Christian Horner, the team principal of Red Bull, acknowledged that a mistake was made during the contentious restart of last year's Formula 1 season finale, in which Max Verstappen won the world championship.
After a restart on the final lap, Verstappen passed title rival Lewis Hamilton to win the race and the world championship. When it was discovered that FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi had not followed the regulations appropriately, however, the outcome of the championship battle was marred by acrimony.
The world title was not decided in a courtroom, as Hamilton's Mercedes team was eventually convinced not to file an appeal against the decision. However, the FIA decided to investigate the controversial season finale and, 97 days after the race, published a report indicating that errors were made during the contested restart.
In its summary the FIA noted Masi made two mistakes: He “called the safety car back into the pit lane without it having completed an additional lap as required by the Formula 1 Sporting Regulations” and did not allow all of the lapped cars to rejoin the lead lap. Masi was removed as FIA F1 race director prior to the start of the new season.
Horner has previously referred to Masi's criticism as a "smokescreen" and accused Mercedes of "a coordinated push... to denigrate our achievement" in guiding Verstappen to the title last year. However, in a recent interview, he stated that Masi did not adhere to the regulations properly.
“He made one mistake in that he didn’t allow all lapped cars to un-lap themselves,” Horner told The Cambridge Union. “I think there was three cars that were kept at the back of the field and unable to [un-] lap themselves. That was the only error he committed."
Horner did not mention Masi's violation of the rules by ordering the Safety Car into the pits a lap early.
“So I thought it was tremendously harsh for him to be hung out to dry, particularly in public, and then the trolling that he got and the abuse that he got online without really support the federation behind him,” Horner continued.
“There was a lot of decisions he made last year that we felt went against us, whether it was yellow flags in qualifying in Qatar or the Silverstone incident with Lewis. But I did feel sorry for him that there should have been more support after that championship because he was in an incredibly difficult position.”
Horner stated that the controversy surrounding last year's finale diminished the quality of Verstappen's performance.
“Obviously a lot has been made out of Abu Dhabi. It was a shame that actually Max’s achievements during the course of the last year were, if any way, diluted by what happened in Abu Dhabi.”
Horner feels that the coverage of the race would have been different if Hamilton had won the final lap controversy instead of Verstappen.
“I think if it hadn’t have all gone through the appeal process and obviously the noise that was made after the event it would have been been much less of an issue if it have happened the other way around,” he said.
“Sometimes I ask myself how would that have been broadcast if Lewis Hamilton had won it on the last lap? Would he have been the hero rather than the villain?”
While acknowledging Masi's poor performance in the race, Horner emphasized that the result should not impact from Verstappen's championship victory.
“The reality is, is a championship is won over a season, not over a single race. And I think the way that Max drove last year, sometimes is not the best car, but some of the performances that he put in last year, he deserved that championship 100%.
“And I think that these things occasionally happen. There are occasionally near calls in athletics.
“For me, I was very disappointed in the way that the FIA dealt with Michael because he was in race control doing the best that he could with the pressure that he had. The mantra was always very clear that he was always going to be under pressure to restart that race. Nobody wanted to see a world championship won under a Safety Car.”