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Court decision shows Mercedes would have lost 2021 Abu Dhabi F1 appeal

An obscure court decision regarding a GT race has indicated that the Mercedes Formula 1 team would have lost any appeal over the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix safety car controversy.

The Safety Car Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, the rest of the field

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Following a similar disputed use of the safety car in an International GT Open event at Spielberg in September, the FIA’s International Court of Appeal declared that it would be wrong to nullify the final result because of a mistake by the race director.

The case demonstrates the sort of thinking that the ICA would have pursued, had Mercedes appealed after the Abu Dhabi race.

In the 2021 season finale, race director Michael Masi didn’t follow the established protocols after a safety car period when he resumed the race with one lap to go.

Having pitted for fresh tyres, Max Verstappen was able to overtake Lewis Hamilton over the course of the final lap and win the world championship.

After the race, Mercedes lodged two protests. The first claimed that Verstappen had overtaken Hamilton under the safety car, and the second that Masi had not complied with the regulations as not all the unlapped cars had been allowed to unlap themselves. After lengthy deliberations, both protests were dismissed.

Mercedes then lodged a notice of intention to appeal, giving the team 96 hours to make a final call on whether or not to proceed – a period that pushed right up to the FIA gala prize-giving, where Verstappen was due to be awarded the world championship trophy.

During that time the FIA confirmed that it would set up a commission to fully review the events of the race, and with the prize giving looming Mercedes eventually decided not to proceed with its appeal.

Verstappen won the 2021 world title amid controversial circumstances in Abu Dhabi

Verstappen won the 2021 world title amid controversial circumstances in Abu Dhabi

Photo by: FIA

In a statement the team noted: “Together with Lewis, we have deliberated carefully over how to respond to the events at the F1 season finale. We have always been guided by our love of this sport and we believe that every competition should be won on merit. In the race on Sunday many felt, us included, that the way things unfolded was not right.

“The reason we protested the race result on Sunday was because the safety car regulations were applied in a new way that affected the race result, after Lewis had been in a commanding lead and on course to win the world championship.

“We appealed in the interest of sporting fairness, and we have since been in a constructive dialogue with the FIA and F1 to create clarity for the future, so that all competitors know the rules under which they are racing, and how they will be enforced.”

Regarding the FIA investigation, the team added that “we will actively work with this commission to build a better F1 – for every team and every fan who loves this sport as much as we do. We will hold the FIA accountable for this process and we hereby withdraw our appeal.”

The Austrian GT case also involved the safety car, although it unfolded slightly differently.

After a yellow flag period the restart took place in the wrong order, and following the chequered flag Team Motopark submitted a protest, asking for the result to be changed or nullified. That protest, as in Abu Dhabi, was rejected by the race stewards.

The team then appealed, and that appeal was subsequently heard by the court of the Spanish federation. The judges took an opposite view to the stewards, and cancelled the result almost a month after the event took place.

De Haan and Fagg won the GT Open title after a ruling in court

De Haan and Fagg won the GT Open title after a ruling in court

Photo by: GT Sport

Another team, Optimum Motorsport, subsequently challenged that decision by taking the case to the International Court of Appeal. The matter was heard early last month, with the full result and explanation emerging this week.

In essence, the ICA backed the original judgement of the stewards and cancelled the decision of the Spanish court, duly reinstating the race result as it was declared on the Sunday night.

As a result, Optimum McLaren drivers Sam De Haan and Charlie Fagg were declared champions instead of Eastalent Racing Audi pair Christopher Haase and Simon Reicher.

The ICA noted that the “race director did commit a breach of the regulations”, but in an extensive explanation that referenced previous cases and all applicable regulations, it declared that “the court decides therefore that neither the stewards nor the NCA [the Spanish national court] had the power to cancel the race”.

The ICA noted that there is provision in the regulations for it to amend or cancel a race result, but it also stressed such power “must be used under very restrictive circumstances”, adding that “the principle of ‘sporting fairness’ anchored under Article 1.1.1 of the [International Sporting] Code, which describes this principle as ‘fundamental’, must be central in the decision of the court”.

Significantly, the ICA added that “if it uses its specific power to annul or amend the classification, following the breach committed by the race director, it would try and rectify an unfair situation by creating another unfair situation.

The ICA concluded that “on the basis of the balance of interests, the court thus decides that it must reinstate the classification of the race and must not use its specific power to annul or amend the classification.”

While there is no guarantee that the ICA would have reached a similar conclusion after Abu Dhabi – which would have confirmed that the FIA stewards were correct in leaving the result as it stood on Sunday – the GT case does give a good indication of how they would tackled the case.

It also suggests that any future appeal, should similar circumstances arise again in an F1 event, will not be successful.

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