A duel at dusk and a dispute at dawn

13-12-2021


The conclusion to the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will go down as perhaps the most dramatically concluded Formula One championships in the history of the sport. The climax of the thrilling battle between Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing Honda (“Red Bull”) and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team (“Mercedes”) was always destined to provide wheel-to-wheel action, rolls of the dice and a teaspoon of controversy. Few would have expected the teaspoon of controversy to be inserted into the mix by the Race Director. Those last minute and unprecedented actions in relation to a last lap safety car restart have left an odd feeling over Max Verstappen’s maiden Formula One World Drivers’ Championship and the matter may still yet be decided by lawyers as opposed to drivers.

The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (the “FIA”) is the well-known governing body of Formula One. As such Formula One is governed and regulated by a variety of rules and regulations including: The International Sporting Code (the “Code”), The 2021 Formula One Sporting Regulations (the “Sporting Regulations”), The FIA Statutes and The Judicial and Disciplinary Rules (the “JD Rules”).

What Happened?

Safety cars are an important part of Formula One, dating back to the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix before being officially introduced in 1993. The use of safety cars has, undoubtedly played a vital role in improving safety in the sport.  From time to time however, their use has not been without its critics. Deploying the safety car too early, for too long and too often are not uncommon complaints. In this situation, the Race Director gave directions which seemed to do everything possible to facilitate the most dramatic of final laps the sport has ever seen at the expense of following the restart process which fans and teams will be familiar with.

Mercedes alleged two breaches of Article 48.12 of the Sporting Regulations. The Regulation state:

48.12           If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message “LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE” has been sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.

[…]

Unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.

Mercedes’ claimed that in breach of the Sporting Regulations, the Race Director allowed only certain lapped cars to overtake the safety car and effectively “unlap” themselves whilst also calling in the safety car a lap earlier than permitted to do so. Mercedes allege that had the Race Director acted in accordance with the Sporting Regulations, and indeed with how these regulations have been interpreted in the past, Lewis Hamilton would have won the race and the Championship.

Mercedes’ protest was ultimately dismissed pursuant to Article 15.3 of the Sporting Regulations which states that the Race Director will have ‘overriding authority’ in relation to the use of the safety car. The Stewards determined this covered the deployment and withdrawal of the safety car. It appears from the dismissal that no consideration was given as to whether the Race Director’s discretion under Article 15.3 possessed any limit and, if so, were the Race Director’s actions within the remit of that discretion. It would be surprising for Article 15.3 to be interpreted in such a literal way so as to allow the Race Director to do what he likes in relation to the safety car – i.e. it surely cannot allow the Race Director to deploy a safety car when there is no reason to do so just to get the pack together in what would otherwise be a boring race for the spectators with the lead driver miles down the track ahead of the other competitors in order to ‘let them race’.

Therefore, it cannot be a get out of jail free card for the Race Director. It is ultimately, a discretionary provision which affords the Race Director power to act, or not act, in relation to the particular race situation. As the above example sets out, this discretion cannot be infinite.

Interpretation of Discretion

The Stewards have interpreted Article 15.3 very broadly and Mercedes have, therefore, lodged notice of intention to appeal the decision of the Stewards under Article 15 of the Code and Article 10 of the JD Rules.

The Sporting Regulations do afford the Race Director discretion but just how much discretion is not known. Mercedes’ decision to not pit Lewis Hamilton late on and retain track position was a calculated risk based on the likely time to clear the wreckage of the Williams F1 car in the barrier at turn 14 and the process for a restart under the Sporting Regulations taking a greater time than the laps remaining would take to complete under the safety car. Had the Sporting Regulations have been interpreted how they historically have been, no doubt there would be a different world champion and no shadow of controversy. The decision to breach Article 48.12 by the Race Director took a fair fight that had already been decided on track and prescribed a last lap shoot-out between Max Verstappen on new soft tyres and Lewis Hamilton on extremely worn hard tyres. The directions issued tilted the advantage from Lewis Hamilton and into the Red Bull camp.

The use of precedents provides an element of predictability and fairness in interpreting rules and regulations. Not every matter falls into a precedent which is why the Courts continue to play an important role in the resolution of disputes. There appears to be no precedent for the two breaches of Article 48.12 of the Sporting Regulations and consequently nothing that would indicate the way and extent in which Article 15.3 is to be interpreted. If nothing more, the outcome of the matters at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will provide a greater stability in the interpretation of the Sporting Regulations and the discretional elements given to the Race Director pursuant to it which is something all teams and drivers would surely welcome.

The alternative position is that the Race Director does have a limited discretion but his actions were within the limited discretion afforded to him. That position would appear sensible and if this possibility had ever been discussed with the teams and drivers then it would be a compelling argument in evidencing these events as nothing more than a lawful exercise of the discretion afforded to the Race Director. However, whether this possibility has ever been discussed is not known.

The way the Sporting Regulations have been enforced does not only effect Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. In only allowing the lapped cars between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen to unlap themselves ultimately removed the possibility for Carlos Sainz of Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow to be able to compete with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton over the final lap (as Daniel Riccardo and Lance Stroll remained between Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz at the restart). It also kept Lando Norris, running in P7, a lap down on the cars ahead of him and removed all opportunity for him to compete for further world championship points. Ordinarily, all cars would have unlapped themselves and restarted in race order with every driver afforded the opportunity to attack the driver ahead of them. Whilst all the media attraction will be on Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton the effect of this decision taken by the Race Director has left many teams with a right to feel aggrieved.

What Happens Next?

Mercedes have already indicated their intention to appeal the decision of the Stewards. A notice of intention to appeal, pursuant to Article 10.1.1.a(d), must be made within an hour of the publication of the decision of the Stewards. Mercedes have a period of 96 hours in which the appeal must be notified.

Pursuant to Article 15.1.5 of the Code, the appeal will be heard by the FIA International Court of Appeal (in accordance with the JD Rules). It is likely that any process will be expedited given the need to get the matter resolved urgently.

It has been stated that nobody can take Max Verstappen’s World Drivers Championship title away from him but that is not strictly true. Article 10.10.2 grants the FIA International Court of Appeal the opportunity to annul or amend the result of a competition.

There is no right to appeal the decision of the FIA International Court of Appeal to the Court of Arbitration to Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland (save for in respect of FIA Anti-Doping Disciplinary Committee decisions – Article 15.10 of the Code). However, it is not inconceivable to imagine the matter ending up here. The FIA and Mercedes can agree to refer the matter to the Court of Arbitration on a one-off basis in the absence of a contractual right in the Code or JD Rules. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves on this matter.

Conclusion

This is not only an intriguing day for formula one but also a matter of extreme interest for all lawyers with a sporting passion. Whilst nobody wishes to see World Championships determined by Courts of Appeal it is hard not to feel aggrieved for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. The race and the World Drivers Championship was as good as sown up with five laps to go but the chaotic decisions of the Race Director turned that on its head.

This will likely rumble on and we eagerly wait with interest as to any decision which may be provided. What cannot be taken away is the extremely entertaining year of racing provided by Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, whom would both have been deserving World Champions in their own right this year.

As to the future of the sport, the Sporting Regulations should not be compromised for entertainment which is ultimately what happened in Abu Dhabi. The teams will likely demand more certainty from Stewards and the Race Director as to how these matters will be enforced in the future. In the future drivers, teams and spectators will have a better understanding of the Sporting Regulations and how the Stewards and Race Director will interpret the ambiguous powers and discretions afforded to them. As with the wider law, certainty of the rules governing any sport is vitally important to all competitors.

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Jack Hobbs

Solicitor
Commercial Disputes

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