Masi exits as F1's race director after Abu Dhabi controversy

Jerome Pugmire
Associated Press

Paris — Michael Masi will be replaced as Formula One's race director following the late controversy surrounding the title-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last December, FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem said Thursday.

Motorsport's governing body reached its decision after conducting a detailed analysis of the wild ending at the season finale, where Red Bull driver Max Verstappen won his first world title after overtaking Mercedes star Lewis Hamilton on the last lap.

FILE - Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands, left, celebrates with Red Bull team chief Christian Horner, right, and his team in the pit lane after becoming F1 driver world champion after winning the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 12. 2021.

The 44-year-old Masi is staying with the FIA but in an undetermined role.

“A new race management team will be put in place starting in Barcelona (next week) for the test session,” Ben Sulayem said in a statement.

“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," he continued. "I presented this complete plan to the members of the World Motor Sport Council and the Senate who gave their full support.”

Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas will act alternatively as race director, assisted by Herbie Blash as permanent senior advisor, Ben Sulayem said.

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The Abu Dhabi outcome followed a key decision by Masi, prompting deep confusion and seething vitriol in some quarters — with the FIA saying the sport's image had been tarnished as a consequence.

Hamilton led comfortably until a crash by Nicholas Latifi brought out the safety car with five laps remaining. Verstappen stopped under yellow for a fresh set of tires, and Masi flipped his decision and let the drivers separating Verstappen from Hamilton pass the safety car under yellow.

Verstappen restarted second behind Hamilton and, on quicker new tires, zoomed past Hamilton in the fifth turn.

Mercedes lost both its protests over how the race ended.

Hamilton was utterly dejected at the way he missed out on a record eighth F1 title to move ahead of fellow great Michael Schumacher.

Although Masi was heavily criticized, though he was also in a difficult position during the race, with both Mercedes and Red Bull able to talk directly with him in a moment of intense pressure. This raised questions as to whether F1 was becoming too much of a TV show and less of a sport.

That debate is now over.

“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,” Ben Sulayem said. “It will still be possible to ask questions to the race director, according to a well-defined and non-intrusive process.”

The structural changes see the creation a new soccer-style Virtual Race Control Room, while unlapping procedures behind safety cars will be reassessed before the first race in Bahrain on March 20.

“Like the Video Assistance Referee (VAR) in football, it will be positioned in one of the FIA offices as a backup outside the circuit,” Ben Sulayem said. “In real-time connection with the FIA F1 race director, it will help to apply the sporting regulations using the most modern technological tools.”

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Ben Sulayem hopes the 2022 season will be a more appeased one after high tensions between Red Bull and Mercedes and from teams toward officials dominated 2021. The blameless Latifi even hired bodyguards after receiving death threats.

“With this plan, FIA opens the way for a new step forward in Formula 1 refereeing. Without the referees, there is no sport,” Ben Sulayem said. “Respect and support of the referees is in the essence of the FIA.”

The changes were announced on the eve of Mercedes launching its 2022 car, with Hamilton set to speak publicly for the first time since Abu Dhabi.

Mercedes posted a photo Thursday on Twitter of Hamilton and new teammate George Russell in their racing suits.