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The Biggest Injustice in Formula One History?

FEATURE BY GUEST AUTHORS
18/05/2022

More than 150 days on from the final race of the 2021 Formula One season, the debate over the controversial way in which Max Verstappen claimed his maiden championship shows little sign of abating.

Despite now being, at the time of writing, five races into a brand new era of the sport, social media remains awash with wacky conspiracy theories that Abu Dhabi was "fixed", and claims that Verstappen's title is forever tainted. It is perhaps little surprise to discover that most of these come from diehard Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes fans - their frustration perhaps compounded with the realisation that due to Merc's current struggles, Abu Dhabi may well have been 37-year-old Hamilton's last shot at eighth-title glory.

However, these fans seem to have forgotten - perhaps conveniently so - the controversial manner in which Hamilton won his first title, in what was arguably a far bigger injustice than what took place last year.

Most people will be aware of the story of the 2008 season. It was one of the all-time classics, which saw Hamilton and Ferrari's Felipe Massa contest the championship right up till the final corner of the final lap of the final race of the year - Hamilton passing Toyota's Timo Glock to secure the fifth place finish he needed, as the latter struggled on slick tyres in deteriorating conditions, to win the championship by a solitary point. Martin Brundle's call of "Is that Glock? Is that Glock going slowly?" has gone down as one of the most iconic moments in the sport's history.

That finish in itself was controversial - for many years, some fans incorrectly believed that Glock had slowed deliberately - however this is not the incident which can call into question the legitimacy of Hamilton's first title. That came three races earlier, at the very first Singapore Grand Prix night race.

Again, the events of Singapore 2008 will be familiar to some. Renault entered the race on a winless streak that dated back to 2006, and there was increased speculation that the French manufacturer was preparing to leave the sport at the end of the season. But on track, things had looked promising in Friday practice - Fernando Alonso setting competitive times - before a mechanical failure in qualifying condemned him to a lowly 15th place grid position at a circuit where overtaking looked to be difficult, to put it mildly.

A seemingly fortuitously timed safety car, caused by none other than Alonso's team mate, Nelson Piquet, elevated him up the field - and by the time the chequered flag flew at the end of the 61st lap, Alonso had taken an improbable and highly unexpected victory.

A few held suspicions at the time at what had taken place, but it wasn't until the very next year - 2009 - that the truth finally emerged. After being fired by Renault midway through the season for poor performance, Piquet ‘fessed up, and confirmed that he had been ordered to crash deliberately to aid Alonso's race. Renault was later found guilty of deliberately fixing the race and given a penalty of disqualification from the sport, but suspended for two years. To this day, it remains one of the worst cases of cheating, not just in F1 or even motor racing in general, but in sporting history.

But what has seemingly been largely forgotten in the ensuing 14 years is the effect that Piquet's deliberate safety car had on both the outcome of the Grand Prix for other drivers and, in particular, the title protagonists.

For context, Felipe Massa had taken a brilliant pole position at Singapore - and, in the early laps, had begun to pull away. Whilst it was not a given that Massa was certain to go on and win the race, it is very likely that without the safety car intervention, he would, at least, have finished far higher up the order than his eventual finishing position of 13th and outside the points.

Back in 2008, rules dictated that the pit lane was closed during a safety car period, meaning that anyone who pitted just before a safety car was called would be at a massive advantage compared to those who hadn't yet stopped and were waiting for the pits to re-open.

It was here where everything went wrong for Massa. Again, during that season, refuelling was still permitted, and in a chaotic rush to return to the circuit with team mate Raikkonen queuing just behind, Massa was released from his pit box with the fuel hose still attached to his car. Despite pulling up at the end of the pit lane, the Brazilian had to wait for his mechanics to arrive, and then remove the errant hose, before he could finally re-join the track - by which point, his race was completely ruined.

But what of his championship rival, Hamilton? He had been less affected by the pit stop chaos, and by the end of the race had recovered to a third place finish, and with it claimed a valuable six points. In those days, points were awarded to the top eight finishers only, with a maximum of 10 points for a win, rather than 25 as it is today.
A reminder of the winning margin of the 2008 World Championship? One point. Equivalent to a tenth place finish in today's money.

By the time the race fixing allegations came to light in 2009, it was far too late for the FIA to really do anything about it. Excluding Fernando Alonso as race winner could have been an option, although it would have made little difference to Massa. Voiding the race entirely would have surely changed the outcome of the championship as well, and so it was left that the results from a deliberately manipulated, fixed race were allowed to stand. In other sports which have seen instances of match fixing, that may well not have been the case.

Of course, there will be some reading this who will claim this is just a case of cherry picking from a season that featured misfortune and multiple incidents for both Massa and Hamilton. The former lost a certain race victory with only a couple of laps to go in Hungary due to engine failure, whilst the latter was penalised harshly at Spa - but that's racing.

However, due to Singapore being the 15th race on an 18 race calendar; it is hard to deny that the events of a fixed race influenced the outcome of that year's championship. Massa himself, perhaps unsurprisingly, definitely thought it had - claiming in an interview in 2009: "All of what happened was robbery - but regarding the race, nothing has happened, the result remains the same. This is not right. The robbery changed the outcome of a championship, and I lost (the title)."

Why to revisit this again, all these years later? Well, amid all the absurd claims and conspiracy theory nonsense posted on social media in recent months, it is perhaps worth providing some perspective, and reminding people that Lewis Hamilton has benefitted from a situation that was arguably far worse than what took place at the end of last year. Abu Dhabi 2021 is not, as one individual attempted to argue, the "worst ever" moment in F1's history - a bizarre claim at the best of times, considering the sport's 72 years of existence, in which drivers, marshals and spectators have lost their lives.

As he proved that day in Sao Paulo, when he stood atop the podium having just lost the World Championship, Felipe Massa is a far more magnanimous individual than many of us would ever be under similar circumstances. But, you have to wonder, if in the last few months since Abu Dhabi whenever he's logged on to social media, he has read some of what has been posted with a wry smile?

James Singleton

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by gcdugas, 02/08/2022 3:43

"I think that was a raw deal but it made up for the raw deal Max got when Lewis punted him at Great Britain.

So, my nomination for the biggest injustice ever in F1 is the 2003 season trye rule change mid season. Michelin and Williams were on pace to win with JPM. They even lapped Schumacher in Hungary but then Todt called in favors from Mosley and Bernie who wanted Ferrari to win for monetary reasons. That was Williams last shot at a title and it likely would have secured BMW's participation longer than 2009 because a championship changes everything. Just look at Honda reversing even the Red Bull Powertrain IP sale."

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2. Posted by Stitch431, 15/07/2022 9:56

"let's not forget that in Belgium it was Toto who agreed to this status Quo with Masi (broadcasted on Austrian TV) because he was afraid that in case the race did start Lewis would have lost far more points to rainmaster Max.
Everybody seems to forget the incident in the first corner, where Lewis drove off the track and gained an unfair advantage (... without punishment). The season was long, and there were many examples of where Lewis had unfair advantages, and there were others where Max had some. That is inherent to racing. On top of that, the reaction of Masi was probably because he was sick and tired of hearing Toto in his ear, reading Toto's emails, and last but not least, the grotesque fact that Toto brought a lawyer to the race. Toto just pushed it too far.
"

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3. Posted by didaho, 22/06/2022 23:48

"Every race sees someone's result directly affected by the actions of an opposition team - often it's technical chicanery resulting in an unfairly quicker car. We almost never see or hear the complete story on these and if we do, it's long after the event.
An official intervening outside their remit, rules and accepted practice to decide the championship live in plain view certainly amplifies deviation. Masi's clusterf was akin to Balestre's blatant and arrogant meddling."

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4. Posted by Pavlo, 02/06/2022 21:32

"@ ChickenFarmerF1:
Less important:
1 and 2 - you are right, but the simple fact is that Lewis ended up with less pits (way worse tires) and no gap for pit. Whatever the reason.
3. Knowing Belgium and the agreement, their decision was reasonable but not the only possible, and proved wrong.
4. Max did wave on the straight, defended inside and Lewis almost counterattacked in two corners. Lewis could have protected inside and on the straight there was no DRS, then we would see, but he just gave away.

MOST IMPORTANT:
Regarding Masi - absolutely not. You remember how people criticised Belgium as a “farce”, though the rules were applied literally. And they agreed to not finish under SC, and it’s the last race. If he would red flag or finish under the SC, you would never know another possibility(!!!), so would hate him
for manipulating the race and allowing Lewis to win."

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5. Posted by ChickenFarmerF1, 02/06/2022 19:20

"@Max Noble - the ONLY difference I think we'd have today had Massa won in 2008 is that Massa would have a WDC and Lewis would "only" have 6 WDC. Massa never won another race (even including Formula E and Brasil Stockcars) after 2008. Partly because of the spring that came off Barrichello's BAR, partly because he wasn't really ever that consistent. It's highly doubtful Ferrari would have retained Massa after 2013, or that Merc would have taken him over Hamilton for 2013. I very highly doubt Merc would have retained Michael for another 2 years regardless of Hamilton's move. Schumacher had no wins, no poles, and only a single podium in 3 seasons with Merc. I remember watching his racing and he was not the Schumacher of the Ferrari prime years. Any driver with the same performances not named Michael Schumacher would probably not have even been retained for the 2012 season. So "that" ski holiday most likely wouldn't have been affected either. Nico didn't light the world on fire those years either, but did have 1 win, 1 pole, and 5 podiums over the same period. Maybe Hamilton wouldn't have gone to Merc without the WDC under his belt, but he'd have been a far more likely candidate than Massa, and probably still a better candidate than anyone else on the grid at the time, save perhaps Alonso and Vettle (but either of them switching to Merc for 2013 would have been even bigger shocks than Hamilton). Hamilton had won 12 races for McLaren 2009-2012 along with 13 poles and a bunch of podium finishes. And recall that EVERYONE thought Hamilton must have gone mad to leave McLaren for Merc when he did because McLaren was viewed as a powerhouse every bit as likely to challenge RBR as Ferrari, with Merc a mid-field player at the time. So not having a WDC already likely wouldn't have factored very heavily into Merc's decision to recruit him. Maybe that initial contract wouldn't have been for quite as much money. But that's probably it."

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6. Posted by ChickenFarmerF1, 31/05/2022 22:42

"@Pavlo
1) Bottas wasn't close enough to the top most of the season to be of strategic value. Abu Dhabi was just the last example of many, and why he was dumped by Merc.
2) We don't know what Merc would have done without a SC, nor had the SC occurred earlier than it did. Most likely if the SC had been called a couple laps earlier they'd have pulled Lewis in for tires as there would have been every likelihood of green flag racing for at least as many laps. With no SC at all it would have been a choice between risking tire failure vs Max's ability to close the gap. No way to know, but it appeared that Hamilton had enough time in hand to slow a bit and still win without the SC, so likely they'd have taken that gamble.
3) They figured that race control wouldn't let the lapped cars past because the rules as understood by everybody up to that point were to let all lapped cars pass, or none. Merc correctly figured that with the 5 lapped cars between Lewis and Max that it would take just long enough for Max to clear them that Lewis would at least have a good shot at reaching the line before Max could pass him too. And if they let the 5 lapped cars through, they'd let the rest of the lapped cars through too, which would result in ending the race under the SC.
4) Lewis had nothing to defend with. His tires were gone. Been a while since I saw it, but I seem to recall that Max got past Lewis with a LOT of room to spare before the next braking zone. Had Max barely found his way past you might have a point.

I think overall the real distinction here is what a couple other folks have mentioned. Singapore 2008 was a bad act by a competitor looking to advantage themselves with no regard for the effects on others. In that sense it's not really meaningfully different to Massa/Lewis as an ill-timed rain shower, or true accident by another competitor. It could have screwed Lewis more than Massa for all they (Renault) cared. It wasn't anyone acting to benefit Lewis over Massa, or even just to harm Massa. On the other hand, Abu Dhabi 2021 was a deliberate decision by the race director to alter the dynamics of the race specifically to the advantage of one driver, and the detriment of the other. Masi might not have been wanting to engineer a win for Max per se, but he was looking to put Max and Lewis on that same bit of tarmac to make it "exciting" or whatever.

If Masi (and Horner, et al) really wanted a real motor race to the checkered flag they should have red-flagged the race as soon as it was apparent how long it would take to clear Latifi's wreckage. Then restart from either a standing or rolling start as appropriate, with all cars in order of position (i.e. lapped cars behind the leaders). Merc would have no doubt put on fresh rubber and it would have been a fair (in all regards) fight to the finish for those last 2-5 laps (depending on when they actually waved the red flag). Had Max won in those conditions (or Lewis) it wouldn't be in the least controversial. In fact, had that been the scenario, Masi would have been lauded for his quick thinking and eminently fair actions. And all of us key board back seat drivers would have a lot less to argue over."

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7. Posted by Pavlo, 31/05/2022 13:04

"I wouldn't directly compare these races, every case is unique. I'd rather say that Lewis and Max were hit by "karma", both had lucky and unlucky wins before.
To be fair, couple of notes here. As people write correctly, in Singapore, Ferrari made mistake, single. But in 2021 Abu Dhabi both Mercedes and Lewis made many mistakes:
1. Mercedes failed to get second driver close to the top to have strategic options.
2. Mercedes screwed the race strategy, putting Lewis at risk of:
a. an SC couple laps before would allow Max to win without any discussion;
b. without SC tires could have just exploded as it happened several times in 2021.
3. They made a "conservative" decision under the SC, not considering well-known to them agreement not to finish the race under SC, especially for such a race. Also opposite to (1) and (2) RB had perfect strategy, limiting choices for Mercedes.
But the most importantly:
4. Lewis failed to defend his position, surrendering to Max in the first opportunity. He did open the inside both on first and last lap, while Perez and Max showed that covering inside allows to defend. Perez also showed that on dead tires and worse engine one can survive a lap.

The last lap was in some degree fair summary of the season: Mercedes and Lewis cleanly and reliably worked (!) for a consecutive title. RB and Max were fighting(!) for the first one, with bold strategy from the team, and driver pushing to the absolute limit, using every existing and sometimes non-existing chance."

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8. Posted by Endre, 26/05/2022 18:36

"@CrazyCanuck Australia didn't matter anymore after Suzuka since Prost was awarded the title in Suzuka after the DSQ of Senna. Years after the incident and after he stepped down Ballestre actually admitted he did what he did to give the title to Prost."

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9. Posted by Spindoctor, 23/05/2022 13:14

"@James Singleton I detect a certain "Apples & Oranges" aspect to your thesis. We can all play "What if?" and\or engage in "whatabouttery", but your suggestion that Massa was "robbed" by Renault's cheating requires a pretty strong effort in suspension of disbelief.

As others have pointed-out F1's history is littered with the consequences of dodgy doings & weird decisions by Officials which have affected both Races & Seasons. Massa was certainly inconvenienced by Renault's behaviour, but it was clearly Ferrari's incompetence in dealing with it (& his own errors) which cost him in this race. All the other teams were also affected & as you say Hamilton "Recovered" to claim 6 points.

These events are hardly analogous to what happened at the very end of the Race & Season in Abu Dhabi where a peculiar interpretation of the Rules led immediately to the outcomes of both the Race & Championship - with no opportunity for the injured parties to fight back....
No "wacky" conspiracies. Those are simply facts. Even allowing that Masi's interpretation was permissible within the rules it was obvious that his decision would decide things not "on track" but behind closed doors & in secret: something guaranteed to create controversy & sow discord.

It hasn't harmed the TV ratings for F1, nor for "Drive to Survive", either..."

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10. Posted by ARL, 23/05/2022 0:19

"Really? No, and you provide the evidence why.

When the pits opened after the first safety car of the race, the Ferrari operation descended into chaos with Felipe being released unsafely into the track of Sutil with a torn fuel hose still attached to the Ferrari.

As you say he had to wait for the Ferrari crew to remove the attached fuel hose at the end of the pits, but he also had to serve a drive through penalty for the unsafe release and later span at Turn 18 losing more time.

Ferrari admitted that the unsafe release had been human error.

McLaren avoided human errors in their pitstops following the first safety car, and Lewis avoided any spins.

Hence the difference in their finishing positions. As you say,"That's Racing". McLaren and Lewis handled the situation better than Ferrari and Felipe.

Abu Dhabi was, at best, due to Massi buckling under pressure with a rule interpretation that was nonsensical and hopelessly biased against one driver."

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11. Posted by Max Noble, 19/05/2022 23:46

"…imagine the entire dynamic if Massa had won… Michael stayed at Mercedes because Lewis stayed at McLaren… Massa becomes a double World Champion, Michael wins a final World title with Mercedes… and as a result of an entirely different life schedule never goes on *that* Ski holiday… 10,000 (sliding) doors on Life’s endless corridor…"

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12. Posted by Tardis40, 19/05/2022 18:37

"That was Massa's title. He would have taken it easily without the Renault nonsense."

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13. Posted by CrazyCanuck, 19/05/2022 14:18

"@Endre

In 1989 Senna needed to win the last two races to take the title from Prost. Even if you give Senna the win in Japan, he crashed out in Australia. Prost still wins the championship.
Last year, there wasn't a next race for Hamilton and Verstappen, there wasn't even a next lap."

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14. Posted by Redphyve, 19/05/2022 10:40 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 19/05/2022 11:01)

"This comment was removed by an administrator as it was judged to have broken the site's posting rules and etiquette."

Rating: Neutral (0)

15. Posted by Max Noble, 19/05/2022 8:30

"Lance Armstrong highlighted that 23 of the 24 other riders that finished on the podium with him during his domination of the Tour went on to test positive for a pile of performance drugs as he did. Yet the Tour organisers gave up revising history, as they would simply have thrown out the entire top 20 or so for a decade’s worth of races. Revisionist history is rarely worth the effort…

Getting it right to begin with is the way to go…

Sigh… poor old Massa…
"

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