Former Formula 1 driver Perry McCarthy has labelled the controversial end to the 2021 championship “a joke,” and said race director Michael Masi “got it wrong.”
Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen entered the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last month level on points following a thrilling season of racing, meaning they each needed to finish the race ahead of the other in order to claim title glory.
A slightly more cynical perspective arrived in the suspicion that the Dutchman may use his 10 wins to Hamilton’s nine to ensure a victory by way of neither of them finishing the race, but it was clear that both competitors had gone to Abu Dhabi seeking what they had all season – a race.
Verstappen claimed pole position, but the Briton sailed ahead at the start.
Contact into Turn Six followed on the opening lap, with Red Bull convinced that Hamilton should have been ordered to hand his position back to the 24-year-old after he ventured off the circuit, but the stewards deemed that the advantage he gained had been sufficiently receded.
However, the 2021 season would have one last shocking – and exasperating, as far as Mercedes were concerned – twist that would decide the fate of the world championship.
Verstappen pitted during a Safety Car that was brought out following a late crash for Williams’ Nicholas Latifi, while a fear of losing track position with so few laps remaining prompted Mercedes to keep Hamilton out on track.
As such, this left five lapped cars between the championship protagonists, and Masi initially ruled that none of the lapped runners would be allowed through.
However, in a turn of events that Johnny Herbert has recently described as a “twist” of the rules, the Australian told only the five lapped drivers at the front to pass the Safety Car, leaving everyone else in their position.
Verstappen would then overtake his rival on the final lap of the race to win the title, and Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff exclaimed that the last-gasp events were “so not right” on the radio to race control.
There were just three races in 2021 that were not won by Verstappen and Hamilton, and McCarthy told this publication that the controversy precludes a lot of fans from appreciating the quality with which the pair entertained us last year.
“There’s been clearly a lot of chat going on about this with some very, very, very strong views,” he told Formula1News.co.uk.
“And the biggest problem is that, you know, if you air a view about what actually happened, people polarise it into saying ‘you’re on Lewis’ side’ or ‘you’re on Max’s side.’
“Now, I’m one of those people probably like all of us that just actually want to see great, close racing.
“And we were gifted a brilliant championship between two absolutely brilliant dynamite racing drivers. [The season was] so full of intrigue, full of close racing, we got everything we wanted,” McCarthy, the original “Stig” from Top Gear, added.
Speaking on the closing laps in Abu Dhabi, the former F1 driver condemns the “unacceptable” manner in which Masi handled the restart ahead of the one-lap final sprint.
“The decision on the final lap, or final two laps, whatever it was, at Abu Dhabi was unacceptable,” he said.
“This is a high-tech sport, it’s a global sport. And we need some kind of continuity, not just pick an idea out of the hat and then that’s how the world championship falls.
“And as I say, I must completely reiterate my own position is that I’m a great fan of both Max and Lewis. For me, I wasn’t really worried about whoever won the championship.
“So what I have to say is literally based on how that decision was arrived at, to allow them to race on the final lap; and I think it was a joke.”
The 60-year-old warns that what happened at the Yas Marina Circuit leaves a negative legacy on the sport, saying: “I think it’s really seriously damaged the credibility of Formula 1.”
Conspiracy theories have flown that F1’s owners, Liberty Media, manufactured a situation in which an entertaining finish took precedence over a sporting one, but McCarthy cast doubt on this.
“So, with Michael Masi, it was an ill-thought out decision. He didn’t have an awful lot of time, I don’t subscribe to the point of view that Liberty Media had anything to do with it.
“Even if they wanted to, there wasn’t enough time to start engaging a boardroom to say ‘how we can make this a dynamite finish ribbon last one lap dash?’ that’s rubbish.
“You know, this was down to one person. And his take on how the race should end. And for me, I think he got it very, very seriously wrong.”
In a damming review of the execution of Masi’s duties, the Briton questions how many viewers will actually be tempted back in 2022.
“And I do think it’s been damaging to F1, because, you know, Formula 1 has been an awful lot of my life.
“I’ve tuned in avidly, to pretty much every race ever. And I’m kind of thinking, can I be bothered again for this year?
“So if it’s affecting me like that, I wonder how it’s affecting an awful lot of other people.
So it was unacceptable, the way that that was handled at the end of the season, which is such a strain because we were, as I said before, gifted to a brilliant season.”
Asked if he could imagine any particular reason that led Masi to shuffle the lapped runners in the way he did, McCarthy does not believe that the Australian favoured either driver, but rather that it was a “rushed” decision.
“I think he just completely got it wrong,” he affirmed.
“I’m pretty sure it was a naive decision. I don’t believe that Michael Masi had the intent to allow Max to win the world championship or the intent to allow Lewis to win the world championship. I don’t believe that’s the case.
“But I think that it was a rushed decision where he didn’t actually work it out how he had actually arranged from that decision, who would win the race, because it is going to be impossible to defend that, there’s no question about it.”
Red Bull advisor Dr Helmut Marko has previously suggested that Mercedes ought to have brought the seven-time world champion into the pits under the late Safety Car, but McCarthy rejects this notion.
“The people who say that Mercedes missed a trick by not bringing Lewis in for new tyres when Red Bull pitted, they don’t actually understand the situation, that if they had done that, they were expecting the race probably to finish under the Safety Car.
“Well, then you’ve gifted Max track position, so he would have won anyway. So Mercedes were completely backed against the wall on leaving Lewis out there.”
As a result, McCarthy, who contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans on five occasions, settles on Hamilton’s defeat owing to “a naive decision” by the race director.
He suggested that red flagging the race following Latifi’s accident would have proven the fairer thing to do.
“You know, we’re all brilliant in hindsight. It probably would have been best to have stopped the race and red flagged it, so that everybody could go on to new tyres for a five lap shootout at the end, and then I think that would have been acceptable, but we did see Lewis Hamilton dominate that race.”
McCarthy cited the Turn Six incident in Abu Dhabi as well as the bizarre incident at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix the race before as examples of further stewarding errors last year.
“There was shenanigans at the beginning [in Abu Dhabi]. And I wasn’t in favour of Lewis having the bit of a lead that he did have after the Turn Six [incident# into account when he came back on the track, and I thought he had too much of an advantage there.
“So I think the stewards made a mistake there. I think that they should have pulled him up a bit.”
In Jeddah, the pair came to blows when the Dutchman attempted to allow his rival through, but appeared to catch Hamilton out with his braking, sending the Briton into the back of him.
This came after Verstappen had pushed the Mercedes driver off the track, but was almost comically given a penalty for it anyway, as well as for the strange collision between the pair.
McCarthy is enthused by all the dramatic action provided by Hamilton and Verstappen over the course of the season, but laments the way 2021 ended.
“But then there were other factors that, you know, when we saw Max brake on the straight [in Saudi Arabia]. It was a bizarre situation, it really was, you know, they were very lucky on that one.
“So it was edge of the seat stuff for all of us that was spoiled at the end,” he added.
Hamilton is reportedly considering retiring from Formula 1 after his heart-breaking defeat, but Verstappen himself – as well as new FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem – reckon that we will be seeing the 37-year-old on the track this year.
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