Hamilton quit threat, Abu Dhabi controversy and the pressing issues Ben Sulayem faces

2022 season kicks off in Bahrain on March 20

President of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) Mohammed ben Sulayem. AFP
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As a series of showdown meetings between Formula 1 teams, drivers and its governing body take place, The National examines the fallout from the dramatic end to last season at the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Who is Mohammed ben Sulayem?

The new president of the FIA, the organisation that runs motorsport worldwide, including F1. Based primarily in Abu Dhabi, Ben Sulayem is the first FIA President from the Middle East but has been working in the organisation for decades. Coincidentally, he was elected just days after the title was clinched at Yas Marina Circuit in December. As a 14-time Middle East rally champion, he’s a vastly experienced racer. Strangely, for one of the world’s richest sports, the presidential post is unpaid.

How is he doing so far?

It’s early days. but Ben Sulayem has started fast, telling Mercedes and Sir Lewis Hamilton there will be “no forgiveness” if they broke rules by failing to turn up to the end of season prize-giving ceremony in protest at the events in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

So what is the Abu Dhabi controversy all about?

Hamilton lost the title to rival Max Verstappen in a last lap ‘shoot out’ in controversial fashion.

That happens in sport, doesn’t it ?

Of course. But Hamilton had been leading before a rival crashed and race director Michael Masi used the safety car period to get the two title rivals together at the front of the field for a thrilling one-lap showdown.

Why did he do that?

Teams, including Mercedes, have insisted in the past they did not want races to finish behind the safety car, much less an entire championship decided that way, but the fact that Verstappen had already stopped for fresh tyres for the re-start meant he had a considerable advantage.

If the race-off was great for the show what’s the big deal?

Mercedes accused Masi of “freestyling” with the rules which demand all cars have to be moved back to their correct positions before a re-start, and Masi didn’t do that for everyone because there weren’t enough laps left, so he hadn’t follow protocol.

Is that so bad if there was an exciting finish?

Yes and no. Consistent application of the rules has been a gripe from teams and drivers for much of the year.

So Masi broke the rules?

Good question. This is one of the biggest issues – the rules say the race director has ‘over-riding authority’ but did that extend to what he did? Critics argue he can’t just manufacture a shoot-out just because he wants one.

So who is Masi?

He is F1’s Australian-born, 44-year-old Race Director, effectively like a referee in football.

Does he work alone?

No. There are three or four stewards - one usually a former F1 driver - who make the big decisions if time allows. But Masi is accused of lacking consistency in the rules he enforces.

So what happened after the Yas Marina race?

The FIA ordered an inquiry but Hamilton has not been heard from since. There is a lingering (unattributed) threat he will quit the sport unless the rules are improved. Some say Mercedes and Hamilton want Masi sacked, too.

Will the FIA sack Masi just to placate Hamilton and Mercedes?

Definitely not. He might go for other reasons, such as his decision-making in Abu Dhabi, Brazil & Spa but it’s unlikely. The decision rests with Ben Sulayem and the FIA’s top body, the World Motor Sports Council. But where would they find a quality replacement?

Have Mercedes have threatened to quit F1?

Not publicly. The bigger issue is that how the inquiry is resolved will decide people’s faith in the sport and how it is run. It’s likely new measures will be put in place so the events of Abu Dhabi cannot be repeated.

That’s Ben Sulayem’s biggest problem then? The FIA’s credibility?

Yes, both within F1 and among the wider public. The FIA’s Secretary General Peter Bayer is leading the Yas Marina inquiry but Ben Sulaymen has widened his brief to ‘review and optimising the organisation’.

That’s a good move surely?

Unquestionably. The FIA is modernising slowly but it is widely regarded as an outdated collection of self-entitled boys clubs with key posts handed out on a grace-and-favour basis.

So what happens now?

The FIA inquiry met F1 team bosses on January 19 and are speaking to drivers over the next week or so.

So will Mercedes and Hamilton quit F1?

It’s unlikely Mercedes will go but what Hamilton will do is less certain. The FIA has said the inquiry will report officially on March 18, the first day of the new season in Bahrain.

Clever. So Hamilton and Mercedes will have to decide their future before then?

Yes. Mercedes have already announced their new car launch date on February 18 and the first test of the year, which Hamilton will have to take part in, is a week later. Although, around that time, informal discussions will probably hint at the likely outcome when the F1 Commission meets, nothing official will be announced until Bahrain.

Is it really likely Hamilton will go?

Who knows. He will stay if he wants to chase a record eighth title. And revenge. But it’s supposedly the start of a new era with tougher, closer, racing. Walking away in (supposed) disillusionment would not be the best way to end such a stellar career.

Would F1 survive if Hamilton quit in?

It survived Ayrton Senna’s death, Bernie Ecclestone and Michael Schumacher leaving so why not Hamilton? But it would be a blow.

Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton receives knighthood

Sir Lewis Hamilton after he was made a Knight Bachelor by the Prince of Wales during a investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle. Picture date: Wednesday December 15, 2021.

Is there anything that is certain?

Yes. The rules will change. The teams unanimously want to see operating procedures tightened so that so-called ‘freestyling’ cannot happen again. Also the rules of in-race team communication with the race director will be more limited and broadcasting of them will end.

Our thoughts

Do the rules need to be reviewed? Undoubtedly. But at the end of the day it comes down to whether you believe Michael Masi deliberately engineered a Verstappen win or was just a ‘referee’ trying his best in an incredibly pressurised situation and made a mistake with his last-lap call. He also, arguably, made a bad call on the first lap Verstappen-Hamilton clash that favoured Mercedes. Should that decision be re-visited too? Mercedes can’t take only the decisions that suit them. If football, baseball, basketball or F1 race results were reversed every time someone was unhappy with the referee where would we be? But Sulayem has a perfect, early, opportunity to make significant change and stamp his authority in style n F1.

Updated: January 22, 2022, 6:32 AM