Formula One’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix took place on Sunday amidst criticism of the country’s human rights issues, and it ended with a whole new problem that fell closer to home: The FIA’s stewarding courtesy of race director Michael Masi.
As the penultimate race in the season, it was critical that the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix go off without a hitch — or as few hitches as possible when introducing a brand-new street circuit into the calendar as the championship nears its end. Instead, the race featured two red flags, negotiated penalties, unclear stewarding requests, and, generally, a whole lot of disaster during a race that needed a firm hand.
The start of the race went off without a hitch, but when Mick Schumacher collided with a barrier, it took race control several minutes to opt to red flag the race rather than maintain a safety car period. The flag was necessary — the barrier had been punctured, and a crane had to enter the track to carry it away and swap it for a new one — but by the time race control made that call, many cars had pitted for new tires.
By throwing a late red, then, the drivers that didn’t pit — namely, title contender Max Verstappen — essentially earned a free pit stop, as tire changes are allowed under a red flag. And while the rule itself has benefitted both drivers in the title fight this year, the fact that it took several minutes to red-flag the race to repair a critical piece of barrier was the first faux pas of the event.
After much hemming and hawing, race control opted for a standing restart, which brought another bout of chaos. As Verstappen led the field to the grid, he raised concerns that Hamilton was lagging too far back and was in violation of the rules that required all cars to remain within 10 car lengths of one another on a formation lap... but race control ultimately decided that a restart doesn’t count as a formation lap, so Hamilton was absolved. Red Bull was, understandably, quite upset.
Hamilton launched past Verstappen at the start, but Verstappen overtook Hamilton by leaving the track surface at the first turn. Several cars crashed, race control threw another flag, and the next issue popped up.
The F1 broadcast played a radio exchange between race director Michael Masi and Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley that seemed confused at best. Masi offered to move Verstappen to second place. There was just one issue: With all the chaos between Hamilton and Verstappen, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon had moved up to contend with the leaders.
(It’s important to clarify here that the stewards were likely not asking Red Bull to give the position back in the sense that, if Red Bull said no, race control would have conceded defeat and let Verstappen start from first place. Instead, it was likely a formality that gave Red Bull the chance to willingly accept the race director’s punishment; if Red Bull said no, then the matter would have been referred to the stewards, who would have issued a penalty without giving Red Bull a chance to say no. That said, the optics are still extremely bad, and it doesn’t exactly lend a feeling of respect to the stewards or race director.)
What did the steward’s offer mean, then? Verstappen was being punished for overtaking off the track, so putting him in second place raised questions. Would Hamilton be given first place, thus punishing Ocon — who had legitimately earned his position — and relegating him to third? Or would Ocon be promoted to first place, with Verstappen being given a place ahead of Hamilton despite the fact that he was supposed to be punished for his overtaking maneuver?
It was only cleared up when Red Bull responded to Masi to accept the offer of second place, so long as it meant Verstappen would line up next to Ocon and Hamilton would be third. Race control clarified that this was not the case: Vertappen would be third behind Ocon and Hamilton. Red Bull had to accept.
Then came another interesting decision: Race control opted for another standing start, even after the chaos of the previous standing start. Thankfully, that second restart went on without a hitch. Ocon got off the line first, and Hamilton attempted to overtake. In the process, he left the door open for Verstappen, who went three wide to overtake both drivers.
And then, yet again, chaos. After Hamilton had overtaken Ocon and reeled in Vertappen, he attempted to pass. Realizing it wasn’t going to work, Hamilton appeared to back out of the maneuver, but Verstappen darted into the runoff area in what seemed to be an effort to cut off Hamilton. Race control told Verstappen to yield the position. Verstappen yielded by slowing drastically in the middle of the road, and Hamilton slowed behind him.
Race control, it turned out, had told Verstappen and Red Bull to yield the position. It didn’t have time to give that same message to Mercedes and Hamilton in time for Hamilton to overtake. Thus, the two drivers collided. As they both started driving again, the message was clearly conveyed to both drivers. Verstappen yielded his position, then almost immediately overtook Hamilton. Hamilton proceeded to overtake once again, a position he held until the checkered flag.
But that wasn’t all for race control, which summoned Hamilton and Verstappen to the steward’s room almost immediately after the race, when both drivers were taking part in the mandatory post-race press conference for the podium finishers. Then, at 1:36 in the morning local Jeddah time, Verstappen was awarded a 10-second time penalty for dangerous braking. The penalty didn’t impact his second-place finish, as he was 16 seconds ahead of third place.
The race itself wasn’t even the first sign of impending disaster. Hamilton was placed under investigation for failing to slow for yellow flags in the first practice session, and stewards took until qualifying to come to the decision that the marshal had mistakenly thrown the yellow, absolving Hamilton of any guilt.
The whole event left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, from fans to drivers to team owners. After the race, Red Bull boss Christian Horner lamented that, “it felt like today the sport missed [former longtime race director] Charlie Whiting, I’m sorry to say, but the experience that he had…
“It’s obviously frustrating but yeah, it’s difficult for Michael [Masi] and the stewards, particularly at this type of venue, type of circuit, with the amount of debris and types of corner there are, but yeah, it’s the same for everybody.”
While fans can debate whether or not Horner’s arguments in favor of Verstappen are legitimate, many agree with Horner’s sentiment that the FIA has been issuing drastically inconsistent rulings on rule infractions all season long.
It isn’t uncommon for F1 drivers and teams to flirt with the rulebook, especially during a hot-and-heavy title fight that has everyone searching for a leg up on the competition. What is common, though, is the expectation of consistent rulings. If Hamilton attempts a move that earned Verstappen a five-second penalty earlier in the season, he should also be awarded a five-second penalty. If Hamilton escaped a penalty for something, Verstappen should escape a penalty for the same thing. And if a different driver, one not connected with the title fight, earns a penalty for something, the championship contenders should earn a penalty for that behavior as well.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case this year, which has resulted in higher than necessary tensions amidst an already stressful title fight. Inconsistent stewardship is only going to add fuel to a fire that’s already brewing, one which will result in the ultimate champion’s legitimacy being questioned in the middle of a Championship that has felt manipulated by strange penalties — or by a lack thereof.