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Formula One’s 2021 Season Was As Close — And Controversial — As Advertised

The final lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the 2021 season in a nutshell: all-time great Lewis Hamilton trying — and failing — to stay ahead of Max Verstappen, the ascendant poster child of the next generation of Formula One, yet neither able to escape the background noise of questionable rules enforcement that left fans and drivers alike uncertain about what comes next.1 Over the course of 22 races, the seven-time World Drivers’ Champion and the 24-year-old prodigy traded pole positions, victories, fastest laps and even accusations of blame as the two came together on multiple occasions.

On paper, the 2021 season echoed 2005 in many ways, as a 24-year-old wunderkind (Verstappen now, Fernando Alonso then) broke the dominant run of a 36-year-old seven-time champion (Hamilton now, Michael Schumacher then). Emotionally, though, the season felt more similar to the contentious battles of 20082 or the Prost-Senna era 30 years ago. 

Setting aside the emotions of the moment, the events at Abu Dhabi and questions about the larger direction of the sport, what can we learn about how the season unfolded? How did Verstappen claim the Drivers’ Championship while Red Bull lost out on the Constructors’ Championship to Mercedes? How well did the various driver moves pay off, including two-time World Champion Alonso’s return after two seasons away? And how well did the season stack up to our predictions back in April?

The main takeaway from our earlier analysis was that Verstappen had outdone Hamilton on raw speed last year, but a combination of Hamilton’s consistency and the speed and reliability of the Mercedes had given Hamilton enough of an edge to retain the 2020 title comfortably. Going into 2021, though, Verstappen was likely to have a small edge in qualifying, and if Red Bull could deliver improvements in either performance or reliability then Mercedes was in serious trouble.

Red Bull made progress on both fronts, narrowing the gap in relative Elo3 from 59 points in 2020 to just 9 points this year and reducing the chance of a mechanical failure during an average race from 9 percent to just 3 percent. Putting Verstappen in a near-equivalent package on both counts allowed his natural speed to shine. The young Dutchman continued to improve this year, increasing his relative Elo by 22 points, from +67 to +89.4 Hamilton also stepped up, but only from +64 to +67; his best season (2015) was +79, indicating that for as amazing as Hamilton has been, he may have a lower ceiling than Verstappen. This could be problematic for the Brit’s title chances next year if Mercedes is not able to gap the field under the updated regulations.

We predicted that the second driver for each of the title challengers would be closely matched. Sergio Pérez had a slightly lackluster season for Red Bull, but not all of that was because of the Mexican veteran. In more than one qualifying session, Pérez was used to provide a tow to Verstappen on the straights in order to counter the straight-line speed advantage of the Mercedes; this helped Verstappen’s qualifying record at the expense of Pérez’s starting position. Pérez was net -17 on Elo effect this year, with a -6 in qualifying and -9 on Sundays; given the larger K-factors5 on races, though, this means he underperformed on Saturdays more than Sundays. The opposite was true for the Mercedes No. 2, Valtteri Bottas; while he was also slightly negative this year (-2 effective Elo), he overperformed in qualifying (+3) and underperformed on Sundays (-5), reflecting his tendency to qualify well but end up adrift in the midfield during the race, unable to move up significantly (see: Azerbaijan, the United States, Russia and Abu Dhabi).

Alonso returned to Alpine (formerly Renault) after three years away from Formula One, and he proved he still belonged. While not the all-time great he was 10 years ago, the Spaniard finished a respectable 10th in the driver’s standings, 7 points ahead of his younger teammate, Esteban Ocon. The 40-year-old provided great moments both on the track — a podium in Qatar and a vigorous defense against Hamilton in Hungary to protect Ocon’s victory — and in the interview pen. The good news is that he hasn’t lost a step on Sundays, with zero change to his effective Elo based on race outcomes. The bad news is that his qualifying outcomes dropped his rating by 5 points, compared to a 5-point total increase for Ocon. While we haven’t calculated aging curves for Formula One drivers, it’s a safe bet that 40-year-olds are unlikely to improve, while 25-year-olds are on their way up.

So what about Abu Dhabi and the future of the sport? The controversy is complicated and involves parsing the finer points of safety-car guidelines in the F1 rulebook. But the main point of contention has to do with how Race Director Michael Masi handled the final few laps. With five laps remaining, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi crashed into a barrier, leaving his car blocking a portion of the track. Under the rules, Masi had several options to manage the situation: call out a virtual safety car or a full safety car, or wave the red flag and pause the race. Masi chose to deploy the safety car, which would slow the field and force the cars to follow in a specific line while still clinging to the possibility that the drivers could resume racing before they ran out of laps. At that point, Hamilton was in first, Verstappen in second and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari in third. But eight cars were a lap down and mixed in with the leaders, with five between Hamilton and Verstappen and two more between Verstappen and Sainz.

The general understanding among the teams, drivers and fans was that the rules would allow the race director to wave the lapped cars past the leaders and unlap themselves, but it was an all-or-nothing situation:

Either all eight cars would need to be waved through and unlap themselves, or none of the cars would be allowed through. This interpretation had been voiced by Masi himself a year earlier at the 2020 Eifel Grand Prix:

There’s a requirement in the sporting regulations to wave all the lapped cars past. From that point, it was position six onwards that were still running [on the lead lap], so between 10 or 11 cars had to unlap themselves. Therefore the Safety Car period was a bit longer than what we would have normally expected.

Once the last lapped car was in front of the safety car, then the safety car could be recalled at the end of the following lap. This means that in order to get one race under the green flag (lap 58), the safety car would need to come in at the end of lap 57, meaning all lapped cars would need to clear the safety car during lap 56. But were Masi to wave all cars though in order to get a clear battle between Hamilton and Verstappen, it would be nearly impossible to get all eight lapped cars past the safety car during lap 56.

Masi then made two decisions that proved to be controversial. First, he allowed only the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to unlap themselves while the two between Verstappen and Sainz remained in place. Second, he recalled the safety car on the same lap as the one in which those five cars unlapped themselves. These decisions seemed to violate both established safety car practice and Masi’s own previously stated interpretation of the rules.

On the start of the final lap, Verstappen was less than a half-second behind Hamilton but had a cushion of two lapped cars and nearly three seconds over third-place Sainz. On much fresher tires, the Red Bull driver easily overtook the Mercedes and cruised to a two-second victory and the title. Had the five lapped cars remained between the two title contenders, it is almost certain that Hamilton would have started the final lap with a cushion of three to five seconds and comfortably retained the lead to claim his eighth title.

After the race, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) — the sport’s governing body — argued that the rule book gives the race director complete control over the general deployment and withdrawal of the safety car in ways that can override specific sections of the safety car regulations. Masi himself said that this decision was done in order to “remove those lapped cars that would ‘interfere’ in the racing between the leaders.” No explanation has been given as to why third-place Sainz and other drivers vying for position were left with lapped cars to “interfere” with their races.

This has led to a vigorous debate in the Formula One community. Is Formula One a sport, first and foremost? Or is it a reality show in which the race directors can double as showrunners, moving cars around and selectively using their judgment to override portions of the rule book in order to create must-see TV?

At the moment, the truth may be somewhere in between, akin to a referee swallowing a whistle during an obvious penalty in the closing moments of a big game to “let the players decide” the outcome. The NBA and NFL regularly wrestle with this balance, but the scenarios are rarely as clear-cut, visible or high-stakes as what happened in Abu Dhabi. How the FIA handles this in the offseason will shape the direction of a sport just gaining a real foothold in America.

At the end of the day, there were two truly deserving contenders for the World Driver’s Championship, each with dedicated teams comprised of hundreds of engineers, strategists and support staff who put their drivers in the best possible position to succeed. This year may have represented the changing of the guard, as Verstappen’s raw pace continues to rise, while Hamilton continues to do his best to defy time with still-blistering speed paired with exquisite car control and consistency. Let’s hope that next year treats us to another close battle, but one that allows fans to focus on the people in the car and in the pits, and not the ones in the steward’s booth.

Footnotes

  1. The sport’s governing body has since announced that it is investigating the incident but laid the blame at the feet of fans, drivers and teams for misunderstanding the rules.

  2. In 2008, Hamilton (then at McLaren) pipped Ferrari’s Felipe Massa by 1 point after a final-lap pass to claim fifth place in the last race of the year. It concluded a bitter season only months removed from the 2007 Spygate scandal at McLaren and involved heavily debated stewarding decisions, such as the post-race time penalty given to Hamilton after the Belgian Grand Prix, retroactively handing Massa a victory.

  3. Absolute Elo ratings provide an era-agnostic way to measure the speed and skill of a driver. Early in F1 history, driver skill was equally as important as car quality in determining race results, but over time, the car has become a larger factor in predicting race outcomes. Relative Elo or Elo effect adjusts this value to represent how much effect the driver is able to have on the outcome in a given season.

  4. A midseason update to the model changed the magnitude of driver ratings in the modern era, but not the relative ranking or probabilities. As a result, these numbers reflect the output from the current model, which may differ slightly from the numbers in the April article.

  5. A multiplier that regulates how quickly the ratings change in response to new information; a larger K-factor means Elo ratings are more sensitive to recent events, causing the ratings to jump around a lot.

Justin Moore is a computer scientist who occasionally dabbles in college football and Formula One analytics. He runs the Tempo-Free Gridiron and can be found at @TFGridiron.

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