After discussions with drivers, teams, and the F1 management, the FIA announced the removal of Michael Masi from his role as Race Director. His removal has been attributed to as part of the restructuring of its system following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix debacle.Grinding the ax or making heads roll was one way of resolutely facing the situation.
Revising the regulations, however, was the more definitive approach. While many will hail the Australian’s sacking as justice for Lewis Hamilton, the larger question that looms is whether it sets the correct precedent for the future of the sport.
Breaking viewership records throughout the season, F1 produced its Super Bowl season in 2021 with the perfect combination of on-track and off-track drama. The season finale, which was the most viewed sporting event in the world, however, left its audience disappointed and the sport in an odd predicament.
Correcting mistakes and restructuring race control was inevitable, but whether replacing Michael Masi is the correct decision remains to be seen.
If the 2021 season sounded like a pantomime thriller, then the off-season has been an endless saga.
It comprised of the vitriolic anger of F1 fans demanding Michael Masi’s sacking, and crusaders in the press building a case for both Hamilton and Mercedes. Caught amidst the perfect storm has been the Australian, whose decisions on the final laps of the season finale denied the Briton his eighth title.
The off-season melodrama that sealed Michael Masi’s fate
Outgoing FIA president Jean Todt ensured there were measures in place to investigate the controversy and save his legacy from being tarnished. Newly elected president Mohammed Ben Sulayem, however, inherited the paramount task of dealing with the Abu Dhabi conundrum and protecting the integrity of the regulatory body simultaneously.
Hamilton’s profound silence, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff’s statements over the winter break, and an outraged fanbase surmounted pressure to investigate the season finale. Adding to the heated cauldron was footage of a conversation between Michael Masi and Red Bull F1 team sporting director Jonathan Wheatley during the season finale, where the former was being lobbied by the latter.
This is shocking. New emerging footage of @F1 Abu Dhabi GP containing previously unheard radio. Masi essentially executed the instructions of Jonathan Wheatley (RB) without any second thought over its legality or fairness. This should be sickening listening to any fan.
While the footage was old, videos circulating on social media ahead of the F1 commission meeting in London compelled the FIA to take action. Social media hashtags supporting Hamilton, seeking the race director’s removal and accusing the sport of fixing the championship, hogged the lime-light amidst the car launch season.
Discussing the Abu Dhabi GP inquiry and several other regulatory issues at the F1 commission meeting, a satisfied Wolff walking out of the venue was an indication of the actions ahead. The meeting was also one of the first media appearances of the new FIA president, who has been put under the microscope since he resumed his new role and has been forced to display his efficiency and prove his worthiness.
Following the meeting, the FIA announced two race directors as replacements for Michael Masi — Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas, who will be advised by Herbie Blash as a permanent senior advisor. While Wittich hails from a DTM background, Freitas has previously been race director at the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and carries more than 30 years of experience into the job.
Blash’s return to F1 has been the silver lining to the cloud. The 73-year-old has vast experience in race management since his tenure alongside the late race director Charlie Whiting. Although Masi worked with the Brabham racing duo, he was unable to execute his job as race director effectively with the same confidence and support as his predecessors.
Where did Michael Masi go wrong?
Analyzing his decisions over the course of three seasons, one could see the Australian exuded a calm and collected aura as he executed his job, but often succumbed to the drivers and teams. Caving in to the weight of events in the final laps of the season finale became his indictment, and his decisions have eventually sealed his fate in the sport.
A core problem with Michael Masi managing the races was that he lacked a support team to assist him with tougher calls throughout the 2021 season. This was a problem his predecessor did not have to encounter with Blash as a deputy.
The burden of stepping into his predecessor’s shoes, however, made him capitulate to the goading surmounted by drivers and team principals. A closely fought intense battle such as the 2021 season did not make his job easier either, with teams lobbying him amidst the intense moments of the races.
The constant blaring of Red Bull and Mercedes team principals and team management through the team radio straitjacketed the Australian. The decision to let the lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton unlap themselves created chaos and confusion, resulting in an unfair race outcome.
As a result, Michael Masi was unable to resume the race for the final laps in Abu Dhabi without giving a fair chance to both protagonists to fight each other on even ground.In an attempt to address the overall style of refereeing the races and avoid the Race Director being disturbed, the FIA has now prohibited the broadcast of any radio between the teams and race control.
Additionally, the sport will incorporate a Video Assistance Referee system (VAR) similar to football, where Race Control will be supported by a team remotely from the FIA offices off-track to ensure regulations are followed.