Mike Rowbottom

When I was at junior school I took part in a little play written by a classmate. It was entitled "Who Will Be My Gardener?" I thought it very poor and determined to re-shape the work in performance by means of sotto voce directions to my fellow actors.

It didn’t work well. And of course the author then got all upset about it….

For some reason that memory came back to me as I was trying - along with millions of others - to understand exactly what was happening in yesterday’s hugely controversial Formula One finale at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the last race of the season.

Was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen’s annexation of his first world title, denying Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton what would have been a record eighth victory, down to an impromptu alteration to racing rules - a late change of script?

It is a complex and contentious issue. And while Verstappen and his team eventually celebrated after two appeals by Mercedes had been rejected by F1 stewards, a process that took more than three hours, Hamilton’s team has lodged its intention to appeal the verdict.

Mercedes at that point had 96 hours to decide whether to go ahead with an official appeal - a timeframe that just happens to match the official awarding of the title at the Awards Ceremony on Thursday (December 16) held by the sport’s international governing body, the FIA.

As a final option, Mercedes could take its case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne.

It should be noted, however, that CAS - which has dealt most prominently with cases relating to individual or orchestrated doping infractions - has made clear its reluctance to overturn sporting results in the field of play, while reserving the right to do so where there is clear evidence that officials have acted in bad faith or with arbitrariness.

Make of that what you will…

Sport is no stranger to legal wrangles over results, of course.

Anyone who has followed athletics down the years will be very familiar with the dragging experience of awaiting a Jury of Appeal verdict on results that appeared clear before the arena cleared of spectators.

Athletes have been retrospectively disqualified, sometimes after a long sequence of appeal and counter-appeal, for all manner of infractions - running out of their lane or stepping onto the infield, failing to exchange a baton within the required zone, false-starting, even, on occasions, failing to clear a hurdle correctly.

At times it has felt as if the sport is being distorted by all the fine legal judgements. This phenomenon has occurred at the very highest levels - at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, for instance, the men’s 200 metres final was plunged into uncertainty as the two men who followed Usain Bolt home in medal positions, Churandy Martina of Netherlands Antilles and Wallace Spearmon of the United States, were disqualified for stepping out of their lane.

Silver and bronze went respectively to Spearmon’s colleagues Shawn Crawford and Walter Dix - although Crawford later gave his medal to Martina.

Another memorable instance when the laws impinged heavily upon the action took place at the 2018 World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, where the apparent winner of the men’s 400m title, Óscar Husillos of Spain, was disqualified for a lane violation, along with London 2012 silver medallist Luguelin Santos of Brazil, meaning Pavel Maslak of the Czech Republic took a third consecutive title.

Not ideal. But earlier, for the first time in the Championship history, the entire field in the third heat was disqualified, also for stepping out of lane…

Usain Bolt wins the 2008 Olympic 200 metres title in a world record of 19.30sec - but silver and bronze medals were reallocated for rule violations ©Getty Images
Usain Bolt wins the 2008 Olympic 200 metres title in a world record of 19.30sec - but silver and bronze medals were reallocated for rule violations ©Getty Images

Horse racing has seen results overturned at the highest level via stewards’ enquiries although, according to britishracecourses.org, "in recent times, the rules have been changed to the extent that it is now comparatively rare for a horse to lose the race in the stewards’ room.

"Unless the infringement is clear and obvious, the stewards will take separate action such as a fine for the jockey for not taking action to avoid the interference."

High profile cases include the French-trained Nureyev losing the 2000 Guineas win at Newmarket in 1980 after being found to have caused interference.

In 2015 the same offence caused Simple Verse to lose victory in the St Leger - only for the horse to be re-installed on appeal.

Nobody likes to see sporting contests won or lost in an office. But what these examples from athletics and horse racing have in common is that they have involved deliberation over whether individuals have overstepped agreed rules.

The contention in the current F1 case, certainly from Mercedes, is that the rules themselves became fluid in the race’s, and season’s, climactic moments.

Hamilton’s team maintained that the F1 race director, Michael Masi, had not followed the rules relating to the deployment of the safety car after that procedure became imperative following a crash with five laps remaining involving the car driven by Nicholas Latifi.

Mercedes alleged a breach of Article 48.12 of the FIA Sporting Regulations, which states that "any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car."

The five lapped cars that separated Hamilton from his main rival at that point were - eventually - allowed to pass, but three others between Verstappen and the third-placed driver remained in situ.

Article 48.12 also says that "once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap" which, Mercedes argued if complied with, would have resulted in Hamilton winning the race and subsequently the title as the safety car led the field through the final lap.

As it was, the "following lap" was turned into an all-out race in which Verstappen, who had taken the opportunity to go into the pits and change to softer tyres that gave him an advantage over his rival, overtook and claimed victory.

The stewards eventually ruled that a separate rule gave Masi the power to control the safety car, which "includes its deployment and withdrawal".

They added: "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."

They also said that Mercedes' request to remedy the matter by amending the result by taking the positions at the end of the penultimate lap was "a step that the stewards believe is effectively shortening the race retrospectively, and hence not appropriate".

Max Verstappen celebrates as Lewis Hamilton applauds after the controversial final race of this season's Formula One World Championship ©Getty Images
Max Verstappen celebrates as Lewis Hamilton applauds after the controversial final race of this season's Formula One World Championship ©Getty Images

There has nevertheless been discussion over the timing of Masi’s decision to allow the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to move on ahead just before the final tear-up, and whether that may have influenced Mercedes decision not to put Hamilton into the pits for a tyre-change.

The five cars were not initially to go ahead - but late into lap 57 the decision to move them was taken. Shortly afterwards Race Control signalled the end of the safety car period and the race was resumed for a final lap.

Lando Norris, who was one of the drivers to un-lap themselves, commented: "I'm not too sure what was said from the FIA.

"At first we weren't allowed to overtake, as the backmarkers, so if that influenced decisions to Mercedes and to Lewis and that's the reason they didn't do their pit-stop...

"But then the FIA suddenly changed their minds and they were allowed to let us past. That's where I'm not so sure. For it to end like that, I'm not so sure."

Verstappen is a major talent, worthy of a world title. Hamilton is a legend of the sport. The feeling within the sport seems to be that, whatever the legal eagles determine, the raced-out result will not be reversed.

But will there be ramifications? Oh yes.