The drama in the Austrian Grand Prix began before the Formula 1 opener started when Red Bull reversed an FIA decision to see Lewis Hamilton penalised for a qualifying infringement. As ADAM COOPER explains, the ramifications are significant
Red Bull's review into the steward's decision not to penalise Lewis Hamilton for speeding past yellow flags during qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix was formally notified just 41 minutes before the actual start.
Hamilton was demoted from second to fifth, and much of the race strategy work that his team had done since qualifying was thrown out of the window as he was likely to find himself stuck behind Max Verstappen, the only front runner starting on the medium tyres.
So how did this highly unusual scenario play out? It was actually triggered by an official F1 Tweet on Saturday evening that showed a clip of the incident in question, as Valtteri Bottas went off in a cloud of dust at Turn 4 and Hamilton swept past to set his best time of the session - albeit one not quite good enough to beat his team-mate to pole.
The video then switched from the regular coverage that we all saw live to a 360-degree onboard view, which F1 has been experimenting with for a couple of years, but which hasn't really been fully exploited.
The editor knew clearly what they were doing, because when the shot showed Hamilton passing a yellow signal board they zoomed in and froze the frame.
The original decision that exonerated Hamilton was explained thus by the stewards: "The driver mentioned that he passed a green light panel in Turn 5. The video footage confirmed that there have been yellow flags and green light panels at the same time and therefore conflicting signals were shown to the driver. Taking this into account, the Stewards decide to take no further action."
The clip inevitably caused a stir on social media, as the yellow light panel appeared to be very obvious, making the "conflicting" argument irrelevant.
Naturally it soon came to the attention of Red Bull - the team with the most to gain as a penalty for Hamilton would put Verstappen on to the front row.
Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley contacted the stewards and asked if they had seen the 360-degree video. Not only had they not seen it, but nor had they seen any onboard video of Hamilton passing the yellow flag scene.
"Quite simply, we didn't have onboard footage from Lewis's car," said race director Michael Masi (below). "And when we were made aware today quite late in the piece by Red Bull that there was a 360 [video], there was some additional new evidence available, is when it came to our attention.
"So we weren't actually aware that that existed, to be quite honest. It's not something that we knew was there. And obviously, we're quite fortunate that a couple of years ago now the right of review was included within the International Sporting Code."
In other words, decisions can now be challenged. The ISC article in question is 14.1.1, which states: "If [...] a significant and relevant new element is discovered which was unavailable to the parties seeking the review at the time of the decision concerned, the stewards who have given a ruling or, failing this, those designated by the FIA, may decide to re-examine their decision following a petition for review by either one of the parties concerned and/or a party that is directly affected by the decision handed down, or the Secretary General for Sport of the FIA."
Thus the stewards can't revisit a decision unless they are prompted by one of the key FIA executives, or by an affected party. In F1 terms, any team is affected by a decision involving a rival.
"Only the Secretary General for Sport for the FIA can effectively lodge a petition for review by the stewards," said Masi. "Or any of the parties concerned or directly affected by the decision. So the stewards cannot open it up of their own volition from my reading, but it's only those two sorts of separate entities, which is quite clear."
The key requirement is to have a new element of evidence. Red Bull couldn't ask for a review just because it didn't agree with the decision. However the 360-degree video that it brought to the attention of the stewards was clearly relevant.
There was a two-stage process. First the stewards had to look at that evidence and agree that it was new and "significant" and that a review was thus appropriate.
They explained: "The stewards determine that the additional video evidence represents a significant and relevant new element which was unavailable to the parties at the time of the competition concerned.
"During the initial hearing, no on-board video footage of car 44 was available to the Stewards. Aston Martin Red Bull submitted 360-degree camera footage from car 44 including the passage of car 44 through the relevant section of the track."
Then they had to consider the impact on their original decision to let Hamilton off the hook.
"We saw that [the review] got used last year to deem that what was raised was not a new and significant element," said Masi. "I think there's been some misquotation that it was a protest from Red Bull. It wasn't actually a protest.
"It was a question that they raised of, is this a new and significant element? Which is why there's actually two separate decisions. That's why the first decision is, is it a new and significant element?
"The stewards determined that yes, it was, and then obviously went into a hearing as a result of that, and determined that effectively if they had had that footage yesterday or last night, they would have come to the same decision that they did prior to the race."
Perhaps the most surprising thing is the fact that the stewards didn't have access to the 360-degree video any earlier, and the unusual chain of events that led to Red Bull submitting it.
"It's actually something that we've been speaking this afternoon with FOM," said Masi. "It's not something that's available live due to bandwidth. Effectively it needs to be downloaded off the car, processed, etc.
"The right of review is there, a new and significant element was raised, it was determined as such and as a result effectively a new hearing was commenced based on that and as we saw the outcome was that a penalty was applied consistent with what we have, which is a three grid spot penalty for failing to slow for yellow flags."
The late timing of the whole saga also made it highly unusual. The first official word that something was going on came with an FIA document timed at 1.33pm - just 97 minutes before the start.
This was a simple notification that the review was happening, and that Mercedes team manager Ron Meadows had been summoned to see the stewards.
In fact the process was already well underway, as the stewards had studied the video. Shortly after that a decision was reached.
As part of the COVID-19 protocols, teams begin the process of going to the grid half an hour earlier than usual to minimise the chances of a human traffic jam at the pitlane gates.
Red Bull took its equipment to second place rather than third, while Mercedes went to the fifth spot, suggesting the teams already knew that the order had changed long before the official process of publishing a decision had been completed.
"Generally, we try to publish the final starting grid an hour before the start of the formation lap," added Masi. "In this case people may have seen on the grid that when the teams were lining up on the grid, which started about an hour before the start of the formation lap, Mercedes went straight to positions one and five.
"From an administrative perspective, obviously the first part that needed to be raised was Mercedes had to have a hearing and due process and be heard on that front.
"From a timing perspective, that decision was made and obviously needed to be reached and then published, and then subsequently, a new grid sheet has to be published as a result, because it may have gone the other way."
The actual formal decision came at 2.29pm. In it, the stewards said: "The new video footage clearly shows that a yellow light panel was flashing on the left side of the track in Turn 5. A green light panel was flashing at the end of marshalling sector 9. Taking into account these facts, the stewards determine that decision 33 will be reversed and the above mentioned penalty is being imposed."
In truth the whole process was cut a bit fine, and Red Bull were fortunate that the video was discovered in time to make a difference. In the end, justice was done, even if Hamilton and the Mercedes team were not very happy.
"I'd say that the cut-off point, the very latest would be when pitlane opens," said Masi. "I would suggest that for all of us we'd much prefer the right decision based on the evidence that we have, and the correct starting grid, rather than being held back by that side of it.
"The stewards in my view made absolutely the right call to do what they did."