As the stunning new Formula 1 cars of 2022 hit the track together for the first time at the Circuit de Catalunya two weeks ago, it seemed the sport might have finally put the controversial conclusion to last year behind it.
“I think ’21 has been well documented, maybe we share a difference of opinion over Abu Dhabi but that’s now done and dusted and all focus is very much now on 2022,” said Horner, who was even prepared to accept the drama had got out of hand over the course of 2021.
“What you did see last year was a fantastic competition from the first race to the last race. I think a key part of Formula 1’s revival in popularity has been that competition. So certainly we hope that there’s going to be an equally exciting year, ideally a little less exciting at times, but an exciting season ahead.”
Wolff also said he was eager to put the past behind them. “It got fierce at times and brutal, but there’s a lot at stake. It’s the Formula 1 world championship and there’s the fighting on the track and the fighting off track for advantages, so that’s okay.
“But I agree with Christian. We need to move on. There’s been so much talk about Abu Dhabi that it came to a point that it is really damaging for all of us stakeholders of Formula 1, and we’ve closed the chapter and moved on.”
With this, Verstappen’s first comments since the sweeping changes the FIA announced to race control following Abu Dhabi, it seemed the key players had said their last on the affair. One day earlier Hamilton had shut down further questions on Abu Dhabi. “I feel like I addressed pretty much everything I needed and wanted to address last week,” he emphasised, “I don’t really have any more to add to it.”
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But it turned out the matter wasn’t quite “done and dusted” for Horner. He spoke to the BBC yesterday and was pressed on whether Masi’s crucial decision to only allow a portion of the lapped cars to unlap themselves and bring the Safety Car in a lap early had been a violation of the regulations, as Mercedes argued.
“Michael Masi actually didn’t break the rules, he applied them in a way that hadn’t been done previously,” Horner insisted. How enthused the FIA was about its race director choosing the final lap of a championship-deciding race to apply its rules in this wholly novel way can be gauged by the fact Masi is no longer in the position and numerous innovations are being introduced to ensure future race directors approach the rules less creatively.
Indeed, Horner’s words come remarkably close to echoing Wolff’s view that a “freestyle [approach to] the interpretation of the regulations” had become the norm under Masi.
Horner justified his view by claiming that “leaving two lapped cars at the back of the field was the only variance with what’s been normal practice otherwise.” There was in fact a third car which was not allowed to follow the others in rejoining the lead lap, and Masi also did not adhere to the rules regarding the timing of the restart, by bringing the Safety Car in a lap early.
This detail matters because the tactical choices made by both teams were informed by their understanding of how the rules are applied. This includes, as Masi himself previously acknowledged, the requirement to allow all cars to unlap themselves, not just some of them.
For Horner, Masi’s exit came about not as a consequence of failing to apply the rules correctly, but because “a lot of pressure was put by one of our competitors on the FIA.” He dialled the rhetoric up higher in another interview.
Red Bull’s situation is clear: They can’t acknowledge any wrongdoing on Masi’s part because doing so would be tantamount to admitting Verstappen’s title is tainted. Defending Masi and defending Verstappen are one and the same.
In the meantime it remains to be seen whether the FIA will reveal anything of its investigation into the affair, as Hamilton urged them too. All of which tends to the view that we’ve not heard the final word on Abu Dhabi yet.
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