Daniel Blake, Senior Associate
F1 fans new and old would no doubt have gasped as yesterday’s dramatic events unfolded at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
Lewis Hamilton seemed destined to be crowned an 8-time world champion and finally surpass Michael Schumacher (who achieved 7 world championships during his illustrious career). However, an unfortunate twist in the final laps resulted in his rival, Max Verstappen, taking advantage of a safety car, overtaking Lewis on the final lap to win the race and secure his maiden world championship.
Safety cars are part and parcel of F1. However, yesterday’s result was mired in controversy as Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 (Lewis Hamilton’s team) claimed that the FIA (F1’s governing body) had not followed its own regulations and that Michael Masi (the FIA’s Race Director) had erred in their application.
Mercedes immediately filed a protest against the result (pursuant to Article 17 of the 2021 F1 Sporting Regulations), citing breaches of the FIA’s Sporting Regulations (predominantly Article 48.12). Mercedes contended that the FIA had not followed the safety car protocol, specifically the issue of allowing lapped cars to overtake the safety car. Mercedes argued that all lapped cars had to overtake the safety car and, provided all lapped cars had done so, the safety car should have returned to the pits at the end of the following lap. Article 48.12 of the FIA’s Sporting Regulations provides that, inter alia,:
“48.12 If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message “LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE” has been sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.
This will only apply to cars that were lapped at the time they crossed the Line at the end of the lap during which they crossed the first Safety Car line for the second time after the safety car was deployed.”
What transpired appeared to contravene Article 48.12 as Michael Masi only directed that those lapped cars sandwiched between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen could overtake the safety car. Mercedes argued that had Michael Masi correctly applied the rules then the race would have ended under the safety car as only one more lap remained at the time he directed those lapped cars could overtake.
The Stewards dismissed the protest on two grounds:
- Article 15.3 (purportedly) allows the Race Director to control the use of the safety car; and
- Article 48.13 overrides Article 48.12, so once the message ‘Safety Car in this lap’ has been displayed, it must be withdrawn on that lap.
Mercedes has since lodged a notice of intention to appeal the decision of the Stewards (Article 15 of the Sporting Code and Article 10 of the Judicial and Disciplinary Rules) to the International Court of Appeal, which is the final appeal tribunal for international motorsport. Per Article 14.4. of the FIA’s Judicial and Disciplinary Rules, the applicable law is the regulatory texts of the FIA (Statutes, Regulations, other binding rules), as well as French law.
If Mercedes does submit an appeal (it has until Thursday to lodge) what are its likely legal arguments? We briefly consider this uncharted territory and provide our initial thoughts from a purely regulatory perspective.
(ii) Misapplication of Article 15.3
The Stewards contend that Article 15.3 allows the Race Director to control the use of the safety car. Article 15.3 states:
15.3 The clerk of the course shall work in permanent consultation with the Race Director. The Race Director shall have overriding authority in the following matters and the clerk of the course may give orders in respect of them only with his express agreement:…e) The use of the safety car.
We consider there may be reasonable legal arguments to suggest that Article 15.3 solely concerns the rank of authority as between the clerk and Race Director. For example, the clerk may have a view on the deployment of a safety car or its withdrawal that the Race Director fundamentally disagrees with. We consider this Article may provide the Race Director with the power of veto to overrule the clerk in such a situation, but does not provide unfettered power to disapply the FIA’s own Regulations and Articles as the Race Director sees fit.
(ii) Misapplication of Article 48.13
The Stewards ruled that Article 48.13 overrides Article 48.12. It seems a little unclear as to how the Stewards determined that Article 48.13 overrides. We consider there may be reasonable legal arguments to suggest that the two Articles must be read in tandem i.e. the message ‘Safety Car in this lap’ (Article 48.13) should only have displayed once all of the lapped cars had overtaken the safety car and the safety car returned to the pits as directed by Article 48.12.
There is a significant speculation around this case going before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”) in Lausanne, Switzerland. That is not a possible outcome here, since the FIA Rules and Regulations do not permit an appeal to the CAS, rather, as stated above, the International Court of Appeal is the final appeal tribunal within the sport. Since the FIA is domiciled in Paris, this would leave the French legal system as the only route of appeal and, following a determination from the highest French court, the European courts. In those courts, further arguments could be raised about the independence and impartiality of the FIA’s arbitral system.
Obviously there is much at stake, both from a financial and reputational perspective – not just for the teams, but also for Formula One and the FIA. This kind of controversy and drama ignites the curiosity of the entire sporting world, and we all await the legal developments with keen interest.
Please note – this articles does not constitute legal advice..