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Let’s Banter About The Finish At The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 12: Race winner and 2021 F1 World Drivers Champion Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing celebrates with his team after the F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit on December 12, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Lars Baron/Getty Images

It felt dramatic enough that the Drivers' World Championship would come down to Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen's results at Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Then it came down to the last lap after a Nicholas Latifi crash, and some unprecedented decisions from race stewards, neutralized Hamilton's seemingly insurmountable lead, allowing Verstappen and his fresh tires to out-sprint his rival. Three recently converted Formula 1 enthusiasts on the Defector staff convened to talk about this queasy but compelling conclusion to the season.

Maitreyi Anantharaman: It’s Nicholas Latifi’s world, and we’re just living in it, eh?

Giri Nathan: I think he did his job admirably, and hope he got paid well enough by Red Bull to justify the trouble.

Patrick Redford: Christian Horner’s quote about giving Latifi a “lifetime supply of Red Bull” typifies everything I like about F1: silly drama, open corruption, and top-shelf bantz.

GN: He did ask for a gift from the racing gods in the last 10 laps, and he got it.

PR: Anyway, speaking of Red Bull, we should at some point address the “big result” that has everyone yakking: Yuki Tsunoda finishes P4!

GN: We’re so proud of our 5-foot-2 guy. Solid rookie season, lots of funny moments cursing on the radio, and he learned how to shoot a layup! One of my favorite lads on the grid next season.

MA: You joke, Patrick, but I did feel a bit bad for him and Carlos Sainz, whose podium probably no one will remember. 

GN: Especially strange, because I thought Checo Perez might finish third. I get that the focus was on the whole Drivers’ Championship at the top, but I was a little sad how unceremoniously his car was retired—I genuinely do not remember hearing a reason given, on the broadcast—after how valiantly he had fought to hold off Lewis Hamilton for the team. Though later I read that Red Bull was worried Checo's engine was on its last breaths and didn't want him to stall out, potentially extending the safety car.

PR: With all due respect to the guy who won the race and also the guy who should have won the race, Checo’s defense on Hamilton to put Max Verstappen back in contact with Hamilton was the coolest actual driving qua driving we saw all day, right? Toss that in alongside Checo’s heroic tow of Verstappen to get him pole, and we may have witnessed the first meaningful use of a teammate in the Drive To Survive era.

GN: That was definitely the most exciting part of the race to me, short of the dumb ending, and I thought it was cute how Verstappen and Horner were on the radio talking about how “Checo is a legend” and “absolute animal.” Really a “fellas appreciating fellas” moment on the track.

MA: It was the highlight of the season for me. And though Hamilton was, as always, very complimentary of his departing teammate Valtteri Bottas, I did have a good chuckle at the guy’s total senioritis moment here.

PR: He won’t have much to celebrate over at Alfa Romeo; might as well get your swims in while you can. I suppose we should at some point offer an opinion on the whole thing where the championship was decided on the final lap of the final race of the season. FIA czar Michael Masi shut down our king Toto Wolff by declaring that what had occurred between laps 53 and 57 was “motor racing, Toto.” My question is: Was it?

MA: My question is: Has the WDC been decided? 

GN: It’s fun to see the terminology here: Both Mercedes “protests” have been rejected, and next up would be an “appeal,” right? At last check, Mercedes has a 72-hour window to lodge that appeal, though Verstappen has supposedly received a congratulatory text from Wolff.

PR: I have no allegiance here other than to the silliest possible outcome, so personally I would like to see the championship awarded in a courtroom in February.

GN: Definitely continuing the sports-wide trend of “The exciting thing you saw happen live might not have actually happened, stay tuned for more!”

PR: I’ve managed to snake myself into an annoying pro-Masi position somehow, considering his series of non-decisions on the Lap 1 fracas, the qualifying traffic jams, and the late-race chicanery. He's certainly not doing anything consistent with the rules of his sport, but his logic has at least followed an internally consistent maxim: Shrug and do nothing.

MA: I would not say I’m pro-Masi, but it must suck to be always reachable by radio to Christian Horner and Toto Wolff. The argument that the race director has the power to do whatever they’d like seems like odd precedent.

GN: What is the race director’s job description? Is he there to maximize entertainment value? safety? fairness? Given that this is the first F1 season I’ve followed, there’s a lot that’s still unsatisfying and unfamiliar to me about the sport. The whole concept of a safety car, for one—this weird vamping that counts towards actual lap total and mitigates so much of the racing that came before. And I also wanted to understand the extent to which getting past lapped cars is considered a relevant skill in racing. If we had a magical lightly inclined race track that swirled around itself like a massive corkscrew, so that no driver was ever retreading the same part of the track, wouldn’t it be better to let the bottom-feeders duke it out and the leaders duke it out without either group interfering with the other’s driving? I don’t know. I can see why Masi’s decision restores the race to what it, at least to my naive thinking, should be—a race between the fastest two drivers—even as it wiped away all the work Hamilton had done to extend his lead. Is it prohibitively hard to build a safety car protocol that preserves the gaps between cars?

PR: Giri, I would dig a refined, IRL Mario Kart as described. 

It does seem wholly ridiculous that something as significant as a 14-second time gap is just allowed to evaporate because a Canadian guy couldn’t steer his car. The seemingly intractable nature of this fracas, in a weird way, gets to something I love about this sport: the concept of racecraft. I remember Verstappen making a point in the first season of the show about how you won’t succeed in F1 if you don’t operate selfishly, and the high stakes and intensely competitive framework of this sort of racing are not theoretically governable by anything other than strict rule enforcement. So I guess unsatisfying outcomes like this are going to be a necessary product of this lax regulatory environment in a sport this acutely competitive. It really is motor racing!

MA: Right, that’s what I find so funny about it. You have this dramatic, spectacular ending that now must be parsed in an annoying and litigious way—Max Verstappen is champion on the basis that “any” does not mean “all.” The commingling of the crude concepts of speed and power with all these technicalities just makes racing so bizarre. (In a good way, I think…)

PR: As a connoisseur of the cheating arts, F1’s incentive structure really makes it the perfect sport to appreciate some high-quality breaking of the rules. I mean this less in the sense of Mercedes building in some illegal, undetectable rocket-grade engine into their car, and more in that the rules of the sport seem to be so ill-defined that a nuanced undermining of them—in letter and spirit—is an important and even necessary skill in winning a championship.

GN: This is probably true of a lot of track events too, but it never fails to amaze me how much these drivers have to think, mid-competition, about potential freakouts and crashes from other drivers they’re not directly dueling with. You just have to be responsive and alert to so much stuff beyond the work of getting past the car in front of you. I remember seeing a joke that Kimi Raikkonen had recently become a war photographer because of how many crashes he has calmly witnessed (and evaded) from his position at the back. Bye, Kimi! I wish I had seen enough of the sport to fully grasp it, but it sounds like you are a legend. I also heard you nap in the car a lot. It seems cozy in there.

MA: I’m sorry he went out the way he did. At least now he will be left alone. 

PR: I will miss one of this weird sport’s premier weirdos. A whole bunch of stuff is changing next year, including some pretty significant technical regulations. What are you looking forward to in 2022?

GN: DtS made me sympathetic to Alex Albon, so I’m happy he’s back on the grid, even if it's with Williams. I am excited to see how good George Russell is in a functional car, and whether he can make life more complicated for Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate. And the anti-dirty air stuff seems smart in terms of entertainment.

MA: I’m looking forward to learning who won the 2021 WDC in 2022. The new car—and its possible improvements to overtaking—certainly interests me. Also hopefully this is the year Charles Leclerc fandom is not so personally devastating! 

PR: Really hoping for a big year for Charles and the Scuderia. I feel let down that I only started watching in a serious way after they stopped winning races. Also, you'd have to think Daniel Ricciardo is under some serious pressure to actually drive well and help Lando Norris out after a down year. In more general terms, I’m hoping these new car changes can ring in a significant shakeup of the grid. It’s worth remembering that Mercedes’s rise to unstoppable force was coeval with the V6 turbo changes, which they capitalized upon better and faster than their competition. With this many teams abandoning tinkering on their 2021 cars to build out 2022 machines, you’d have to think something unexpected is in the cards. Until then, we must box box box.

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