Formula One race director Michael Masi was sacked on Thursday over the controversial decision that denied Lewis Hamilton a near-certain eighth world championship title in Abu Dhabi.
Although Masi’s dismissal can be taken as a rare acknowledgment by the FIA that they were culpable for the last-lap incident that shook the sporting world two months ago, Mercedes will not seek to get the result overturned.
A spokesman for Hamilton’s team confirmed: ‘No, we accepted and acknowledged the championship result in our statement on December 16. Since then, the FIA have conducted their own analysis in consultation with teams and drivers (including us) and reached their own conclusions, which they have presented today.’
So Max Verstappen remains 2021 world champion, and a worthy one over the season. Hamilton remains runner-up, and an understandably sore one.
Mercedes, led by their QC Paul Harris, believed their case was ‘overwhelming’, namely that Masi disregarded the rule book to call in the safety car early to Hamilton’s disadvantage.
But they did not believe an FIA court sitting in judgment on its own race director and stewards could possibly provide them with the outcome they sought, and abandoned their litigation.
They instead sought assurances from the FIA that things would change. That may have sealed Masi’s fate, with Hamilton’s own future in the sport supposedly hinging on some form of meaningful redress.
Michael Masi (left) has been dramatically axed as Formula One race director; his controversial calls at last year’s season-finale Abu Dhabi Grand Prix saw Lewis Hamilton lose the title race
Mercedes deny that Masi’s head was a quid pro quo for their star man to race on into his 38th year.
Regardless, the choreographing of Masi’s departure was artful.
The 43-year-old Australian was still working until two days ago in the cautious hope of continuing in post when the new season starts in Bahrain on March 16, but was told of his dismissal on Wednesday.
Then, on Thursday, the new FIA president Muhammed ben Sulayem, the Emirati rally driver whose decision it was, issued an unusual video statement to deliver the news publicly.
That announcement was timely because Friday brings Mercedes’ car launch at which Hamilton, team principal Toto Wolff and incoming driver George Russell will be present.
Masi’s departure is a sign of Ben Sulayem’s ruthless desire to sweep out the pits at the start of his reign and to imprint himself as undisputed boss: he resisted significant Masi supporters, including Bernie Ecclestone, whose wife Fabiana was elected on Ben Sulayem’s election ticket in December as one of his vice-presidents.
Masi, currently staying in London, is understood to be devastated at losing the job he took up on the sudden death of Charlie Whiting three years ago. He is weighing up whether to take up Ben Sulayem’s offer to continue in another capacity, possibly as race director in another series.
New head of Formula One, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, made the call to sack Masi from his role
Ben Sulayem, meanwhile, unfurled his revamped race structure following a much-vaunted, though unpublished, investigation into the Abu Dhabi drama:
- Portuguese Eduardo Freitas, World Endurance Championship race director, and German Niels Wittich, ex-DTM race director, take over Masi’s old job. They will alternate over the 23-race season, an acknowledgement the demands are too much for one man.
- Herbie Blash, long-time deputy to Whiting, comes in as ‘permanent senior adviser’. At 73, and having attended more grands prix than anyone in history with the possible exception of his old Brabham boss Ecclestone, the Englishman offers the experience Masi lacked.
- The establishment of a ‘Virtual Race Control Room’. Ben Sulayem said: ‘Like VAR in football, it will be positioned (in one of the FIA offices) as a back-up outside the circuit. In real time connection with the race director, it will help to apply the sporting regulations using the most modern technological tools.’
- Of the pit wall-to-race control radio exchanges that were so controversial during the Abu Dhabi denouement, Ben Sulayem said: ‘Direct radio communications during the race, currently broadcast live by all TVs, will be removed in order to protect the race director from pressure and allow him to take decisions peacefully. It will be possible to ask questions to the race director, according to a well-defined and non-intrusive process.’
- The president also committed to ‘reassess’ unlapping procedures behind the safety car.
Mercedes had pressed for Masi’s departure ever since he made his contentious decisions: namely, disadvantaging Hamilton by withdrawing the safety car, and allowing only the five lapped cars in between Verstappen and Hamilton to overtake it and so providing the Dutchman freedom to attack the seven-time champion.
Following a review into the safety car period, where both teams heavily lobbied Masi, direct communications to the race director have been removed from TV broadcast. Teams may now only ask questions in a non-intrusive manner.
The process of cars unlapping themselves under the safety car will also be reviewed.
A statement from Ben Sulayem read: ‘Drawing conclusions from the detailed analysis of the events of the last F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and from the 2021 season, I proposed an in-depth reform of the organisation of refereeing and race direction. It was unanimously supported by F1 CEO and teams principals.
‘Here is my plan for these structural changes:
‘Firstly, to assist the race director in the decision-making process, a Virtual Race Control Room will be created. Alike the Video Assistance Referee (VAR) in football, it will be positioned in one of the FIA Offices as a backup outside the circuit. In real-time connection with the FIA F1 race director, it will help to apply the sporting regulations using the most modern technological tools.
‘Secondly, direct radio communications during the race, currently broadcast live by all TVs, will be removed in order to protect the race director from any pressure and allow him to take decisions peacefully. It will still be possible to ask questions to the race director, according to a well-defined and non-intrusive process.
Masi’s controversial calls under the safety car set up Max Verstappen with a chance to pass Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix where he would claim the title
‘Thirdly, unlapping procedures behind safety car will be reassessed by the F1 Sporting Advisory Committee and presented to the next F1 Commission prior to the start of the season.
‘And finally, I would like to inform you that a new race management team will be put in place starting in Barcelona for the test session.
‘Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas will act alternatively as Race Director, assisted by Herbie Blash as permanent senior advisor.
‘Michael Masi, who accomplished a very challenging job for three years as Formula One race director following Charlie Whiting, will be offered a new position within the FIA.
Masi, 44, had public support from a selection of drivers including four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, as well as McLaren duo Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.
He also had backing from significant figures in the corridors of power. They did not believe the teams should dictate who is the sport’s top official.
The race director made dramatic and controversial calls at the end of the Abu Dhabi GP that led to Max Verstappen (above) winning his first ever Formula One world championship
With around five laps to go during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Hamilton led second place Verstappen by 12 seconds and was cruising towards a victory that would have crowned him world champion for a record eighth time.
However, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi then crashed late on around the circuit, bringing out the safety car due to the debris littered over the track.
Red Bull pitted Verstappen for new tyres, while Mercedes kept Hamilton out on his old compound, knowing that by pitting first Red Bull would do the opposite and inherit track position by keeping Verstappen out.
With plenty of debris left on the track and so few laps remaining, there was a strong likelihood the cars would run in formation under the safety car until the finish line, so pitting realistically wasn’t an option for Mercedes.
As the drivers bunched up behind the safety car, there were five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen, meaning any restart meant Verstappen would have to negotiate Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, who would let him through easily as per the rules but not in enough time to give the Dutchman a shot of passing Hamilton.
FIA PRESIDENT MOHAMMED BEN SULAYEM’S FULL STATEMENT
During the F1 Commission Meeting in London, I presented part of my plan for a new step forward in Formula One refereeing.
Drawing conclusions from the detailed analysis of the events of the last F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and from the 2021 season, I proposed an in-depth reform of the organization of refereeing and race direction. It was unanimously supported by F1 CEO and teams principals.
Here is my plan for these structural changes:
Firstly, to assist the race director in the decision-making process, a Virtual Race Control Room will be created. Alike the Video Assistance Referee (VAR) in football, it will be positioned in one of the FIA Offices as a backup outside the circuit. In real-time connection with the FIA F1 race director, it will help to apply the sporting regulations using the most modern technological tools.
Secondly, direct radio communications during the race, currently broadcast live by all TVs, will be removed in order to protect the race director from any pressure and allow him to take decisions peacefully. It will still be possible to ask questions to the race director, according to a well-defined and non-intrusive process.
Thirdly, unlapping procedures behind safety car will be reassessed by the F1 Sporting Advisory Committee and presented to the next F1 Commission prior to the start of the season.
And finally, I would like to inform you that a new race management team will be put in place starting in Barcelona for the test session.
Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas will act alternatively as Race Director, assisted by Herbie Blash as permanent senior advisor.
Michael Masi, who accomplished a very challenging job for three years as Formula 1 race director following Charlie Whiting, will be offered a new position within the FIA.
I presented this complete plan to the members of the World Motor Sport Council and the Senate who gave their full support.
With this plan, FIA opens the way for a new step forward in Formula 1 refereeing. Without the referees, there is no sport. Respect and support of the referees is in the essence of the FIA. That is why these structural changes are crucial in a context of strong development and the legitimate expectations of drivers, teams, manufacturers, organizers, and of course, the fans.
I warmly thank all those who contributed to this reform.
These changes will enable us to start the 2022 Formula 1 season in the best conditions, and our sport will be even more loved and respected.
Thank you for your attention.
Once the safety car came out and Verstappen pitted, there were five cars including Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel (not pictured) between Hamilton and his title rival
However, only these cars were ordered by Masi to overtake the safety car to set up straight fight between Hamilton and Verstappen ahead of the final lap of the race
Mercedes and Hamilton were boosted when Masi gave the instruction that the lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake the safety car and rejoin the back of the pack before the end of the race, an action that typically takes place following a safety car period in F1.
A seething Verstappen said on the radio: ‘Yeah, of course, typical decision… I’m not surprised.’
But Red Bull, furious with the call, then contacted Masi over the radio, protesting that the cars should be allowed to overtake to set-up a one-lap sprint between the title contenders without backmarkers in the way.
‘Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out of the way?’ team boss Christian Horner said. ‘Christian, give me a second. Okay. My big one is to get this incident clear,’ Masi replied.
The significant moment came a few moments later from Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley, who put more pressure on Masi to release the backmarkers.
Red Bull chief Christian Horner (left) was unhappy at Masi’s initial ruling, while Mercedes boss Toto Wolff (right) was left incensed by the race director’s change of mind
Hamilton (left) looked destined to win his eighth F1 title at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix until Verstappen (right) overtook him on the final lap following a series of contentious rulings
Verstappen triumphed in Abu Dhabi to claim the world championship in dramatic fashion
‘Those lapped cars; you don’t need to let them go right the way around and catch up with the back of the pack,’ he informed Masi. ‘You only need to let them go, and then we’ve got a motor race on our hands.’
An under pressure Masi twice acknowledged he ‘understood’, and moments later gave the order for only the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to be let go, and not the other backmarkers further behind the Dutchman as is usual under safety car conditions. In short it was an unprecedented call.
Usually the lapped cars are given a further lap to catch up with the safety car, but with just one lap left this too was ignored. The decision was made to send around the backmarkers and call in the safety car at the same time to set up a direct final lap fight between Hamilton and Verstappen.
Verstappen on his new softer tyres breezed past Hamilton during the final lap, during which point furious Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff was heard shouting down the radio to Masi: ‘Michael, this isn’t right, Michael! No Michael! That was so not right!’
Hamilton himself was left scathing as Verstappen skated past, claiming on his team radio that: ‘This has been manipulated, man.’
Verstappen then went on to claim victory and the world championship.
Hamilton sportingly congratulated Verstappen on his title success after the race
F1’s chief executive Stefano Domenicali (left) felt Masi should have been axed, while new head of Formula One, Mohammed ben Sulayem, had addressed concerns from Mercedes
New F1 chief Ben Sulayem met chief executive Stefano Domenicali over dinner for important talks on the topic, among other things, last week.
Domenicali, it seems, felt Masi should have been axed for the greater reputation of the sport (despite there being no implication that Masi was biased, even if his decision was questionable). Ben Sulayem had seemed less certain of the need to fire Masi.
Mercedes led two appeals to the race stewards to overturn the race result. One centred on a moment when Verstappen very briefly overtook Hamilton under the safety car before the final lap shootout, which would have resulted in a penalty for the Dutchman if punished. This was swiftly thrown out by the FIA as was always likely to be the case given the minor breach.
However, Mercedes hung their hopes on the sporting regulation Article 48.12 that claimed that racing was supposed to resume the lap after backmarkers are allowed to overtake – in effect highlighting that the final lap should have been under the safety car where no overtaking is permitted.
Eduardo Freitas (right) will now act as one of the two rotating race directors in Formula One along with Niels Wittich (left) following the departure of Masi from the role on Thursday
They will be assisted by Herbie Blash as permanent senior advisor in the new set up
This too though was countered by race stewards who cited Article 15.3 which gave Masi ‘overriding authority’ over ‘the use of the safety car.’
Throughout the winter, Hamilton’s future has been called into question with Wolff hinting that the 37-year-old may retire, but he is almost certain to now head into the new season looking to win back his crown.
On Wednesday his Mercedes team tweeted a silhouette of the Brit captioned ‘Year 16’ marking 2022 being Hamilton’s 16th season in the sport as he looks to finally claim a record breaking eighth world championship, with Mercedes ready to launch their new challenger on Friday.