Several days after the chequered flag fell on the 2021 season, the final few laps of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix remain hugely controversial. The decision of race director Michael Masi to speed up the return to racing following a safety car period have split fans between those who believe it unfairly handed Max Verstappen his first world title and those who believe it was the best way to finish off an epic season.
On lap 57 of 58, Masi changed his mind on how to restart the race, allowing the five lapped cars trapped between title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen in the safety car queue to unlap themselves. This meant Verstappen was right on Hamilton's tail at the restart, and with the help of a set of fresh tyres his Red Bull team fitted under the safety car, he was able to overtake Hamilton and win the race and the title.
The regulations state that any lapped cars should be allowed to unlap themselves before the restart and that the safety car should then complete one final lap to allow them to catch up before racing resumes. By the time the accident that caused the safety car had been cleared up, there was not enough time to complete that procedure, meaning the stage was set for Hamilton to win the race and the title under the safety car if the rules had been followed to the letter.
In order to try to get racing back under way, Masi initially sent a message to teams saying no cars would be allowed to unlap themselves, which would have allowed racing to resume on the final lap, albeit with five cars between the two title contenders. However, after a radio message from Red Bull boss Christian Horner to race control, Masi changed the procedure to allow five select drivers - Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel - to unlap themselves.
Other lapped cars in the queue, Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll and Mick Schumacher (who had all pitted for fresh soft tyres believing they would get the same advantage as Verstappen if the race restarted), were not allowed to unlap themselves. This was particularly controversial as two of the drivers, Ricciardo and Stroll, were between Verstappen in second place and the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz in third, meaning Verstappen had no pressure from behind at the restart.
A number of drivers gave their opinion on the situation in media interviews after the race, but perhaps the most telling reactions came over team radio as events unfolded. Below are a selection of radio calls that were not broadcast on the world feed, but underline some of the feeling toward Masi's decision.
The driver who lost out the most was, of course, Hamilton. On 43-lap-old hard tyres, Hamilton barely stood a chance of defending from Verstappen when racing resumed and lost the lead after just five corners of the final lap.
Much of Hamilton's team radio messages were broadcast, including a series of censored swear words when the safety car initially came out, but his most critical message, which came just a handful of corners from the end of the race once Verstappen was past Hamilton, was not broadcast.
"This has been manipulated, man," Hamilton told his race engineer Peter Bonnington.
The team radio has since been clipped up by fans and has become something of a rallying call for those on social media hoping to see the matter investigated further.
Sainz went on to finish the race third, which secured him fifth place in the drivers' championship ahead of Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc. The strong result was all the more impressive as he, like Hamilton, stayed out on used hard tyres, so probably would not have had a shot at a higher finishing position if all lapped cars had unlapped themselves.
However, as the select five cars unlapped themselves between Hamilton and Verstappen on lap 57, Sainz could not understand why Stroll and Ricciardo ahead of him had not received the same order. The following is a transcript between Sainz and his race engineer, Riccardo Adami.
CS: "What's happening?"
RA: "Lapped cars are unlapping. Safety Car in this lap"
CS: "I tell you... Tell this Aston Martin to unlap himself. What is he doing? What are these two cars doing?"
CS: "What are these two guys doing? They are not unlapping themselves, they need to go."
RA: "They restart like this. Treat them as lapped cars"
The Aston Martin in question ahead of Sainz was Stroll's car. He was running 13th and had fitted soft tyres in the hope of a run at the top ten and some points in the final lap. However, he was not allowed to unlap himself and appeared confused by the situation as he talked to his race engineer Ben Michell.
LS: "There's cars overtaking the safety car."
BM: "Not us, not us"
LS: "I don't understand. I should be able to overtake the safety car."
Stroll got out of the way of Sainz quickly when blue flags appeared on the final lap, dropping him away from Ricciardo ahead. When he crossed the line he seemed even more confused as Michell decided not to explain the situation in the immediate aftermath.
BM: "That's the chequered flag. We'll explain what happened later."
LS: "Yeah man, what the f---?" BM: "We'll explain later."
Ricciardo was ahead of Stroll on track after he also fitted soft tyres. Other than Hamilton, he arguably lost out the most as a result of Masi's decision.
Ricciardo was the first car behind Verstappen, giving him the best seat in the house to watch the championship battle play out, but it deprived him of a run at the five cars allowed to unlap themselves, who were all on older, harder tyres and therefore would likely have been slower than Ricciardo.
On the slow down lap after finishing 12th, Ricciardo had the following conversation with his race engineer Tom Stallard.
TS: "We finished P12 in the end. Obviously not enough laps and with the other cars being allowed to go after the safety car, then that pit stop didn't help."
DR: "OK, yeah. I've got no idea what they did with letting cars through. Obviously, I wasn't really in that anyway, but it seems strange."
As he pulled up in parc ferme Ricciardo added: "Alrighty. Cheers guys.
"I'm glad I'm not a part of that -- whatever just happened. It seemed pretty f----- up."
Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso
Although they both benefitted from being let past the safety car on lap 57, two of the most experienced drivers on the grid were still confused by the situation. Both Alonso, who finished eighth, and Vettel, who finished 11th, questioned the call to unlap themselves when it came, with both saying it should have been made earlier.
Alonso: "This has to be done a few laps ago. Unbelievable."
Vettel: "Why did they not let us go straightaway? This is what I still don't understand."
Pierre Gasly and Valtteri Bottas
And then there were a couple of drivers who were just baffled by the result.
Gasly, who moved from sixth to fifth on the final lap by using fresh tyres to overtake Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, seemed genuinely shocked at the result as his race engineer Pierre Hamelin told him the result.
PH: "Max won the race."
PG: "No way, how did he do that?"
PH: "He put the softs on under the SC."
PG: "Unbelievable. Incredible."
Meanwhile, Bottas, who dropped from fourth to sixth on the final lap on old tyres, sounded gutted for his teammate Hamilton when his engineer Riccardo Musconi broke the news.
RM: "Unfortunately Max got Lewis on that last lap."
VB: "Well f---! S---!"