What Is a Safety Car Restart? How Lewis Hamilton Lost the Formula 1 Title

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Mercedes is used to battling it out with the likes of Porsche and BMW, but last Sunday they came up against another adversary in Red Bull Racing.
Mercedes and Red Bull are powerhouses in the sport of Formula 1, and a wild racing season culminated in Abu Dhabi, where Mercedes’ driver Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen were each one win away from the 2021 championship title.
The race ended in confusing fashion, with Red Bull’s Verstappen taking full advantage of a safety car restart and crossing the finish line first. Hamilton’s team were not happy, and protested the way the situation was handled by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile).
The controversial circumstances have left casual fans asking what is a safety car restart? And what was unusual about the race in Abu Dhabi?
A Formula 1 safety car driving down the track with two race cars behind it.
The 2021 Formula 1 season came down to an unusual finish.

What is a safety car in Formula 1?

In Formula 1, a safety car is used when there is an obstruction on the track, or if the weather makes racing at high speeds untenably dangerous.
It is deployed onto the track to drive ahead of the lead race car, and limits the speed of those competing in the race until track conditions have improved.
During the time the safety car is on track, competitors are not allowed to pass, and the race can only resume once the safety car has left and the caution period is declared over.

What happened in Abu Dhabi?

As explained by Autosport.com, Lewis Hamilton was cruising to victory in the final Formula 1 race of the season. A win in Abu Dhabi would have sealed a record eight championship title for the British racer, and his seventh driving for the Mercedes team.
However, when Canadian driver Nicholas Latifi crashed with only a few laps to go, a safety car was deployed to slow the racers and enable the track to be cleared.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took full advantage of the enforced slow-down, stopping to replace his soft tires, before sprinting to catch up with his rival in the Mercedes.
Rules dictate cars cannot overtake one-another while a safety car is on the track, but when the race restarted on the final lap, Verstappen was well-positioned to leap-frog Hamilton into first place—a feat possible thanks to his brand new tires—and cross the finish line in first place.

Were the safety car rules broken in Abu Dhabi?

In short, most people agree yes they were.
Following Verstappen’s decision to stop and replace his tires, the Dutchman found five lapped cars between him and Hamilton, who was in first place.
When FIA Formula One Race Director Michael Masi issued a notice saying ‘Lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake,’ it appeared that Vertsppen would have to stay in position.
However, on the second to last lap, Masi changed his stance, and allowed the five cars to unlap themselves. This enabled Verstappen to surge into second place, and due to the safety car capping his speed, Hamilton’s double-digit second lead had evaporated.
While the racers are not to blame, this ruling violated F1 Article 48.12, which states that the message ‘Lapped cars may now overtake’ should be sent to all drivers. In Abu Dhabi, this message was only sent to the five cars separating Hamilton and Verstappen.
Additionally, Verstappen broke F1 Article 48.8, which forbids overtaking behind the safety car. Replays show that he briefly nudged ahead of the Mercedes, before apparently noticing his error and falling back.
While Verstappen is an excellent driver, and a worthy champion, the manner in which this race (and by extension the championship) was won has upset many fans.
Mercedes has not followed through with official complaints, but the controversy has refused to die down. High-profile members of the sport are asking for clarification of the rules before next season, and some fans want Masi to take ownership of the mistakes and resign his position as FIA chief.

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