As FIA begins Abu Dhabi investigation, where do Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton go from here?

Lewis Hamilton's commitment to F1 looks uncertain, with the FIA's race director Michael Masi at the centre of controversy over his handling of the season-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Credit: Getty Images

One month on from one of the most controversial conclusions to a Formula One season the sport has ever known and the world is still waiting for answers. 

Just what on earth went down in those frantic, final laps in Abu Dhabi? 

Did race director Michael Masi really adopt “a freestyle reading of the rules”, which left Lewis Hamilton like “a sitting duck” in last season’s finale, as alleged by Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff?

Or did the Brackley team make a “tactical error” at the end of the race, the argument put forward at the time by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner who maintains the stewards were absolutely right to reject their rival’s protests in the aftermath of Max Verstappen’s dramatic last-lap victory which followed the withdrawal of a safety car.

One thing is for sure, the FIA, and its new president Mohamed Ben Sulayem, need to get a grip on things. And fast. Mercedes and their seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton are still absolutely incensed by what happened and there is no guarantee that the latter will return this year. 

Hamilton has remained steadfastly tight-lipped since leaving the Yas Marina paddock. The outcome of the FIA’s promised investigation – which formally began earlier this week and is expected to be completed in time for the next World Motor Sport Council meeting on February 3  – understood to be crucial to his decision.

But what exactly does Hamilton want? What do Mercedes want? We know they are “disillusioned” because Wolff told us so before Christmas when he announced Mercedes’ decision to drop their appeal in exchange for a “robust” investigation. We know they want changes. But what are those changes? What is it that will keep Hamilton in the sport? 

An admission that errors were made

Mercedes declined to comment on Wednesday, as has been the case since well before Christmas. It is clear they do not want to be seen to be using the media to agitate. Their view is that the ball is firmly in the FIA’s court and it is incumbent on the sport’s governing body to deliver as promised. But you would have to imagine that at the very least they will want the FIA to admit that errors were made at the end of the Abu Dhabi race, when Masi first allowed only some of the lapped cars in between the leaders to unlap themselves, and then restarted the race a lap earlier than many felt it ought to have been. 

This will be hugely tricky for the FIA. If the FIA inquiry finds against its stewards in Abu Dhabi, there might be public calls for the result to be overturned. Or for an asterisk to be placed next to Verstappen’s name in the history books (which would be unfair on the Dutchman who did nothing wrong himself and was a deserving champion on the basis of his driving across the season). 

Peter Bayer, the FIA’s secretary general of motor sport, is currently in the process of interviewing all those involved, including Masi, and the results of his investigation will make for fascinating reading. Wolff has already said that one of the reasons Mercedes dropped their appeal was they did not believe the FIA’s International Court of Appeal would have found against their own race director. “The FIA can’t really mark their own homework,” he said. Can Bayer?

Masi’s head on a plate

FIA race director Michael Masi's time could be up

Credit: Getty Images

There has been much speculation that Mercedes agreed a quid pro quo with the FIA in the aftermath of Abu Dhabi, agreeing to drop their appeal so long as Masi and FIA head of single-seater technical matters Nikolas Tombazis were forced to walk the plank. You would have to imagine Masi is toast. Indeed you will not find many within the sport prepared to give the Australian even a fighting chance of calling the shots in Bahrain on March 20. Wolff himself implied Masi’s departure was inevitable when he told the media in his final press conference before Christmas that it was “not only a decision to change the race director” The tricky thing is there isn’t an obvious replacement.

Changes in the decision-making process

Wolff followed up his comment regarding Masi’s position by stating that “the whole system of decision-making [at the FIA] needs to be improved” with teams currently “held ransom by ad hoc decisions in every field”. 

He was no more specific than that but he and his fellow team principals have long clamoured for more consistency in the application of the rules. Whether the FIA can convince Mercedes and Hamilton before the start of the 2022 season that they can achieve that consistency this year remains to be seen.

End of team principals live on race radio

This is one thing Mercedes have publicly criticised. Wolff said he took his share of blame for making Masi’s life difficult in Abu Dhabi, conceding the move to allow team principals and sporting directors to talk to the race director live on a public channel meant they had effectively become lobbyists for their teams and had frequently overstepped the mark. While Horner intimated in an interview with The Telegraph last month that he felt it was interesting for the public to hear their discussions and that it made teams “think twice about hitting the button”,  F1’s managing director Ross Brawn has already suggested this is one area likely to be reviewed.

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