Was Verstappen’s overtake on Hamilton legal or not?

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton after the race in Bahrain. Credits: Red Bull Content Pool.

The first race of the 2021 season was characterized by a dramatic end, which saw a great battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen fighting until the last corner. Eventually, the English driver took the win. 

This incredible fight between the two possible title contenders created a lot of chaos and controversy after the race. Some people say that Lewis and Mercedes were right while others think the opposite. 

The controversy was born because Verstappen was incredibly fast in the last stages of the Grand Prix, and he was quickly catching Hamilton. With three laps to go, the Dutch driver overtook the seven-time world champion round the outside of turn 4. However, Max probably used the tires too much in the laps before his move or he carried too much speed into the corner. This caused his RB16B to lose grip, and he oversteered in order not to spin. After doing this, he went beyond the track limits and completed the pass on Hamilton. 

Nevertheless, Max kept the lead for only six corners. This happened because his engineer informed him to give the position back since race control ruled that Max had exceeded the track limits and gained an advantage while overtaking. 

The stewards informed the team to do so because Max should have slowed down to not go beyond the track limits in turn 4. If he had done it, he would have risked losing the lead, but since he did not, it meant that he “gained a lasting advantage” over Lewis. 

The huge dispute that was created after the end of the season opener in Bahrain was born because Hamilton exceeded the track limits in the same corner where he got passed by Verstappen. However, the English driver did that a total of 29 times in the race, and not only once. 

Red Bull estimated that Lewis gained 0.2s every time he went off track. This meant that at the end of the race he managed to collect 6 seconds in total. This is why many people did not understand why the Mercedes driver did not receive a penalty, and Max did. 

Lewis got away with it because the race control made clear that the track limits at turn 4 would not be monitored during the race. On the other hand, article 27.3 of the 2021 Formula One Sporting Regulations states that “drivers must make every reasonable effort to use the track at all times and may not deliberately leave the track without a justifiable reason.”

To make clear for everyone why the race direction took this decision, Michael Masi spent some words explaining the situation. 

“It was mentioned very clearly in the drivers meeting and the notes that [track limits] would not be monitored with regards to the lap time [during the race]. However, it will always be monitored following the sporting regulations, being that a lasting advantage overall must not be gained.”

“What was mentioned and discussed with the drivers during the meeting is that if an overtake takes place with a car off the track, and gains a lasting advantage, I will go on the radio and suggest to the team that they immediately relinquish that position. And that was made very clear.”

“Red Bull was given an instruction immediately by myself. It wasn’t for exceeding track limits, but for gaining a lasting advantage by overtaking another car off the racetrack.”

Finally, Masi concluded by saying that “if the team hadn’t chosen to give that position back, the matter would have been referred to the stewards.”

To conclude, Verstappen was asked to give back the position since he gained a lasting advantage while overtaking Lewis. The latter was not penalized because the track limits at turn four were not being monitored. Moreover, even though article 27.3 states that the drivers must make every reasonable effort to stay inside the track limits, it was at the race director Michael Masi’s absolute discretion to decide whether or not to give a penalty. Thus, since Masi decided that what Lewis was doing was legal, the British driver had all the rights to exceed the limits without being penalized.

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