In the final laps of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and deciding race of the F1 World Championship title, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi slid off the track and crashed into a wall, causing a safety car.
Whilst the safety car closed the gap between race leader Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull's Max Verstappen. Verstappen was stuck behind five backmarker cars.
Five drivers separated both title challengers as the FIA announced lapped cars could not overtake the safety car to move out of the way of Hamilton and Verstappen.
The race looked all but won for Hamilton before a controversial final twist.
Despite initially stating that lapped cars could not overtake, the FIA decided to overturn their decision, causing a final single-lap battle between the two title challengers.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner immediately contacted FIA race director Michael Masi, asking "Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out the way? You only need one racing lap.”
Responding to Horner, the FIA then approved the five backmarker cars in question to unlap themselves, removing themselves from Hamilton and Verstappen.
Why the controversy?
Article 48.12 of the FIA regulations deals with the situation of having backmarkers unlap themselves.
The rules indicate that any and all lapped cars that line up behind a safety car are allowed to overtake and unlap themselves while the safety car is out on the track.
Only the five cars between Verstappen and Hamilton were allowed to unlap themselves.
Initially, Masi decided that 'lapped Cars will not be allowed to overtake'. However, on the penultimate lap, Masi sent a message to all constructors saying that that the five cars could unlap themselves.
Had the other three backmarkers been allowed to pass the safety car, the race would have ended under a safety car and Hamilton would have won his record-breaking eighth world championship.
Mercedes found this unfair, but the rules do not state that partially unlapping the field is prohibited.
Mercedes decided to file two formal protests based on two regulations: Article 48.12 and 48.8 of the F1 Sporting Regulations.
Mercedes claimed that Verstappen breached Article 48.8, which states "no driver may overtake another car on the track, including the safety car until he passes the Line for the first time after the safety car has returned to the pits."
Verstappen briefly edged further than Hamilton under the safety car as he and Hamilton prepared for the restart. But the officials claimed that as Verstappen immediately dropped back and did not gain an advantage, this was not the case.
This has clearly raised questions whether the FIA is consistent with their approach.
Can cars now overtake the safety car any time you like provided they drop back?
The Exception: Article 48.12
Mercedes also claimed that the correct safety car procedure was not followed.
Article 48.12 of the sporting regulations cover the procedure under the safety car and it demands that “unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap”.
As the five lapped cars were allowed to pass the safety car on lap 57, the safety car should therefore have returned to the pits at the end of the following lap – lap 58. By allowing the safety car to return a lap early, Verstappen had a one-lap chance to overtake Hamilton who was on older tyres.
FIA officials determined that "although Article 48.12 may not have been applied fully, in relation to the safety car returning to the pits at the end of the following lap, Article 48.13 overrides that and once the message “Safety Car in this lap” has been displayed, it is mandatory to withdraw the safety car at the end of that lap."
Article 48.13 indicates that the "Safety Car In This Lap" message in fact, means that the safety car will be in during that lap, not the next lap, therefore superseding article 48.12.
The stewards also argued that Article 15.3 gives the race director (Michael Masi) “overriding authority” in several areas such the use of the safety car and therefore dismissed the protest on those grounds.
With both protests dismissed, Mercedes gave notice of its intention to appeal under Article 15 of the International Sporting Code, which governs appeals, and Article 10 of the Judiciary and Disciplinary Rules.
Mercedes are yet to confirm whether they will continue with the appeal. Although, The Times has reported that Mercedes "are considering aborting their plan to launch a further appeal" following the controversial Abu Dhabi finale.
Will it go to Court?
All legal options are likely to be on the table but given the pressure on the FIA, Hamilton's seven other World Championships, and clinching the Constructors Championship, it is possible that Mercedes will no longer want to press ahead with their appeals.
Should Mercedes decide to get litigious, the FIA would look to summon their International Court of Appeal (ICA) prior to the official award of the champion's trophy.
If Mercedes use up every legal option within the FIA's framework, they might consider branching out such as taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. However, The ICA is usually the final appeal tribunal for international motorsport.