The Formula 1 title has been decided with a race-winning pass by the world champion on the final lap of the season, yet the championship is presented with its worst case scenario.
Max Verstappen is a worthy champion so this is not a question of his integrity or his conduct in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The outcome nobody wanted, though, has come to pass. There’s been a controversial intervention from the officials, a protest, and now there’s a question mark and a cloud hanging over the outcome.
Mercedes is challenging the way the restart procedure was followed and also an alleged breach by Verstappen in overtaking under the safety car too.
Does Mercedes have a case? Probably not against Verstappen, if it’s related to him briefly nosing ahead of Hamilton while they were preparing for the restart.
But it would seem to have a case against the race direction.
Article 48.12 of the sporting regulations covers the procedure under the safety car.
It does not explicitly prevent the race director selecting only some of the lapped cars being allowed to overtake, or demand they must rejoin the rear of the train before the race restarts.
But what it does demand is that “unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap”.
As the five lapped cars were given the order to pass the safety car on lap 57, the safety car should therefore have returned to the pits at the end of the following lap – lap 58 – rather than at the end of lap 57 to permit the one-lap dash to the flag.
Mercedes’ protest certainly doesn’t seem spurious, especially given what is at stake. But this is not about justifying the Mercedes protest. It’s lamenting the fact that something happened that enabled a protest to be lodged.
The desire for the race and the championship to finish under green-flag conditions is completely laudable. Fernando Alonso, who is “not a fan of finishing under safety car” and understood the FIA’s position, was keen to accentuate the positives post-race. He has watched this battle with what seems like genuine glee.
“The sport in general was the big winner of this year,” said Alonso.
“To have two guys tied on points in the last race, and fighting wheel to wheel in the last lap of the last race, maybe we will not see it anymore in our lives.”
Alonso said the fact the FIA set up a one-lap shootout for both the grand prix and the title is “unbelievable”. He’s absolutely right. It has been an exceptional season that ended in a unique and scarcely believable set of circumstances.
And if that was the end of it, then it would just be something to savour. Hopefully we still can in the end. Because to create those circumstances, the FIA needs to be absolutely on the money.
Has it been? We’ll have to find out through stewards. And then, who knows, maybe the International Court of Appeal too?
It’s a sorry way to have allowed such a wonderful story to end.