Sports

The Controversial Formula 1 Championship Was a Netflix Dream Come True

It might not have been fair. But it was a natural outgrowth of exactly how the sport got huge this year.

Verstappen yelling in celebration and pumping his fist, as he is lifted up into the air and surrounded by his cheering teammates
Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Red Bull Racing team celebrate after the F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Lars Baron/Getty Images

A lot of Americans got deep into Formula 1 auto racing over the past year or so. Most of us took the same route, via a Netflix docuseries that wound up being some of the most effective advertising a sport has ever done for itself. The series is a collaboration between the streamer and F1 itself, and while it elides stories that would reflect negatively on the enterprise as a whole, it aggressively plays up interpersonal dramas between drivers and teams. It portrays F1 as a series of head-to-head battles in which everyone is trying to get a leg up on someone else. The most recent season arrived on Netflix in March and covered the 2020 F1 campaign.

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Then a new season of actual F1 racing unfolded, and it turned out to be more dramatic than anything some TV producers could gin up. Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion who drives for Mercedes, found a worthy rival in Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who held the championship lead during the season’s home stretch and arrived for Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix level on points with Hamilton at 369.5 points apiece. The two don’t like each other, and pre-race analysis focused on two ways the race might finish: Either the drivers would crash each other out of the race and Verstappen would win the championship on a tiebreaker, or things would come down to a razor-thin margin in the last few laps. Some way or another (and they were quite different possibilities), the season would get an enthralling finish.

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For most of the race, none of that was panning out. Hamilton’s Mercedes was the faster car, and he drove it well in keeping Verstappen at arm’s length. There was some suspense mixed in, including a first-lap dustup that featured Hamilton passing the pole-starting Verstappen, nearly losing the advantage, and then dubiously cutting a corner to get back into first position. Later, after both title rivals had taken pit stops, Verstappen’s teammate Sergio “Checo” Perez managed to hold up Hamilton so Verstappen could close the gap. “Checo is a legend,” Verstappen said over team radio. But the British defending champ, despite starting the race on a slower set of tires than Verstappen—he used “medium” tires that are more durable but get less grip on the track—was just faster than his young Dutch rival. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said in a live TV interview with 10 laps left that it would take “a miracle” for Verstappen to catch Hamilton.

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It turned out that Red Bull did get its miracle, when Williams driver Nicholas Latifi crashed on the 53rd of a 58-lap race. But what happened next was less divine intervention than an alignment of Verstappen’s own interests and his sport’s. To give Verstappen a real shot, the man in charge of Formula 1 races made a late call that prioritized entertainment over classic notions of competitive integrity. The decisions let the Dutchman pull off a stunning comeback and capture his first title. Naturally, this episode left Mercedes furious, Red Bull delirious, and new F1 fans unable to talk about what they’d just witnessed, which was clearly part of the point. F1 has enjoyed striking benefits from framing sports as entertainment, and in Abu Dhabi, it merely leaned into the strategy. On one hand, it wasn’t fair to Hamilton. On the other hand, it was a natural outgrowth of something that will put a ton of money into the pocket of Hamilton, Verstappen, and everyone else involved with F1.

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The first 52 laps were Hamilton’s. After Verstappen and Hamilton pitted on their 13th and 14th laps, respectively, Hamilton had around an eight-second lead. Perez’s intervention closed it to around one second, but Hamilton gradually built his advantage back up. When Latifi crashed on the 53rd lap, Hamilton’s lead was 12 seconds with five laps to race—a margin that would’ve been insurmountable without some kind of crash or mechanical failure. Michael Masi, the race director appointed by the governing International Automobile Federation, called out a safety car while workers went to retrieve Latifi and clear his car off the track. Every car on the track had to slow down significantly, and nobody could overtake a car ahead of him. The effect was to drastically tighten up the field into a neat queue behind the safety car and the leader. And critically, laps kept elapsing, as Masi opted not to simply pause and restart the race.

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The safety car brought strategy back into play. Verstappen went to the pits again to get fresh, soft tires, which would give him a real speed advantage against Hamilton’s older, harder tires, and he reemerged still in second place. Verstappen’s pit stop was a direct response to Hamilton not pitting ahead of him. Had Hamilton pitted, he had real reason to worry he’d be costing himself the championship. Verstappen would have avoided the pit stop and taken the lead, and there was a real chance that clearing Latifi’s car would take enough time for the 58-lap race to have concluded in the queue behind the safety car before Hamilton could resume racing and catch up. Hamilton, in that case, would’ve handed away a victory for nothing. The same risk did not confront Verstappen, who had enough of a gap behind him that he could pit under the safety car and reenter the race in his same second place position, with the slowed-down queue allowing him to get back close behind Hamilton. (He could do that because his teammate Perez, who’d been in third position, dropped out of the race under the safety car, ostensibly out of fears his car would break down, but resulting in open track for his teammate.) Verstappen would’ve done the opposite of whatever Hamilton did, and as it happened, he got fresh rubber with no real lost-time consequence. Hamilton was on the tires he’d added to his car during his lone pit stop on the 14th lap, as Mercedes fretted all race about losing position during stops. (Verstappen had pitted under another safety car on the 36th lap, while Hamilton stayed out on the track.)

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The Dutchman had a different big problem, though. He and Hamilton were so much faster than the rest of the field that they’d lapped half of it. Five lapped cars were queued between the two championship contenders. Under normal racing conditions, those cars are obligated to find time to move aside and let speedier cars pass them. But it still takes time for a fast car to work through those lapped cars, and the safety car had led the queue into the last three laps of the race. On the 56th lap, Masi announced lapped cars would not be allowed to unlap themselves, leaving Verstappen in trouble. “Typical decision,” Verstappen whined over team radio, while one of his engineers replied, “It’s classic.” (Verstappen has a perpetual grievance complex with the FIA.) But on the 57th and penultimate lap, Masi reversed course—under immense pressure from Red Bull boss Horner—and let the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen run ahead to get out of the way. It was a stark departure from typical procedure, which is that all lapped cars get to unlap themselves in these situations or none does.

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The lapped cars cleared out before the end of the 57th lap, and Masi called for an immediate restart of the race for the final lap—another departure, as usual procedure is for the race to restart on the following lap after the safety car has left the track. In this case, there weren’t enough laps for that to be possible; the race ended after the 58th lap. Hamilton would’ve won in exceptionally nondramatic fashion, with no overtaking by other cars allowed. Instead, Masi sanctioned an immediate restart at the top of the final lap, which was now a dead sprint to the finish between Verstappen and Hamilton, with no lapped cars in the way and with Verstappen on the fresh, fast tires. Hamilton was screwed. His team principal, Toto Wolff, knew it, too. An anguished Wolff pleaded with Masi, who replied, “It’s called a motor race, OK?”

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Verstappen passed Hamilton and hung on to win. It was a stunning ending to a stunning season. Netflix producers were on hand filming for the fourth season of their series, and everyone who watched live will remember it forever as an astonishing and memorable sporting event, rather than the dud it would’ve gone down as if Hamilton had cruised to an easy (and quite arguably deserved) win. Instead of that anti-climactic ending, we all got a shock, and countless F1 novices, your author included, spent hours Sunday learning about the minutiae of F1 safety car regulations. Mercedes lodged a formal protest against Masi’s management of the race, but race stewards ruled that Masi’s “overriding authority” over the use of the safety car gave him the power to restart the race as he saw fit. Masi freelanced from the rulebook as he went along, but the final decision was that he was allowed to wing it. The final decision also said that teams had agreed beforehand that finishing the race under a safety car would be avoided if possible. After all, it’s not a compelling race for a way to end.

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Did Masi make it up as he went along to make for a better fourth season of Netflix? Probably not. I don’t think he gets paid that way. But did he go out of his way to ensure a wildly suspenseful head-to-head finish, with full knowledge that millions of racing fans, many watching for the first time, had turned on their TVs expecting a photo finish? Well, of course he did, because Masi doesn’t live under a rock. Whether for commercial reasons or not, Masi wanted racing to decide the race, an understandable impulse. F1 didn’t explode in popularity this year by being boring, and Latifi’s crash meant the championship was going to conclude with bureaucracy no matter what. There’s no telling how many people took the gateway drug of a Netflix series and became racing addicts watching Sunday’s real race.

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This entire dynamic is not exactly worth celebrating or condemning outright. A flat-out sprint on the last lap is sort of a fairer way to close out a race than an executive fiat about finishing behind a safety car, but sort of not, because it wiped out a superior performance by Hamilton for most of the race. But assessing the morality of the race’s ending isn’t really the point.

Masi’s specific race management decision wasn’t inevitable—he could’ve just as easily not made it—but sports leagues placing entertainment value above competitive considerations is a consequence of both their actions and ours. F1 is a business, and it’s recently found a lot of new customers who want to buy chaos and drama. In that position, the people in charge will find a way to sell it.

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