John MacKenzie, Partner in our commercial disputes team, at john.mackenzie@shepwedd.com

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