MELBOURNE, Australia -- Formula One has always been a complex sport, but the chaos of the final few laps at the Australian Grand Prix even left some drivers and team bosses confused.
In the space of the last four laps, the race was red flagged twice, resulting in one standing restart, four cars eliminated in collisions and one meaningless rolling restart behind the safety car with no overtaking to complete the final lap of the race and decide the finishing order.
Despite some confusion over the way the closing laps panned out, which continued long into the night after the Haas F1 team protested the result, the rules were ultimately followed by the race director and the FIA. The question is whether F1 should rethink those rules or at least clarify some of its procedures to avoid a repeat of chaotic scenes in Melbourne.
Here's how things happened on a lap-by-lap basis (the full race distance was 58 laps).
Lap 53: Kevin Magnussen ran wide and clipped the barrier on the exit of Turn 2, ripping the carcass of his left rear tyre from its shattered rim in a shower of sparks. Magnussen made it to the inside of Turn 4 before stopping, but the debris left in his wake -- reported by the FIA to be lots of chunks of metal from the wheel rim -- initially resulted in in a safety car before a red flag was shown, suspending the race.
Max Verstappen had been comfortably leading the race up to that point, with Lewis Hamilton over eight seconds adrift in second place when the Haas hit the barrier.
Lap 55: With red flags flying from the marshal posts, the cars returned to the pits to allow the debris from Magnussen's accident to be cleared. Teams are allowed to change tyres during red flag periods and all the remaining cars were fitted with soft tyres for the two-lap sprint to the finish.
Lap 56: The cars left the pits behind the safety car to line up on the grid in the following order:
1. Max Verstappen
2. Lewis Hamilton
3. Fernando Alonso
4. Carlos Sainz
5. Pierre Gasly
6. Lance Stroll
7. Sergio Perez
8. Lando Norris
9. Nico Hulkenberg
10. Esteban Ocon
11. Oscar Piastri
12. Zhou Guanyu
13. Yuki Tsunoda
14. Valtteri Bottas
15. Logan Sargeant
16. Nyck de Vries
Lap 57: The race restarted with the remaining 16 cars hurtling down towards Turn 1 for a two-lap sprint to the finish. Verstappen made a clean getaway and held Hamilton at bay, but chaos ensued behind them.
Matters weren't helped by a low sun setting beyond Turn 1, hampering visibility, with Carlos Sainz misjudging the first corner and making contact with Alonso, dropping the Aston Martin down the order.
Further back, Pierre Gasly ran wide and cut the second corner. As he rejoined the track he collided with Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon and forced both cars into the wall. Sergio Perez also cut the second corner but emerged unscathed.
A final collision occurred at the back of the grid as Logan Sargeant's Williams hit the rear of Nyck de Vries' AlphaTauri before Turn 1. Both drivers ended up in the gravel trap.
Further round the lap, Lance Stroll locked up at Turn 3 and dropped to the back of the field.
Before the rest of the pack had completed the first sector of the lap, the race was red flagged again and the drivers returned to the pit lane once more.
The order at the end of lap 57 as they returned to the pits was:
1. Max Verstappen
2. Lewis Hamilton
3. Carlos Sainz
4. Nico Hulkenberg
5. Yuki Tsunoda
6. Lando Norris
7. Oscar Piastri
8. Zhou Guanyu
9. Valtteri Bottas
10. Sergio Perez
11. Fernando Alonso
12. Lance Stroll
Lap 58: With just one lap remaining, there was no longer an opportunity to lead the cars out onto the grid and finish the grand prix under racing conditions. Instead, the safety car would take the cars as far as the pit lane entrance, peel into the pit lane and let the field cross the line and complete the race distance without any overtaking.
Race control confirmed the order of the cars for the final lap would be the same as the grid for the previous restart but with the crashed cars removed. This was based on Article 57.3 of the sporting regulations, which states: "In all cases the order will be taken at the last point at which it was possible to determine the position of all cars." However, what constituted the "last point" later proved controversial.
One last change to the order came after the chequered flag as Sainz was penalised five seconds for his clash with Alonso and dropped from fourth to 12th place in the final classification.
The final finishing order:
1. Max Verstappen
2. Lewis Hamilton
3. Fernando Alonso
4. Lance Stroll
5. Sergio Perez
6. Lando Norris
7. Nico Hulkenberg
8. Oscar Piastri
9. Zhou Guanyu
10. Yuki Tsunoda
11. Valtteri Bottas
12. Carlos Sainz
Did the race need to be stopped on lap 55?
One of the biggest questions after the race was whether the debris from Magnussen's crash warranted a red flag. The same question was raised over an earlier red flag in the race on lap seven after Alex Albon collided with the wall at Turn 6 -- although the FIA explained that the sheer amount of debris and gravel on the track was the reason for that stoppage.
The decision to suspend the race with red flags rests with race director Niels Wittich and the primary concern should always be safety. The sporting regulations state: "If competitors or officials are placed in immediate physical danger by cars running on the track, and the clerk of the course deems circumstances are such that the track cannot be negotiated safely, even behind the safety car, the sprint session or the race will be suspended."
However, some drivers believed the situation after Magnussen's crash could have been dealt with by deploying the safety car, allowing the marshals to clean the circuit while the cars continued to lap.
"I just didn't understand why we needed a red flag," Verstappen said of the second incident. "I think if you would have had a safety car and then just had a normal rolling start we wouldn't have had all these shunts and then you have a normal finish. So they created the problems themselves at the end of the day."
Alonso added: "If there is a red flag, it has to be for a reason. We will ask probably in Baku what was the reason for the second red flag.
"I know there was a piece of tyre debris in the first straight but the car itself was on the inside of Turn 4 so it felt quite safe there. And the safety car is for those kind of reasons so yeah, for us, maybe it was a different opinion.
"But the FIA are the only ones that have all the cards on the table so in those kinds of situations, we trust them, and we try to keep them going."
Lando Norris, who actually gained positions as a result of the drama at the end, questioned how necessary and how fair it was to red flag the session for Magnussen's accident.
"I don't feel maybe the second to last red flag was needed -- I don't know, I don't see everything," he said. "But from what I could see in the car, I didn't feel like it was needed.
"I felt like it was just a 'four laps to go, don't want to finish under safety car' kind of thing, and it just caused a bad end to the race. So, I think if we'd just finished behind the safety car, it would have been a bit more straightforward.
"A bit annoying from our side, but I guess we got a little bit lucky and got the position on Gasly, but also could have been a lot worse at the same time."
At the Italian Grand Prix last year, the race finished under the safety car after it took longer than expected to remove Daniel Ricciardo's McLaren from the side of the circuit. There were questions at that race whether a red flag would have been better suited to the situation so as not to have such an anticlimactic finish, although the circumstances were different to Sunday's in that there was no debris on the track at Monza.
Going back to 2021, the result of the controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, in which Verstappen was thrown an opportunity to beat Hamilton to the championship when the safety car was pulled in one lap earlier than the rules dictate, came about through a desire to see the race finish under racing conditions rather than behind the safety car.
Although not in the regulations, the consensus among teams, F1 and the FIA is that it is preferable to finish grands prix under racing conditions -- even though safety should always be the primary motivator behind decisions made by the FIA.
"The first two red flags we didn't see coming," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said after Sunday's race. "I think restarts are great and great entertainment factor. We just need to understand moving forward when are red flags being put out and what is a safety car or VSC [virtual safety car]. I think those incidents you could have applied either.
"We just need to define what it is. I think restarts are mega. When they come as a surprise, and you can't really understand, then maybe not so much.
"But I'm generally in favour of making great entertainment but the rulebook of the sport ... let's define together what is a VSC, what is a safety car, what is a red flag."
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner added: "Safety reasons are why the red flags should always be thrown. There was a lot of debris on the track. When you look at it, it was the right thing to red flag it.
"The problem was there were only two laps to the end of the race. You're always going to get winners and losers in that."
How was the final restart order decided?
At first it seemed a bit odd that the order for the final restart on lap 58, which ultimately decided the finishing order of the race, was so different to the order that the cars were in at the moment the final red flag was shown on lap 57. For example, Nico Hulkenberg was up to fourth at that point (which would have been third with Sainz's penalty) and Yuki Tsunoda was up to fifth.
However, Article 57.3 of the sporting regulations states that the order for a restart will be determined by "the last point at which it was possible to determine the position of all cars." Article 58.1 also states that the race directors should keep the stoppage "as short as possible".
Simply using the GPS position of the cars when the red flag is shown is not considered reliable enough to determine the order of all cars, and therefore the race director will rely on the accuracy of a timing loop.
Niels Wittich, the FIA race director decided that the last reliable point to determine the order was the start of lap 57 (i.e. the grid from the previous restart), but after the race Haas argued that the order could have been taken from Safety Car 2 line, which is a timing loop after the pit exit. That would not have put Hulkenberg as high as fourth, but it would have seen him one place further up ahead of the McLaren of Norris.
Haas protested the result on that basis, but the stewards ultimately found in favour of Wittich's decision.
"Race Control determined that the last point at which it was possible to the determine the position of all cars was when the last grid was formed," the stewards' decision read. "We summoned the Race Director to provide further clarification and he said that in the time available for the continuation of the race, the most reliable point was the last grid, given the data available to him at the time; the relative positions of the cars and the incidents on the track.
"Haas suggested that the relative positions of the cars could be established as at the SC2 line instead. They suggested that if that line was used then the starting grid position of their car would have been different.
"They acknowledged that the GPS data that showed the relative positions of the cars was unreliable for the purpose of establishing the order of cars.
"They contended that instead of the last grid, that the timing data ought to have been used to establish the order of the cars.
"Having considered all the arguments made, we made the following determination.
"Article 57.3 required that a restart grid order be organized in accordance with order at the: 'last point at which it was possible to determine the position of all cars'. This determination needed to be done in the context of a timed race event and therefore the decision of Race Control and the Race Director needed to be made promptly; with the exercise of appropriate discretion and by using the most appropriate information available to them at the time.
"In the circumstances, based on what we heard from the FIA representatives and from Haas, we considered that this was in fact done appropriately by the Race Director in this instance and therefore dismiss the protest."
Does F1 need to make changes?
Although the final few laps of the race appeared chaotic, they were run to the rules. The decision over when to suspend a race with red flags rests with the race director and Wittich was the one with the best overall knowledge of how dangerous the debris was on track.
The final starting order was questioned, but there was a logic for the order that came out and it now sets a precedent for a similar situation in the future. And the fact there weren't enough laps left to go racing again after the final red flag was unfortunate, but ultimately a simple matter of maths.
Although unusual, the decisions that defined Sunday's Australian Grand Prix have occurred before in slightly different forms. The race had echoes of the events of Abu Dhabi 2021 and Italy 2022, while the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix also saw a two-lap sprint to the finish after a late red flag. At that race the restart got away without major incident, but it still provided drama as Hamilton locked up and ran wide at Turn 1, handing victory to Perez.
It is undoubtedly more entertaining to have a red flag that resets the race with two laps to go, but the problem is that the sole purpose of a red flag is for safety and not entertainment.
"It invites risk," McLaren driver Lando Norris said on Sunday night. "Nothing against them, but the people who make decisions don't know what's going on inside the car.
"We have a soft on that's 65 degrees Celsius and I can't describe how little grip there is on track, the tyre doesn't work and, on this surface, with this track temperature, I can't describe how bad the grip is. That's why you see everyone going straight on at Turn 1 and locking up.
"The whole point of red flagging -- it feels like it was just to put on a show. I'm the one driving the car, so I feel like I could have been so unlucky for no reason. I easily could have crashed with Hulkenberg at the end, because you've got people going off and you're suddenly swerving and things like that.
"So, we've come all the way to Australia but it's so much hard work driving 55/56 laps perfectly and, because they try and put on a show, you just get unlucky and everything can get taken away from you all of a sudden. So, I think that side of it, and I just think it needs a small re-think. I don't think it needs a change, it just needs a small re-think in my opinion."
Alfa Romeo driver Valtteri Bottas added: "I think it's more entertaining to have another race start, the only thing I don't like is that if you have made a good strategy before that, then on the restart after the red flag everyone can put new tyres on, whatever tyres they want, so most likely everyone is then going to be on the same strategy and that's something that didn't play up for me today with the first red flags, but that's how it is.
"On this temperature, with the soft tyre, we could get them work, but it's always going to be a mess if it's a race of two laps and especially outside the top ten you try to do everything you can to get into the top ten because there's nothing to lose."
The complexity of F1 means finding a simple solution that covers all the potential outcomes is not possible. For example, adding an extra lap onto the race so that it ended under racing conditions rather than behind the safety car would likely have come with the side-effect of cars running out of fuel. Even Alpine team boss Otmar Szafnauer, who ultimately lost the most from the mess in the final laps, warned against making knee-jerk changes.
"In this situation if you say let's change the rules because it would have helped, there will be other situations where the opposite happens," Szafnauer said. "So the rules are what they are, and whatever they are, you can't change them in race.
"After the season when you look back at it, it will be 50/50 whether that's good or bad because we will have so many different scenarios where at one time it helps and another time it doesn't. So I just think the rules are fine as they are."
Horner added: "I mean it's something that has been discussed. There has always been a preference to finish under racing conditions, so if by stopping a race enabled them to tidy up the circuit, rather than just cruise out the remaining laps behind the safety car, then it's the right thing to do.
"The problem is that when you're the lead car, and you've been controlling a 10-second lead all afternoon, suddenly it's a massive variable that becomes a bit of a lottery."
Ultimately, in a sport as complex as F1 its rare to find a solution without creating a problem. Procedures may be brushed up as a result of Australia, but don't expect major changes to how races are run.