F1: could the 2016 title be decided in court?

Thanks to rule u-turns by the FIA during the 2016 season, there is a chance the F1 title race could be decided off track and in the courts.

Rosberg’s title to lose

With two races remaining – starting in Brazil this weekend – the F1 title is going down to the wire. Once again it is a shoot out between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes.

Mechanical issues have plagued Hamilton in 2016

Rosberg remains the favourite with a 19-point lead but a single DNF for the German could turn his lead in to a significant deficit. By contrast Hamilton knows it is out of his hands and has performed supremely in the last two races as a result.

Most of the focus in recent weeks has been on the various permutations for Rosberg or Hamilton to win. But one has been relatively ignored.

Ripping up the F1 rulebook

2016 will be remembered for a number of significant rule u-turns. Rule changes mid-season are never good for any sport. For one as political and monied as F1 it is a recipe for intrigue or disaster. In the context of 2016 the rules regarding pits-to-car communications are of particular interest.

During the British Grand Prix earlier this year Nico Rosberg was hit with a 10-second penalty for an illegal radio transmission. Suffering a gearbox problem that was likely to be terminal, Rosberg was advised by his team how to remedy the problem in order to finish the race.

Rosberg F1 Verstappen
Rosberg battles a failing gearbox and Max Verstappen. British Grand Prix 2016.

It could all come down to 3 points

The penalty dropped Rosberg from 2nd on the road to 3rd in the final standings. At the time the loss of 3 points – the difference between 2nd and 3rd place – was only significant in terms of Rosberg’s then championship lead fading to a single point. By the time we reach Abu Dhabi those 3 points could be even more significant.

The FIA subsequently u-turned on the radio communications ban. Thus allowing teams to advise drivers how to fix technical issues that would otherwise have caused a DNF. And in doing so the FIA changed the playing field. Were Rosberg to lose the title by 3 points or less, a legal challenge is not inconceivable.

See you in court Lewis

Mercedes would be unlikely to push for it but the question is whether Rosberg might? There are various permutations where Rosberg could lose the title by 3 or less points. None are what anyone would consider highly unlikely. For example, a brace of wins for Hamilton and 2nd and 4th place finishes for Rosberg would see the German lose by a single point.

2016 is undoubtedly the German’s best chance to win a maiden World title. With Red Bull improving markedly, regulation changes in 2017 and a move away from power-unit dominance, there is no guarantee Mercedes will be all-conquering again. That in itself sounds like motivation enough to consider all options. But would it be justified?

The rules change in F1

That is a question likely to elicit fairly partisan responses. In F1 technical innovations are often banned by the FIA. Where a team has gained an unfair competitive advantage the governing body will not think twice about limiting or removing that option. On that basis mid-season rule changes can be considered the nature of the sport.


But the rule change that impacted on Rosberg is more significant. Only a few races later it would not have attracted any penalty. More intrigue is likely if in the final two races Hamilton (or any other driver) benefits from the change in rules. Imagine a scenario where Hamilton finishes as a result of radio advice from his team, and pips Rosberg by a couple of points…

Time will tell but in an F1 season that has been as up and down as this one, the prospect of deciding the winner of the World title in court does not seem that far fetched.

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