How F1 rules ignored in Abu Dhabi meant no Italian GP restart

Formula 1’s controversial safety car finish at the Italian Grand Prix has served to re-open wounds for many fans over what happened in Abu Dhabi last year.

How F1 rules ignored in Abu Dhabi meant no Italian GP restart

The race at Monza finished behind the safety car due to the FIA strictly following the procedures laid down in the rule book – something that did not happen at last year’s F1 season finale.

The governing body will inevitably review what happened to see if there were things it could have done better to allow at least a one-lap shootout restart on Sunday, but it can be in no doubt that the regulations were followed to the letter.

The rules in play

F1’s safety car rules form a whole segment – Article 55 – of F1’s sporting regulations. Here it is laid out how and when the safety car will be brought out, and the procedures that competitors and the safety car driver must follow.

A lot has been made in the wake of the race about how the safety car picked up the wrong car – with it running ahead of third-placed George Russell rather than race leader Max Verstappen. Interestingly, however, the rules do not dictate that the safety car only exits the pits to pick up the leader.

Instead, Article 55.6 says: “The safety car will join the track with its orange lights illuminated and will do so regardless of where the leader is”. Therefore, there was nothing wrong with it initially getting ahead of Russell, who had used the calling of the safety car on lap 48 to dive in to the pits.

Normal procedure then is for the lights on the top of the safety car to be switched from orange to green, to signal that any car running in front of the leader can overtake it. This then shuffles the lead car forwards to head the pack, while everyone else eventually forms up in a queue behind.

Critically this was delayed at Monza, which is believed to be due to the complications the marshals were having in retrieving Ricciardo’s car. The McLaren was stuck in gear and there was no way for marshals to be able to push it clear to the nearest gap. That meant the use of a crane, which was located on the opposite side of the circuit and needed to cross the track.

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The best way to achieve this safely was to ensure that there was a big enough gap in the traffic to give the crane suitable clear time – so it meant trying to hold back the train to produce this buffer.

Russell was kept behind the safety car to allow a buffer zone for the crane to move across the track between the two Lesmo corners to recover Ricciardo

Russell was kept behind the safety car to allow a buffer zone for the crane to move across the track between the two Lesmo corners to recover Ricciardo

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Amid the delay, Russell queried about whether or not he could overtake the safety car, but the orange lights were still on meaning he could not. The safety car kept holding Russell, and even Verstappen was not formed up in the queue until the end of lap 50.

It was only on lap 51, as the train of cars approached the Ascari Chicane, that the safety car lights finally turned green – allowing Russell and the cars between him and Verstappen through. But that was only the first sequence of what needed to take place before a restart.

The next stage is that once the leader is formed up behind the safety car, then the clerk of the course has the option to let lapped cars overtake. In Abu Dhabi, it was the selective choice of picking out a few lapped cars that caused controversy – as it left Verstappen with a buffer behind him from the third-placed car.

Since then, with the FIA justifying its decision that day by the rules having previously stated that it only referred to ‘any’ and not ‘all’ lapped cars, now the regulations have been rewritten to demand that all lapped cars have to pass.

But as leader Verstappen finally headed the queue at the exit of Ascari on lap 51, time was effectively up thanks to the key regulation that was ignored in Abu Dhabi to allow the restart. Once the message that lapped cars can overtake is displayed, then the rules are explicit that there needs to be at least one more lap before the restart.

PLUS: Why Verstappen would have beaten Leclerc without safety car help

Article 55.13 states: “Once the message “LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE” has been sent to all Competitors using the official messaging system, the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap”. So the clerk of the course effectively had less than one minute to decide whether or not to let the lapped cars through, or the race was done.

The decision was taken to wait. And the 'following lap' demand meant that the release could not be given on lap 52, as there could be no restart before the end of lap 53, which was the chequered flag.

In Abu Dhabi, the FIA ignored the ‘following lap’ requirement and restarted at the end of the same lap the lapped cars were released.  It justified that by saying the regulations gave the F1 race director complete freedom to choose what rules he followed. This was based around Article 15.3 which states that the race director shall have ‘overriding authority’ over a number of matters including the safety car.

Rules were applied to the letter at Monza, unlike at Abu Dhabi, which allowed Verstappen to make his critical pass on Hamilton for the 2021 world title

Rules were applied to the letter at Monza, unlike at Abu Dhabi, which allowed Verstappen to make his critical pass on Hamilton for the 2021 world title

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Fan anger

The FIA following the letter of the law in Monza meant that, by the time Verstappen was finally at the head of the pack, there was no way the race could be restarted. And the 'following lap' requirement adds further frustration as it meant two further laps at the end behind the safety car before the flag.

It was at that moment the fans started booing, with Ferrari clear their anger was aimed at the FIA and not Verstappen himself.

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“I think that the booing from our tifosi was more towards the FIA,” said Ferrari team pricipal Mattia Binotto.  “And simply by booing the first car and the winner, it was trying to boo the FIA. The reason is because the tifosi and the people out there believe that the safety car could have been ended before.”

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton could not but help notice the contrast between what happened on Sunday and how last year’s F1 title battle swung on that final lap in Abu Dhabi.

“It always brings memories back. That is the rules how they should be read," he told Sky. “There's only one time in the history of the sport that they haven't done the rules like that today and that's the one where they changed the result of the championship. But it is what it is.”

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