Formula 1 should be careful to avoid becoming more of an entertainment show than a sport after the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix controversy, former Ferrari and McLaren F1 driver Stefan Johansson has warned.
Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen headed into the final round of the F1 season level on points after an incredible season of racing, and the Brit looked set to stroll to victory having passed and opened up a tremendous gap on Verstappen.
However, a late crash for Williams’ Nicholas Latifi brought out the Safety Car, and while Red Bull pitted Verstappen, Mercedes opted not to pit Hamilton in fear of losing track position were the race not to have time to resume.
Race director Michael Masi initially ruled that none of the lapped runners would be allowed to go through, before oddly only permitting the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to un-lap themselves.
The Dutchman then passed his rival on the final lap, with Hamilton then saying on the radio that the race had been “manipulated” by race control.
Johansson took to his personal blog to lament the manner in which the championship battle ended.
“In the end, I think both Max and Lewis deserved to win the title this year,” he wrote.
“They both drove at such a high level and both their teams operated at equally high levels, and it would have been such an incredible ending to the year to have it decided fair and square on the racetrack.
“Instead, we now have this endless controversy and polarisation.”
The Swede suggested that F1’s owners, Liberty Media, will have enjoyed the attention the end of the race brought to the sport, but has labelled prioritising entertainment over sport “dangerous.”
He also warned against F1 becoming more of a sports entertainment promotion than a legitimate sport.
“I’m sure the folks at Liberty are not complaining as this has lifted F1 to a whole new level in terms of people following.
“But, if this is the direction it will continue, where the entertainment comes before the sport, I think we’re getting into a very dangerous territory, I would hate to see F1 turning into the Motorsports version of the WWF [now known as WWE], where it’s just a show and the sport is secondary to the entertainment.”
Johansson, who raced for both Ferrari and McLaren between 1985 and 1987, went on to praise the work Netflix has done for F1, but is concerned the drivers may lose their Gladiator status.
“The Netflix show has obviously helped lift the profile of F1 immensely, especially in the US. I know how many of the teams and drivers feel about it, but you still can’t deny the impact it’s had.
“Personally, I had to tune out after 15 minutes. I think it’s important to find a good balance going forward, I appreciate social media and marketing from every possible angle is important, but I would hate to see the drivers turning into some sort of comedians and clowns rather than brave young men doing their thing on Sunday afternoons.”
Johansson, whose career spanned two spells, 10 teams and 79 race starts between 1980 and 1991, also cited the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, in which Masi seemed to lose complete control of the race and asked Red Bull whether they were happy with a grid drop for Verstappen ahead of a red flag restart.
This came after Verstappen passed Hamilton off the track at Turn 2 during the previous red flag restart.
“The other thing I’m totally perplexed about is what happened in the Saudi race, where race control is suddenly starting a negotiation with the teams during a Safety Car period, where did that come from?!
“I’ve never in all my years of racing in just about every category worth mentioning ever seen that happen before. I didn’t know that was even possible, or legal for that matter,” a flabbergasted Johansson added.
He then indicated that Liberty Media pressured the FIA into making such decisions in a bid to promote entertainment, at the expense of fair competition.
“The only logical answer to me is that there may be pressure from above to spice up the show, which may also explain the equally illogical decision to finish the race the way they did in Abu Dhabi,” said the 65-year-old.