Will F1’s stewards face the toughest call of all? Five Abu Dhabi GP talking points

2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

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Will a gripping year of Formula 1 come to a spectacular conclusion at Yas Marina – or does yet more controversy lie in store? Here are the taking points for the championship-deciding race weekend.

A makeover for the Marina

The Yas Marina circuit has had the facelift which, arguably, it has been waiting for since it opened. And rather than just a nip-and-tuck of a few tweaked turns, this is more akin to reconstructive surgery, with more than half of the corners on last year’s layout either chopped or changed.

From turn three to the final bend, every corner has been altered besides the chicane which interrupts its two long straights. The corners which bookend those straights are now medium-to-high speed turns, replacing the fiddly, slow bends which previously characterised this track. Later in the lap a succession of four other low-speed corners have eased.

The upshot is a shorter course, lap times potentially 10 to 15 seconds quicker and therefore three more laps on the race distance. It’s been done in the name of improving the racing at a circuit where overtaking has previously been very difficult.

RaceFans spoke at length to the team behind the redesign who are confident the new layout will address that problem. But we won’t know for sure until the cars hit the track for the first time.

The end of the ‘aero era’?

Next year’s cars will look something like this
The revised Yas Marina course was created with an eye towards the new technical regulations for the 2022 season. This weekend’s race will be the last for Formula 1’s current generation of cars before a new era of much more tightly restricted designs are ushered in. F1 will also bid farewell to 13-inch wheels ahead of the introduction of new, 18-inch wheels in 2022.

Will the current cars be missed? That will largely depend on how successful their replacements are. Undoubtedly the 2021 season has been the most exciting year yet for this generation of cars, aided by the engine manufacturers converging in performance and aerodynamic tweaks which hit Mercedes harder than most of their rivals.

It’s unlikely this weekend will be the last time we hear drivers complaining about finding it hard to pass the car ahead because of turbulence. But if the race which follows it doesn’t see a significant improvement in that area, they will be judged a failure.

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Norris’ luckless run

Just five races ago Lando Norris was still fourth in the championship ahead of Sergio Perez. He’s sunk to sixth since then, largely thanks to a luck-less run which has seen him take just five points from the last four races.

An engine penalty in Mexico, puncture in Qatar and ill-timed red flag in Saudi Arabia let one Ferrari driver pass him in the standings. Will the other slip ahead this weekend as the red team is poised to complete its defeat of McLaren in the fight for third place?

And it’s goodbye to…

Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo, Interlagos, 2021
Raikkonen will bow out of F1 after Abu Dhabi… again
As the final race of the year, it’s the end of an era for many. FIA president Jean Todt is not intending to visit the last F1 race to go ahead before next week’s elections to decide his successor.

His former driver Kimi Raikkonen will hang his helmet up after his record 349th grand prix start. This time it will surely be for good, unlike when he said farewell after Yas Marina’s first F1 race 12 years ago.

His Alfa Romeo team mate Antonio Giovinazzi also won’t be back next year. Guanyu Zhou arrives to take his place while Giovinazzi heads to Formula E. He reached Q3 and scored his best result of the season last time out – will he repeat that to ensure a fitting send-off this weekend?

But the party most eager to end their F1 tenure on a high must be Honda. It joined the V6 hybrid turbo party a year later than the rest and suffered an excruciating return to begin with. After a humiliating 2015 season with McLaren slight improvements were made the following year, but a slump the season after broke the relationship beyond repair. The cast about for a new partner: One was found in the shape of Sauber, then new management arrived and immediately killed the deal.

Honda are leaving at the top of their game
Instead they aligned themselves to Toro Rosso and, in 2019, Red Bull, who delivered the first Honda-powered race F1 win for 13 years. Having finally clawed their way back to the top, in 2020 those at the top decided they’d had enough, and 2021 would be their last season.

Their latest engine, applied to a superb Red Bull chassis has left them in contention for both championships at the final race of the season. Honda’s first F1 titles since the days of Ayrton Senna and McLaren 30 years ago beckon.

Which brings us to our final talking point of the 2021 Formula 1 world championship season…

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End game

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2021
Will Max Verstappen win his first world championship…
How will the 2021 world championships be decided? The constructors points table shows Mercedes are clear favourites to take their eighth title in a row.

But the drivers’ standings literally could not be closer. To all intents and purposes, the preceding races has only established that Verstappen will win the championship in the event of a tie break. The destiny of the 2021 world championship will otherwise be decided by 58 laps around the new-look Yas Marina circuit.

The form book does not look like being much help. Over the first six years of the V6 hybrid turbo era this was a Mercedes track – they swept every race from 2014-19. Last year Verstappen ended their run, but that owed at least something to Hamilton ailing on his return from a bout of Covid. And now the track has been completely overhauled.

The fight between the pair has become increasingly tough as the season has gone on. Last weekend it reached an acrimonious low, Verstappen collecting a pair of penalties as he forced Hamilton wide repeatedly and “brake tested” his rival approaching the final corner.

With the points so close, the stakes so high and the rancour so bitter, past controversial conclusions to F1 championships come to mind easily. Between 1989 and 1997 the title fight was settled by collisions between the two drivers on four out of nine occasions. In the first three the instigator of the contact collected the title: Alain Prost in 1989, Ayrton Senna the year after (footage of Verstappen watching this in 2019 and remarking “I mean, why not?” has been widely shared on social media), and Michael Schumacher in 1994.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2021
…or will Lewis Hamilton take his eighth?
Then in 1997 Schumacher hit another rival, Jacques Villeneuve, but bounced off the Williams and came to a stop in a gravel trap while his rival clinched the title. The FIA then disqualified Schumacher from the championship.

This, said then-FIA president Max Mosley, was the precedent which would prevent any future F1 driver trying to win a title by crashing into a rival. “The important thing in the Schumacher case was to make sure that drivers were left under no illusion that if you tried to win the championship by taking the other bloke off the track and out of the race as had happened several times in the past, it was just not going to work,” he stated.

You will not succeed because we will take the title off you. That was the chief message.”

But that was 24 years ago. As this season has demonstrated repeatedly, precedent counts for little in F1 these days. And it rests upon the stewards being able to spot a deliberate collision when they see one. There’s no tougher call the stewards could face than whether to issue a penalty which decides the championship.

Hopefully none of this comes to pass and the new Yas Marina witnesses a title decider fitting of the investment which has been spent on improving its layout. But the possibility the title contenders may not play by the rules, and the season may end in more acrimony, is on the minds of those involved.

“We’ve already had numerous discussions about it,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told The Times this week. “To finish first, first you’ve got to finish.” That may be true most of the time, but not for the driver who leads the championship going into the final race of the season.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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67 comments on “Will F1’s stewards face the toughest call of all? Five Abu Dhabi GP talking points”

  1. I’d love to see hard fought wheel to wheel race. Yes I know I’m dreaming.

    1. @johnrkh I’d love to see hard fought fair wheel to wheel race. If you’re dreaming, I’m not sure what I’m doing…

    2. How can you have a wheel-to-wheel race when one of the two contenders has a far superior car? He just needs to press the DRS bottom and he takes off…

      1. So only response to that is to crash into the passing car in the name of defence and call it “hard racing”. Faster car / driver combo has always overtaken others in the history of F1 you know. But never used as excuses to crash into opponents.

    3. I think we will have a hard fought battle of attrition between two teams involving all their drivers and a lot of radio communication between the engineers and team bosses. It will be tense for sure. After all this drama in the past few races I doubt there will be any intentional wrecking or taking too much risks. The entire world including the governing bodies will be watching every move of Max and Redbull, if they do something stupid I doubt they can get away with it this time. They also know that now too.

      1. Jeroen van Jaarsveld
        9th December 2021, 12:52

        I hope they will watch every move of both contenders/teams.

    4. If they are close then Verstappen has the edge. Simply because a collision favors him.

      The stewarding this year has established you can run your rivals off the track as long as you don’t actually crash. This makes it much harder for Hamilton, and much easier for Verstappen.

      So I don’t think close racing is likely.

  2. Three slow & one high-speed corners as the penultimate one was already fast.
    Lap flow has certainly improved, but racing quality/overtaking is another matter.

    Some turbulence will always remain, but the next car concept should definitely be more racing-friendly.
    Time will eventually tell, though.

    Precedent is still a precedent, so I’ve zero doubt the FIA wouldn’t have enough courage to disqualify Max from the championship if he purposely causes a crash/attempts to take out.

  3. Gary Connelly is the steward again so he will probably want to disqualify Max for looking at Lewis .. 8th title in the bag thanks to punting the opponent out of the race (effectively twice if you count Hungary) and dubious aero tricks and some well funded (yes I meant that) help from the FIA.

    1. Put your tinfoil hat back on, the aliens are needing with your thoughts again.

      1. Read the article posted below.

      2. Read the article I posted. Nuf said

    2. I have known Gary C. for many decades and have the utmost respect of him.
      V-e-r-y experienced and his passionate love of the sport is undoubted.
      I take umbrage at any inference that he is biased. He is, after all, only one member of the panel.

      1. He showed that he is/was as he himself went up to Mercedes to push them to appeal when he was voted down two to one on giving Max a penalty. The Guy has no business being in that position. And I don’t care if he’s your besty or dad or whatever. That action should have disqualified him from being a steward at any Motorsport event for life!

      2. OK, read that now. It does appear damning, but I would like to see a lot more data before accepting that a steward has a bias against a driver. Also given the number of questionable (at best) incidents Max has got away with this season (and the rest of his career) which other drivers haven’t, I do not think you (or that article) come close to being definitive.

  4. Question: if redbull admit max did brake test Verstappen shouldnt the fia then review that and give a different penalty soemthing much more harsher? This was knowingly and intentionally commited not sometbing done at high speed but while driving very slowly with enough time to think about the action.

    1. Ok, Max was ordered to let Lewis past.. somehow you seem to have forgotten about that. And then, why did Lewis run into the back of Max? He even applied throttle.. so dsq as well I would say because he accelerated into the back off Max’s car.

      1. Wow, you’re too clever for us. We bow to your superior knowledge 🤦‍♂️

        1. Telemetry baby

      2. @w0o0dy that’s about as stupid as saying your face hit my fist, so it’s your fault.
        Lewis hit Max because Max braked suddenly in front of him.

        Hamilton had no intention to run into Max, he needed to finish the race.
        Max had every incentive to take Lewis out of the race.

        1. If he had no intention then why was he straight behind instead of driving staggered? He drove into the back AND he pressed the throttle just before they hit… So?

          1. @w0o0dy

            He drove into the back AND he pressed the throttle just before they hit…

            This is just your conjecture and not what the telemetry showed.

          2. @blazzz of course it’s not… It’s telemetry.

          3. @w0o0dy

            pressed the throttle just before they hit

            Telemetry would show this bit would it not? So for you to say that no the telemetry didn’t support your argument, but showed Max braking with 2.4G thereby making him guilty as the stewards found means you’re either confused or you just want to defend Max for partisan reasons.

          4. It does… Hamilton was on the throttle just before impact. Look it up. But the video is quite clear too.

          5. @w0o0dy given that this was likely the point where he’d just been told that Max was letting him past, and he is steering to the left to go around Max, you would expect him to accelerate. What you wouldn’t expect is for Max to stomp on the brake pedal miles away from a braking zone with another car right behind him. That’s not even allowed in amateur karting, let alone professional racing. I’ve seen people banned from my local karting track for doing that. It’s one of the big no-nos which every racing driver is told they must not do from day 1 of their career.

            Also, all you have there is the basic telemetry provided to the app. It doesn’t show how heavily someone is braking, and the stewards have pointed out that Max braked heavily (69bar pressure, 2.4G deceleration). That makes a massive difference.

  5. I think another question that needs answering, (or debating, as we will never know the answer for sure), is whether the Mercedes or the Red Bull is the fastest car. Looking back through the season, I have ranked every race as either clearly Mercedes, narrowly Mercedes, narrowly Red Bull or clearly Red Bull, based on what I think the faster car was.

    Bahrain – Red Bull (clearly)
    Imola – Red Bull (narrowly)
    Portugal – Mercedes (clearly)
    Spain – Mercedes (narrowly)
    Monaco – Red Bull (clearly)
    Baku – Red Bull (clearly)
    France – Red Bull (narrowly)
    Styria – Red Bull (clearly)
    Austria – Red Bull (clearly)
    Britain – Mercedes (narrowly)
    Hungary – Mercedes (clearly)
    Belgium – impossible to tell
    Zandvoort – Red Bull (narrowly)
    Italy – Mercedes (clearly)
    Russia – Mercedes (narrowly)
    Turkey – Mercedes (clearly)
    USA – Red Bull (narrowly)
    Mexico – Red Bull (clearly)
    Brazil – Mercedes (clearly)
    Qatar – Mercedes (clearly)
    Saudi Arabia – Mercedes (narrowly)

    So I would say Red Bull was definitely the faster car in the first half of the season, and Mercedes in the second half. But in terms of individual races, I think there are exactly ten races where Mercedes were fastest and ten races where Red Bull were fastest, so they are almost exactly equal. In fact, I have rated six races as clear Mercedes and six as clear Red Bull, so even then they are still equal. If I had to choose, I would say Mercedes overall, but as it is so close, I will refine that opinion to Red Bull if they are faster in Abu Dhabi. Like the actual WDC, it all comes down to Abu Dhabi.

    1. Bottas did just fine in Monaco qualy. Probably front row without the Leclerc crash.

    2. I would debate, that the cars were pretty much even in Imola and redbull was narrowly better in Monaco, given that Bottas qualified pretty good there. In Imola the Redbull seemed the better Car in the Wet, while Hamilton was gaining mighty on Verstappen once it dried up.

      1. Maybe. There were more examples when I was on a boundary and favoured Red Bull than Mercedes than the other way around, which is why I said if I had to pick I would say Mercedes are faster.

    3. I think Red Bull has had the fastest car and Verstappen has been the better driver, but with Bottas and Hamilton taking out Verstappen, plus Pirelli screwing around, Verstappen might end up losing the championship

    4. That’s great work you put in. Quibbles about one or two races don’t really affect the big picture and conclusion. I think the real point is that the last 4 races have been a really different season. After getting smoked in Mexico on pace and facing critical reliability issues Mercedes has stormed back in a way no one could have predicted based on form to that point. But the season has told us this can change at any time.

  6. Over the course of the season, on average and for the most part, we have seen the Red Bull and Mercedes to be roughly equal in terms of performance, and Max and Lewis to be roughly equal in terms of outstanding driving ability. This has been replicated in their points tallies, so they have been neck and neck all season. This should have been an all time classic season.

    Unfortunately it has been marred by unacceptable behaviour on and off track from both drivers and both teams, inconsistent stewarding (although roughly equally for and against both drivers), and over the top partisan fans. I’ve never seen such vitriol in F1 before, especially by members of this site.

    I actually think it would be a fitting end to the season if Verstappen collided with Hamilton, taking him out and winning the championship from that, although I would hate to see it. It would be perfectly in keeping with the rest of the season, and I have no faith that the FIA would do anything about it unless it was absolutely, unarguably deliberate (which is nearly impossible to prove).

    I still hold out hope for a clean race, though. If the race is clean, either driver would be a worthy champion in my book. If the race is clean, I’ll probably put aside the many low points of this season and remember the amazing close fought battle for the title. But a title-deciding crash would just push this season over the edge from “messy” into “farce”…

    1. Only way this race is clean is if Verstappen has the better car and is in P1 after the first lap.

  7. The big question, that we will never know the answer to, is – would Schumacher have been disqualified if Villeneuve hadn’t been able to continue and win the WDC anyway? What was done was a very easy decision and certainly didn’t bother Schumacher in the slightest (especially as he was allowed to keep his race wins). If Schumacher’s dirty tactic had worked and he’d gone on to win the WDC, would the FIA have had the courage to make the same decision? I have serious doubts.

    Fast forward to Sunday. Verstappen is deemed to have been predominantly at fault for a collision that take both Hamilton and himself out of the race, thus winning the WDC. Would the FIA have the guts to deduct points from Verstappen, handing the title to Hamilton? I very much doubt it.

    1. What would they deduct points? It’s a time or grid penalty as we have seen in multiple occasions, most notably Silverstone that opened the can of worms anyway

      1. In 97 they deducted all of Schumacher’s points (whole season). He finished with 0 points.

        1. Yeah but 97 was a penalty without any impact on the WDC and very one sided as well. After Silverstone was said that the outcome of the incident is not to be considered in the penalty.

          1. @anunaki I think you’ve missed the point being made by @scbriml, not what happened but what would have happened if Villeneuve had retired. Say Jacques retired between laps 49-69 (i.e. after Schumacher’s attempt to hot him) for reasons unrelated to the collision (e.g. engine failure), would they still have thrown Schumacher out of the championship? And would they have done that if Jacques retired for reasons directly related to the collision? We don’t know as he finished the race with enough points to win, but remember that Schumacher had the points advantage going into Jerez.

            I’ve found the answer, that also talks about your point that the punishment was pointless in the circumstances. The UK’s Independent newspaper ran a story at the time saying exactly that. In there is the gem that had Villeneuve retired after lap 49 because of the collision, they would have tossed Schumacher from the standings anyway and given the championship to Villeneuve.

            That’s the question I want answered regarding Sunday’s race.

            I’d argue that those tactics worked in 1994 – imo there’s no question that Schumacher intended to take Damon Hill out, succeeded and got away with it (though it helps if there’s no priors on record, at least in his F1 career). I remember the press being very suspicious after Jerez regarding the Adelaide collision and suggesting foul play happened there.

            The point is that should neither driver score points, or the same number of points on Sunday, Max wins the championship. Even a DQ from the race, assuming that Lewis doesn’t finish, would give him the championship. That’s the question – if Max (and I hope it’s a big if) does take Lewis out and Lewis fails to finish, how would the FIA respond?

        2. @miguelbento While Schumacher was excluded from the whole season, his points and race wins are still included in his career record.

      2. @anunaki The stewards absolutely have the power to deduct points from a driver. In the event that Verstappen deliberately collided with Hamilton, it would be the only meaningful punishment available.

        1. Sure they have the power, but imo it cannily be applied in a black and white situation when he’s fully at fault.

          Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair comparing to earlier situations as I pointed out. There weren’t any “meaningful” penalties given this season.

          1. can only…

    2. The difficulty for me is that in 97 the collision was clearly intentional, so it wasn’t too controversial to DSQ Schumacher. However, what I think is much more likely, is a coming together which isn’t clearly intentional, just a bit clumsy, where you could say Max is 60-70% responsible. Do you put that down to a racing incident? Do you DSQ Max? That will enrage people who think Lewis is (at least) partly to blame for such an accident, and would lead to all sorts of challenges I’m sure.

      1. @f1hornet

        Agreed. If there is any doubt that such a crash was intentional, then the FIA are in an impossible situation. If they let it slide, there would be a significant number of people (partisan and not) who would be up in arms, but the same would be true the other way. I think it’s likely there would be appeals and legal challenges in such an instance. The FIA are ill prepared to deal with this situation, which is on the table because they didn’t get a grip on either driver earlier in the championship.

        1. Apologies i pressed report comment by mistake. Not sure how to reverse.

      2. @f1hornet that’s a fair point, but it’s quite hard to measure intentionality. Had Verstappen and Hamilton crashed in Brazil, someone could argue that Hamilton could’ve avoided the accident by using the tarmac run-off. Same thing with Saudi Arabia. Plus, if they had crashed, the argument of “Verstappen would’ve never made the corner” would just be an educated guess, rather than a fact. It’s not fair racing when someone drives like that knowing that his rival has everything to lose if they crash.

    3. It would be hugely challenging and controversial to make that call if Hamilton & Verstappen do collide.

      On the other hand, as you mentioned the MSC disqualification in 1997, in my opinion that call is in retrospective bold & controversial. Not seeing the races back at the time, I have always wondered why Schumacher drivining in Jerez was deemed outright as illegal and punished so severely, when his contact with Hill in 1994 was apparently within the rulebook.

      In my opinion, the Adelaide contact was always the more severe, straightforward example of dirty intentional tactics than the one in Jerez. The contact in Jerez happened in much higher speed and in relatively fast corner – which Villeneuve was claiming the apex of from quite a distance. There are signs of intentions that can be deduced from MSC steering into the corner, but it is also clear that Villeneuve wasn´t in control of his car as he overshot the corner by some margin as well.

      So, if anything the precedent set is not that lenient as it might seem, and stewards can lean on it if they decide so.

      1. An important thing in 1997 was that Villeneuve spent the whole week leading up to the GP saying Schumacher will try to take him out. It was on everyone’s mind, including the stewards, and under such scrutiny, the penalty was far harsher than 1994.

        1. That is a circumstance I wasn´t aware of, thank you. :)

      2. when his contact with Hill in 1994 was apparently within the rulebook

        IIRC it was this incident which brought such behaviour to the fore and they changed the rules because of it. However, I was only a young kid (12ish) when this took place and only really watched the races, so I have only learned about this later and may be wrong.

      3. I don’t see it as being that brave because in the end it was a meaningless punishment. Villeneuve had already won the WDC because he was able to finish the race while Schumacher was out.

        Had they both gone out as a result of that collision, would the FIA have had the courage to apply the same punishment? Would they have taken the WDC from Schumacher and handed it to Villeneuve?

  8. Taking a step back. It’s astonishing that F1 media and fans are openly and widely discussing the possibility that Max will crash into Lewis. What a damming state of affairs for motor racing. There shouldn’t be a driver on any grid that a crash is expected of for personal gain nor should that fact be promoted by F1 to hype the event. Sportsmanship and integrity have gone missing.

    1. No dig meant at the fans, we’re just dealing with what the FIA/liberty are dishing up.

    2. Lewis has shown he’s willing to risk someone’s safety and health to get the upper hand.. so who is the one you are referring to?
      Silverstone was way below the belt and through some wonder Max didn’t end up hostpitalized or worse…

      1. @w0o0dy

        Lewis has shown he’s willing to risk someone’s safety and health to get the upper hand

        You mean like parking his car on someone’s head?

        You act like Max couldn’t have done his part in that Silverstone crash. The stewards did not absolve him of any blame- they said Lewis was mostly to blame not entirely to blame.

        1. Of course not… That would have meant he would have had a more severe penalty, so no they was never going to be their conclusion.

          1. The leniant penalty for Lewis in Silverstone meant they had to be lenient for Verstappen in Monza. After that things escalated.

    3. It’s not surprising it’s being discussed because there is precedent. It has happened more than once.

  9. As I have said before, sometimes we get the stewards report to clarify how they arrived at their decision, without knowing their individual thoughts, one has to really question the effectiveness of the guest driver.

      1. Andy (@andyfromsandy)
        9th December 2021, 13:12

        At the end of every decision report is a final paragraph that mentions the team and driver are allowed to appeal the decision.
        Now it may well be that GC is biased but in that article had Verstappen actually done something that needed to be investigated or not regardless of the stewards’ decision?

        1. It is not in the task description of a steward to go to a team and suggest they protest when his position doesn’t get the votes. That’s just extreme bias and acting on it should have disqualified him for life.

  10. They already had to in Silverstone and in Jeddah. They’ll only do something if it is the other way round.

  11. “We’ve already had numerous discussions about it,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told The Times this week. “To finish first, first you’ve got to finish.” That may be true most of the time, but not for the driver who leads the championship going into the final race of the season.

    So can we take that as a threat to Hamilton, then? For Hamilton to finish first, he first has to finish…

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