No, Michael no… you are no longer race director

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What has been apparent for the past two months is finally official – Michael Masi has been replaced as race director. Now can we, fellow F1 fans, end the endless social media fights and put Abu Dhabi behind us and focus on the beauty of the nearly revealed Ferrari? I hate to say… probably not. 

Masi “botched” the 2021 F1 championship finale,  failing to correctly apply the rules in the Abu Dhabi, handing Max Verstappen the drivers’ Championship and arguably ‘robbing’ Lewis Hamilton in the process. 

Effectively changing the rules mid race would be damaging in any situation. Changing the rules in the middle of a race deciding only the second Championship in F1 history whereby the title contenders have gone into the last race on equal points, watched by 108 million people (a larger audience than the Super Bowl) is catastrophic. 

The reputations of Masi and the FIA were further undermined by resurfaced team radio footage that revealed Red Bull’s technical director, Jonathon Wheatly, instructing Masi on how to (incorrectly) handle the safety car procedure.

What was particularly glaring from this interaction was the fact that Masi repeated a phrase uttered by Wheatly “then we’ll have a motor race” to Toto Wolff rebutting his objections to the incorrect procedure by starting “it’s called a motor race”.

Put simply, the FIA and Formula 1 have to rebuild their reputations, as the pinnacles of motorsport, and fast. 

The FIA has taken an interesting approach to the necessity of improving its credibility. It took two months to investigate Abu Dhabi and then refused to release said reports’ findings publicly. Not to mention choosing to announce the structural reforms within the FIA, including Masi’s departure, this all conveniently at the same time put all eyes on Ferrari launching their 2022 Championship challenger. This is somewhat of a far step from the transparent and accountable approach that many have called for. 

The FIA and Formula 1 have to rebuild their reputations

The FIA’s approach to reform and the public way in which Masi has been dismissed as race director is scapegoating him, since many would argue that he was thrust into the job after the unexpected death of former race director Charlie Whiting.

Others have also pointed out that, whilst considered legendary, Whiting himself made significant errors in race direction, perhaps most notably regarding the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix in which driver Jules Bianchi was killed. 

Firstly, I would note that Masi’s position had perhaps become untenable, more famous than an F1 race director should ever be, and not for the right reasons. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi was just one example in a season marred by questionable race direction.

One only has to look at track limit confusion in Bahrain or the races in Brazil whereby Verstappen was not penalised in line with procedure for forcing himself and Hamilton off track.

The same can be said for Jeddah whereby Masi failed to immediately red flag the race after Mick Schumacher crashed into and significantly damaged a barrier. There was confusion in terms of communication whereby Masi failed to inform Mercedes, and therefore Hamilton, that Verstappen had been ordered to give the lead back to him.

Yet, these questionable calls pale in comparison to the farce that was the Belgium Grand Prix weekend. Masi failed to adhere to the calls of the drivers that the track was unsafe due to the volume of water on the track and thus the session should have been temporarily red flagged. The race was only red flagged after Lando Norris had a serious crash in Eau Rouge. 

Norris, although he escaped significant injury, had to be transferred to hospital for precautionary checks. Even more controversial decisions came the following day whereby points were awarded for a three-lap race completed behind the safety car, during which no cars were allowed to overtake.

Masi had to go, although it is perhaps doubtful he would even want to stay

It is clear that the decision in Abu Dhabi was just one example in a long list of questionable decisions that indicate that Masi was out of his depth in the role he suddenly acquired. At worst it indicates downright incompetence.

Secondly, it should be considered that Masi’s departure is just one in a serious list of reforms the FIA have proposed. F1 will now have a VAR-style remote control room to support the race director assisted by “the best technology.” Teams being able to directly lobby the race director will be disallowed.

Furthermore, the race director role will now be split between two people, with the assistance of Whiting’s former deputy, Herbie Blash. 

In addition to this, the FIA have revealed that they will also review the unlapping procedures of the safety car. They have also responded to the Belgium controversy by making it so that points will only be awarded after two laps of actual racing, with points awarded scaled against the amount of laps.

Whilst these are just some of the regulations that potentially need to be addressed, it is at least recognition that the flaws within the FIA and Formula 1 extend beyond one person. 

Masi had an unenviable job in Abu Dhabi. He was overseeing one of the tightest Championship battles in the whole of F1 history, at a time when interest in F1 is growing. 

He also faced significant pressure in terms of lobbying from teams and had to maintain the ‘show’, avoiding a lacklustre finish behind the safety car. That would probably have not impressed fans, Liberty Media, or the Drive to Survive producers either. Yet, his direction turned the ‘show’ into a “pantomime”.  It is for this reason Masi had to go, although it is perhaps doubtful he would even want to stay, given the level of abuse hurled his way post-Abu Dhabi.

Image: Steve_Melnyk via flickr

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