Squeaky bum time
Whether placed on American football, basketball, or soccer, a losing bet always has a chance of turning into a winner in the dying minutes of a competition. It’s something that ex-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson used to refer to as “squeaky bum time” – when all it takes is one goal, touchdown, or three-pointer for everything to turn on its head.
a horse can lose its strength in the final furlong
It’s this chance that keeps horserace fans clinging onto their betting slips as their losing horse hits the final straight, and ensures boxing bettors don’t cash out even if their man has taken a beating all night. There’s always a chance that a leading horse can lose its strength in the final furlong, and an unsuspecting uppercut can catch a dominant fighter by surprise.
In all of these sports, the rules ensure that opportunity’s door is never closed in the dying seconds. Over the weekend, however, Formula 1 gave a prime example of how it is an exception to this rule. The Monza Grand Prix ended under a safety car in a situation that not only killed the spectacle for fans, but also removed any hope for bettors who hadn’t backed the Championship leader.
A lackluster end
The Monza GP is a firm highlight in any F1 season. Ferrari fans engulf the track in a sea of red as drivers compete on one of motor racing’s fastest courses. Last year, a thrilling race saw title contenders Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen take each other out in a dramatic fashion. This allowed rank outsider Daniel Ricciardo to secure Mclaren’s first win in nine years.
With such an exciting 2021 race, fans expected a lot from this year’s edition after the lights went out on Sunday – something it delivered on until the closing laps. Amazingly, Ferrari man Carlos Sainz clawed his way back from P18 to end the race in fourth, while Red Bull’s Sergio Perez made it to P6 from his 13th grid place.
Ricciardo ground to a halt, causing a safety car to bunch the pack together
As always, the important fighting took place at the front, however, where on the 48th lap Dutchman and Championship leader Verstappen looked assured of a comfortable victory for Red Bull. That is, until a mechanical issue saw last year’s winner Ricciardo ground to a halt, causing a safety car to bunch the pack together while they cleared his vehicle.
The race organizers struggled to move the stationary Mclaren, meaning the laps ticked by behind the safety car without any actual racing taking place. Ultimately, the Grand Prix ended under these non-racing conditions, with Verstappen securing his slim but altogether comfortable victory over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc – much to the ire of the Tifosi watching on.
Memories of Abu Dhabi
To assess how the Monza GP could have played out under different conditions, we just have to look back to the final race of the 2021 season. The title-deciding Abu Dhabi GP ended in a very similar fashion, with a late crash resulting in a safety car in the closing laps. That time, however, race director Michael Masi made some slight deviations to the rules so that racing could go on.
Masi decided to allow the cars separating the title contenders to unlap themselves during the safety car. It set up a one-lap battle in which Verstappen, on much fresher tyres, had the clear upper hand over title contender and Mercedes man Hamilton. Although a thrilling watch, the controversial decision drew criticism far and wide and ultimately cost Masi his job.
injected an astronomical dose of excitement
While Masi may have broken the rules to ensure the last race of the season didn’t finish under a safety car, it is clear that he injected an astronomical dose of excitement into what would have otherwise been a non-spectacle. Bettors who had backed the Dutchman were granted their last chance at glory, just as the hope seemed all but gone.
As you could expect after his negative experience last year, Hamilton said 2021’s Monza GP was dealt with correctly. “It always brings memories back,” he told reporters. “That is the rules how it should be, right?” Predictably, Mercedes backed their star man’s sentiments, with team boss Toto Wolff agreeing that “this is how it should be.”
Tellingly, race winners Red Bull had a far different view. Team boss Christian Horner said: “We don’t want to win the race under a safety car. It’s something we’ve talked about for many many years, that they should finish racing.” As evident from the boos ringing out as Verstappen took his place on the podium, the Italian fans certainly agreed.
As Horner made clear, the safety car rules have often been discussed for this very reason. If they did want to make a change, there is one option that could work perfectly to ensure that racing goes ahead no matter what.
Indian F1 racer turned Sky F1 reporter Karun Chandhok outlined the solution to the issue while covering the GP. He explained that, under the current rules, race organizers could introduce a system in which an incident in the final laps of a race would result in an automatic red flag. This would require the drivers to return to the pits while the marshalls clear any debris, ensuring that no laps are lost under safety car conditions.
a fascinating end to the race while still sticking to the rules
Under red flag protocol, the cars will then return to the grid to finish the remaining laps from a standing start, paving the way for a fascinating end to the race while still sticking to the rules. “For all of us neutrals watching at home, that was a little bit of an anti-climatic finish,” Chandhok explained regarding the Monza ending. “I would have liked to see that race go ahead with a standing start and a green flag finish.”
Regardless of the sour taste left in the mouth of many racing fans by last year’s Masi saga, it would be difficult for any to disagree with Chandhok’s view. For motor racing fans, it would keep them hooked to their screens until the chequered flag. For bettors, it would ensure that the door of opportunity is never closed prematurely.