What are the safety car restart rules in F1 after Abu Dhabi controversy?

Jake Nichol December 13, 2021
What are the safety car restart rules in F1 after Abu Dhabi controversy?
Photo by Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

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The F1 world championship boiled down to a last lap shootout in Abu Dhabi after a controversial safety car restart, but what actually are the safety car restart rules in F1?

Lewis Hamilton, on his heavily worn hard compound tyres, had the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix under control until a late safety car at Yas Marina.

Had Mercedes pitted the #44, they would have lost track position to Max Verstappen, who would have stayed out, doing the opposite in the #33 machine.

Verstappen rejoined with a gaggle of back-marker traffic between him and Hamilton, and with the laps running out while Nicholas Latifi’s car was recovered, he had a lot of work to do to win the title.

On Lap 56 of 58, a message appeared saying that “lapped cars may not overtake”.

This meant Verstappen would have had to muscle his way past the lapped drivers before reaching Hamilton – who would have cleared off up the road.

To pass five cars, including the Briton, was a lot of work to do in the time remaining.

However, on Lap 57 this position was reversed as Masi allowed those cars between the two rivals to un-lap themselves – or as a cynic might say, get out of the way of the title showdown.

This decision is what led to the Mercedes protest post-race about the safety car restart rules, but what actually are they?

  • REVEALED: How much does Max Verstappen get for winning the F1 world championship?
Photo by Mario Renzi – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

F1 safety car restart rules explained

In the FIA Sporting Regulations, safety car restarts are covered by Article 48.

Mercedes, backed by respected QC Paul Harris, protested the ending of the race on two counts – Articles 48.12 and Article 48.8.

48.8 is to do with how Verstappen drew alongside Hamilton once he assumed control of the race when the safety car came in.

  • EXPLAINED: Is Max Verstappen the youngest ever F1 world champion?

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It is Hamilton’s prerogative to control the pace at this time as he sees fit, but Mercedes took issue with Verstappen drawing alongside.

The regulation states that:

  • no driver may overtake another car on the track, including the safety car, until he passes the line for the first time after the safety car has returned to the pits.

In practice, this rule means that until the safety car has pulled into the pits and drivers pass a line on the track near the pit-entry, overtaking is not allowed.

While the stewards felt Verstappen did pass Hamilton, momentarily, it came when both were “accelerating and braking” during the restart phase.

The protest was also flung out because Verstappen was not ahead at the safety car restart line.

Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

Article 48.12

While the protest of Article 48.8 was always destined to fail, Mercedes’ protest under 48.12 of the safety car restart rules was a lot stronger.

The need to allow lapped cars to unlap themselves is not set in stone, and Masi was within his rights as race director to waive the requirement.

The safety car restart rule for Article 48.12 states:

  • 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 means cars that are at least one lap down can un-lap themselves, getting back on to the lead tour of the race.

Mercedes believes this means “all” lapped cars must overtake the safety car, with Red Bull countering that the word “any” in the regulation “does not mean all”.

It all kicks off

Having previously said the lapped cars could not overtake, Masi allowed Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel to un-lap themselves.

Or, as Mercedes sees it, get out of the way of a last-lap banzai between Hamilton and Verstappen.

Article 48.12 also states:

  • Once the last lapped car has passed the leader, the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.

The call for the five drivers to un-lap themselves came at the end of Lap 57, so following the safety car restart rules, it should have been withdrawn at the end of Lap 58.

This would have been the final lap of the race, where overtaking is prohibitied.

Mercedes’ protest here was also flung out by the stewards.

The team has indicated its intention to appeal further to the International Court of Appeal.

  • EXPLAINED: How many F1 world champions are there after Max Verstappen wins title?
Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

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Jake can usually be found writing about or watching anything to do with motorsport – from Formula 1 to NASCAR to British Truck Racing. His work as a motorsport journalist has been published by the likes of Autosport, Motorsport.com and Motorsport News – all highly respected names. Away from racing he is a keen amateur astronomer, podcast listener and enjoys long walks in the park with his three dogs.