One problem, two wrong answers: Does the sporting integrity or viewing experience matter more?

The 2022 Italian Grand Prix was marked with controversy after the race finished behind a safety car. // Photo courtesy of planetf1

The Italian Grand Prix, held on Sept. 11, was business as usual with Max Verstappen having a comfortable lead over Charles Leclerc, but that all changed when Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren had to pull over to one side due a mechanical failure with just eight laps remaining. This is when the race director, Niels Wittich, followed the rules and brought out a safety car in order to properly remove the car while keeping both the marshalls and drivers safe. The removal process took longer than anticipated and resulted in the race finishing behind the safety car. The race director did nothing wrong, but fans and commentators alike were not pleased — so much so that after the completion of the race, the Tifosi, Ferrari’s diehard fans, booed the winner, Verstappen, when he went to the podium to collect his trophy. The reaction from the fans and pundits might not seem justified, but in order to understand the scenario, take a look back at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was one of the most highly anticipated races in Formula One history. Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were tied on points going into the race, so whoever performed better on race day would win the Formula One World Championship. Everything was on the line on race day, so when Hamilton took the lead and started to gap Verstappen, there was some dread that one of the most climactic Championship fights ever would go out in a whimper. But after some heroic defensive driving from Sergio Pérez, Red Bull’s second driver, Verstappen started to close in on Hamilton. 

That was when the incident happened. Nicholas Latifi, a driver for Williams, crashed into the wall with just six laps remaining and the safety car was brought out right away. There was still some hope for some racing at the end, but with the laps slowly dwindling, most people were losing hope for the end of the race. With just under two racing laps left, Latifi’s car was cleaned up and racing was ready to be resumed. Verstappen would eventually win the race and the championship in the last lap, but the ending of the race was filled with controversy, mostly having to do with the decision of what race director, Michael Masi, did with the lapped cars. 

The proper procedure for lapped cars is that every car that has been lapped would need to unlap themselves before the racing resumed, but Masi only let the cars between Verstappen and Hamilton go and then started the race with one lap remaining. Masi’s decision led to one of the most intense laps in Formula One history, but it also brought into question the sporting integrity of Formula One and sports as a whole. Fans of the sport were not happy with the outcome which led to Masi eventually being fired.

The 2022 Italian Grand Prix and 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had the exact same problem and the race director went about solving the issue in the only two possible ways and people were not satisfied with either solution. In Italy, Wittich chose sporting integrity, but in Abu Dhabi, Masi chose the spectacle. Which way was the correct way to solve the issue? 

The argument for sporting integrity is quite simple — just because an incident happened later on in the race does not mean it should be treated any differently than it normally would. The only issue with the plan is that it is less entertaining for the fans. The argument for the spectacle is that although it may be artificial, the racing would go to the last lap of the race thus keeping the viewer intrigued. For the sake of Formula One, Wittich did the right thing in Italy because it meant that the race as a whole meant more than just the last few laps and the reaction of the fans was not justified. 

People watch Formula One because of the sporting aspect. They enjoy seeing cars go around different circuits as quickly as possible and the tension in the race is an added bonus. Overall, there is no solving the issue that Formula One has faced in those two races, but with the firing of Masi, all that can be looked for is consistency.