Once again, this time in Melbourne, the words farce and chaos hung like a drag racer’s parachute at the end of an F1 Grand Prix, writes MARTIN SAMUELS.
As Freddie Mercury once asked, “Is this real life? Is that just fantasy?” Formula 1 has to make a decision.
Almost 18 months later we are still in Abu Dhabi. Still mulling over the rules, still wondering what sport is and what is part of a larger narrative tailored just for drama. Once again, this time in Melbourne, the words farce and mayhem clung to the end of a Grand Prix like a drag racer’s parachute.
Riders ranted over their team’s airwaves, with one crossing the finish line in frustration. Now it turns out Alpine sent two cars to the scrap heap in a race that didn’t exist; that Carlos Sainz received a five-second penalty for what was essentially a motorsport mirage. And the suspicion is inevitable that this was all done in the name of good television. Instead of the sport feeding its content to Drive to Survive, Drive to Survive now controls the content of the sport.
Present in Melbourne was Michael Masi, the man who started it. As F1 chief of racing in 2021 – and the second word in that title seems increasingly meaningful given what we’re seeing now – he made the flawed decision that handed the drivers’ championship to Max Verstappen on the last lap of the final race of this season handed over. Lewis Hamilton should have won a record eighth title, but Masi’s rogue decision denied him. He is now Chairman of the Supercars Commission and Director of Karting Australia. Hamilton is nowhere, the record books are irreparably changed and a precedent has been set.
Because while Masi left F1 under a cloud and his judgment was criticized by all but the victorious Red Bull, his decision to race that day rather than finish behind a safety car is now the role model. The slaughter and confusion in Melbourne are its consequence. When Kevin Magnussen drove into a wall towards the end of the race, a yellow flag for the safety car column was quickly escalated to red, requiring a full restart of the grid. It’s impossible to argue that this isn’t F1 policy now: the fabricated drama of a finish in race conditions. That every driver seemed to be asking the same question – WTF? – suggests that this is also a recent development.
So the race was abandoned and restarted on new tires with two laps to go, and the organizers got what they wanted: the spectacular, demolition-like derby. Sainz knocked out Fernando Alonso; The two Alpine drivers collided. Cars spun in gravel and into each other as drivers frantically josled for last position. And the red flag came out again. Meanwhile, the ranking list no longer showed Alonso in the top three. But when the race restarted, he was back. Back to grid position three. Something about the restart not getting to the first sector so the race had to continue the way it started not how it ended. Apparently it’s in the rule book. The rule book that the sport seems to ignore when it fits.
That means it ended under a yellow flag after all, with one lap less than the two Alpine cars that were destroyed in an irrelevance. The tearful Sainz was relegated to 12th after committing an infringement in a race that was too short to count. Since this is a sport where competitors have died, the fact that this can only happen so the action doesn’t even count seems a bit reckless. On the other hand, it makes little sense in Formula 1 now. However, if Netflix gets its hands on it, it will undoubtedly play as artfully as an episode of Succession.
It is also argued that this exposure has proven to be very good for sport. That much is true. But it’s no longer a sport, because sport has rules that can’t be adopted or ignored at whim and in the hope of better ratings. Sport doesn’t need a director either. That’s what makes it so compelling. Sport is improvised.
– The times
Originally published as Martin Samuel: F1 must decide whether it’s a real sport or Netflix fodder after bizarre Australian GP