Mercedes thought they had a free pit-stop in Saudi Arabia, but the plan backfired massively for Lewis Hamilton when the red flags came out.
Pole-sitter Hamilton retained his lead at the start, with Valtteri Bottas keeping P2 to provide his team-mate with a shield against title rival Max Verstappen in P3.
It was all looking calm out front 10 laps in, but Mick Schumacher changed all that when he lost the rear of his Haas car and slammed into the barriers.
SAFETY CAR (LAP 10/50)
Mick Schumacher crashes heavily and the Safety Car comes out
He reports he is okay over the radio 👍#SaudiArabianGP 🇸🇦 #F1 pic.twitter.com/H4mZXyZjMs
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 5, 2021
The Safety Car was swiftly deployed and Mercedes made the call to pit both drivers, hoping to complete their stops while the race was neutralised and so significantly reduce the time lost.
Verstappen and Red Bull were furious with Bottas, whom they claimed had purposely held up the Dutchman to allow Mercedes to execute the double-stack.
However, the situation swung very much back in Red Bull’s favour when the red flags came out, with the barriers Schumacher hit being in need of repairs.
And so, since Verstappen had not pitted, suddenly he had the lead and also a free tyre change under the red flags.
“Does this mean you can change tyres?” Hamilton asked, to which his race engineer Pete Bonnington confirmed those fears: “Unfortunately, Lewis, yes it does.”
Unsurprisingly, Hamilton was far from pleased.
“The tyre wall looked fine. That’s ****. Find out what the reason for the red flag is,” said the Briton.
When informed of the reason, Hamilton questioned the FIA’s call, saying it did not make sense.
“That’s unbelievable, man. James [Vowles], that was a big gamble they just took because we were right behind them. That doesn’t even make sense.”
Mercedes’ chief strategist Vowles then attempted to refocus the team’s title hopeful, telling Hamilton he would come to see him and discuss their options after the restart.
“I’ll come down and see you. There are still possibilities for us,” he assured.
Upon the restart, Hamilton briefly regained the lead down the straight, but Verstappen then appeared to go into the run-off area at Turn 1 in order to push his way back on and in front of Hamilton.
The race was immediately stopped again due to carnage further back in the field, with Nikita Mazepin joining his Haas team-mate Schumacher out of the race up against the barrier after running into the back of George Russell’s Williams. Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez also had to retire following a collision with Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.
Race director Michael Masi addressed the Hamilton/Verstappen incident at Turn 1 by brokering a deal for the next restart which Mercedes and Red Bull both agreed to over the radio system.
This would involve Verstappen giving the place back to his title rival by lining up P3 on the grid, one place behind Hamilton and two behind Hungarian Grand Prix winner Esteban Ocon, who originally started ninth but suddenly found himself surprisingly at the head of affairs.
Ocon would squeeze Hamilton towards Verstappen at the restart, allowing Verstappen to take the lead, while Hamilton briefly dropped to P3 before passing Ocon on the following lap.
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