Can legal proceedings keep Max Verstappen from the F1 World Championship?

Last sunday, Max Verstappen won the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 race in a spectacular race. Mercedes immediately lodged a protest with the race organisation. The organisation rejected the protest, but Mercedes did not take no for an answer. Mercedes has announced legal action. In this blog, Onno Hennis will address the question of whether Mercedes has a chance in these proceedings.

Safety car

Near the end of the race, a safety car came onto the track because of an accident. At that time, Lewis Hamilton was leading. Max Verstappen was second in the race, but between him and Hamilton were five drivers who had been lapped by Hamilton, but had not yet been overtaken by Verstappen.

Free passage

The race director decided to give the five drivers free passage during the safety car. As a result, Max Verstappen found himself driving directly behind Hamilton at the start of the final lap. Partly because Max Verstappen had faster tyres, he managed to overtake Hamilton on the last lap and won the race. Mercedes could not agree with the decision of the race director and lodged a protest within 30 minutes.

Basis

Mercedes’ protest was based on article 48 of the FIA Sporting Regulations in which rules regarding the safety car are set out. It states that when instructed to do so by race control, “any cars that have been lapped by the leader” must overtake the safety car and join the rear; and that “once the last lapped car has passed the leader, the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap”.

Argumentation

Mercedes argued on this basis that if this protocol had been followed, the safety car would not have been allowed to leave the track after the penultimate lap; instead, it should not have left the track until after the last round (i.e. only after the end of the race). In that case, Hamilton would have won the race, according to Mercedes.

Protest denied

This protest was rejected by the race organisation. Referring to the same article, the organisation stated that the article also sets out that race control can decide to call in the safety car at any time, provided it is safe to do so. According to the race organisation, that decision overrides the protocol invoked by Mercedes.

Appeals to ICA

Mercedes subsequently announced that it would appeal against the decision at the International Court of Appeal (ICA). The ICA is the appelate body of the motorsport federation (FIA). The latter will review the decision of the race committee on the basis of the FIA Judicial and Disciplinary Rules. Furthermore, Mercedes may ask the ICA for a decision on the interpretation and application of the above-mentioned rules.

Does the appeal stand a good chance?

An outcome is always difficult to predict. But based on a first reading of the FIA Sporting Regulations, Mercedes’ appeal does not appear to be a winner. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether anything will change in the final standings for the F1 World Championship, should Mercedes’ appeal be upheld.

Literal interpretation

Mercedes’ main argument is that protocol was not followed. To the letter of the law, Mercedes has a point there. The FIA Sporting Regulations indeed set out that the safety car does not leave the track after all overtaken cars have passed and a full lap has been completed. However, the question is whether this protocol can or should be followed in all cases.

Discretionary decisions

In Article 15.3, the FIA Sporting Regulations stipulate that the race director has a great deal of discretion in making decisions relating to bringing the safety car in and take it off the track. The race director may therefore decide to bring in the safety car immediately under certain circumstances. Red Bull Racing will therefore argue that this discretion would be meaningless if the race director were bound to follow a particular protocol.

“Spirit of sport”

In addition, before the start of the season, all teams declared that they prefer to finish a race in “green condition”, i.e. without a safety car on the track. The idea behind this preference is to have the race decided as much as possible on the basis of actual racing. And that, of course, is the premise of every sport.

Sanction?

That leaves the question of exactly what the ICA can do, should it prove Mercedes right. Under Article 10.10 of the FIA Judicial and Disciplinary Rules, the ICA has the same powers as the race committee and it is explicitly stated that it can amend race results or even declare them invalid. However, the ICA cannot determine that the race will be re-run.

Invalidate race

Red Bull Racing is expected to argue at this point that they should not suffer because of a race director’s decision. In that regard, they may argue that even if the protocol had been fully applied, it would not be 100% certain that Hamilton would win the race. He could drop out in the last lap, for example. Since a re-race is out of the question, it is not inconceivable that – should the appeal be upheld – the race will be declared invalid in its entirety. In that case, Verstappen still wins the F1 World Championship, because he has won more races over the season, although he is equal in points with Hamilton.

Proceedings in France

Thus, it looks like Verstappen will be able to retain his world title. However, even if Mercedes’ appeal is rejected, Verstappen may still be in a state of uncertainty for a longer period of time. After all, Mercedes can then launch proceedings before a French court. All in all, it could be months before a final decision is made. Until then, the official final result – as also stated on the race form – is conditional because it is “subject to appeal”.

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