ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Max Verstappen has been confirmed as Formula One world champion after the FIA stewards rejected a Mercedes protest over the result of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Mercedes has expressed its intention to appeal the stewards' verdict -- meaning the team has 96 hours to decide whether to lodge a full appeal -- but the results of Sunday's race, with Verstappen as winner and world champion, currently stand.
Verstappen was forced to wait until late into the night for the verdict, which was issued four hours after he crossed the line to secure an incredible victory by passing title rival Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the race.
Mercedes was infuriated by how the final laps of the race played out after Nicholas Latifi's crash triggered a Safety Car period. The decision to have the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen unlap themselves and then restart the race for a single lap allowed Verstappen to start the final lap directly behind Hamilton, which was a huge benefit for the Red Bull driver after he used the Safety Car to pit for fresh tyres while Hamilton remained out on much older tyres.
The stewards dismissed the protest regarding the unlapping of cars and another Mercedes protest over Verstappen overtaking Hamilton before the race had restarted.
The reason for Mercedes' protest
Hamilton's Mercedes team were not happy with how the situation unfolded after FIA race director Michael Masi decided to allow the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to unlap themselves.
Under normal circumstances and according to Article 48.12 of the Sporting Regulations, all lapped cars should unlap themselves before a Safety Car restart so that the field is in positional order when racing gets back underway. The rules also state that the restart should occur on the lap after the unlapping, not on the same lap, as was the case in Abu Dhabi.
Race control had initially indicated that no cars would be allowed to unlap themselves -- presumably so that the race could get back underway before the final lap -- but then changed that decision to the five cars between Verstappen and Hamilton after Red Bull team boss Christian Horner radioed Masi to raise his objection to the original decision.
When Masi gave permission for the five cars to unlap and restarted the race on the same lap, it effectively gave Verstappen a clear shot at the victory, as his fresh, soft tyres gave him a significant performance advantage over Hamilton's 43-lap-old hard tyres.
Mercedes argued that had the rules around unlapped cars been adhered to, Hamilton would have won the race and, therefore, the championship.
The stewards cited Article 15.3, which "allows the race director to control the use of the safety car, which in our determination includes its deployment and withdrawal." However, Article 15.3 appears to be in the regulations to define the roles of the race director and the clerk of the course rather than to allow the race director to ignore the Safety Car rules.
Race director Masi said he made his decision to "remove lapped cars that would 'interfere' with racing between the leaders".
The stewards dismissed the protest and the request that the stewards remediate the matter by amending the classification to reflect the positions at the end of the penultimate lap.
Mercedes also protested Verstappen under Article 48.8 of the regulations, which says that once the Safety Car is returning to the pits, no one is allowed to overtake the lead car. Verstappen drew level with Hamilton in the final sector of the lap and appeared to briefly move ahead of the Mercedes before the restart got underway.
However, that protest was also dismissed by the stewards in a separate hearing..
"Having considered the various statements made by the parties, the Stewards determine that although Car 33 did at one stage, for a very short period of time, move slightly in front of Car 44, at a time when both cars where accelerating and braking, it moved back behind Car 44 and it was not in front when the Safety Car period ended [i.e. at the line]," the stewards' statement said.