The unexpected question the FIA's Abu Dhabi report does not address
The FIA's report into the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix controversy has been published and triggers an unexpected question. Why did Formula 1 race director Michael Masi lose his job?
One remarkable aspect of the document, not mentioned within it but confirmed to Autosport by multiple sources, is that neither Masi nor his deputy in Abu Dhabi Scot Elkins were actually interviewed as part of the investigation.
That fact has to be taken into account, but despite the lack of an opportunity to defend himself, Masi comes out of it remarkably well. Indeed, there is no direct criticism of his actions, other than a reference to "human error" regarding the lapped cars behind the safety car.
Instead, there is extensive explanation of why his job was so difficult, and how the infamous radio interventions from team bosses Christian Horner and Toto Wolff had an impact in distracting him from the job at hand.
Indeed, in summarising the report's conclusions, the FIA makes the following significant statement: "In combination with the objective to finish under green flag racing conditions applied throughout the 2021 season, the report finds that the race director was acting in good faith and to the best of his knowledge given the difficult circumstances, particularly acknowledging the significant time constraints for decisions to be made and the immense pressure being applied by the teams."
The actual report only rarely references Masi by name, and instead refers in generic terms to his job title.
One key part of the summary is that he had taken on, or been given, far too much responsibility. He replaced Charlie Whiting, a workaholic who had more than two decades to absorb the multiple jobs that he had. Masi did almost everything that his predecessor had previously been doing, with the exception of the race starter job.
"The role of the race director is by nature demanding and high-pressured," says the FIA. "However, a recurrent theme in the detailed analysis and clarification exercise was a concern that the number of roles and responsibilities of the race director that have accumulated over the years might be adding additional pressure to the role.
"From 1997 to 2019, the role of race director was held by Charlie Whiting. Following Mr Whiting's death in March 2019, Michael Masi was appointed as the new race director. Mr Masi had previously held the role of deputy race director for F1, F2 and F3 from 2018. Mr Masi also took over Mr Whiting's roles of safety delegate and (from 2021) single-seater sporting director.
Andreas Seidl Team Principal, McLaren F1 with F1 Race Director Michael Masi
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
"Suggestions made by the F1 Commission, and those interviewed included that some of the race director's responsibilities should be divided and assigned to other persons to reduce the workload of the race director and allow them to focus on their key functions, including managing and controlling the race."
It's an absolute no-brainer. It was absurd that in the age of COVID travel restrictions and with a longer calendar that Whiting experienced, in addition to his race weekend jobs, Masi was also required to visit new venues like Jeddah and Qatar for track inspections. Clearly he was happy to take on a heavy workload. The question is why didn't former FIA President Jean Todt or anyone else in the organisation recognise that he was doing too much?
The radio interventions, and their broadcast, are another key area detailed in the report. Whiting would never have allowed TV to use his conversations with team pitwalls, but at the request of F1 and with the support of the FIA, Masi agreed that they could be used in 2021. Critics might argue that it showed a weakness in Masi's make-up – that he was happy to have some limelight and raise his profile – but how much pressure, if any, was he put under to say yes?
Hand-in-hand with the decision to broadcast pitwall to race control messages came tacit permission for team principals to get involved, something that had never happened before – but was obviously great for the show. In Abu Dhabi it backfired spectacularly.
The FIA acknowledges the mistake: "Much of the debate centred around the purpose and appropriateness of those communications and whether in-race communications between the F1 teams and the race director should be broadcasted or even permitted at all.
"The consensus of those involved in the detailed analysis and clarification exercise was that the respective communications to the race director by the Red Bull Racing and Mercedes team principals during the final laps of the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP had a negative impact on the smooth running of the final laps because they were distracting when the race director needed to focus on making difficult and time-pressured decisions."
The real issue here was that Masi was dealing with key safety matters and ensuring that track marshals clearing Nicholas Latifi's crashed Williams were protected. As he tried to resume the race with the laps ticking away, the last thing he needed was to be hassled by teams.
The Safety Car and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
The FIA notes: "When the safety car is deployed, the race director must in particular monitor the cars on track, the order in which they are placed, the deployment of the appropriate flags, the progress of the marshals' intervention and then, if the clerk of the course considers that conditions so permit, order the safety car to leave the track.
"The race director must therefore manage both the cars on the track, the intervention of the safety car and what happens at the scene of the incident, i.e. a considerable number of tasks to be accomplished in a minimum of time to allow the race to resume safely and as soon as possible, while at the same time responding to the demands of the team principals. This requires immense concentration.
"Hence, it was found that these communications were neither necessary nor helpful to the smooth running of the race. Rather, the consensus was that they add pressure to the race director at a critical time [...] and might seek to influence (whether directly or indirectly, or intentionally or unintentionally) the decisions made by the race director."
As a direct result of what happened, communications to race control will not be broadcast this year, and will be heavily restricted – indeed new race director Niels Wittich told team managers/sporting directors in Bahrain that their first point of contact will be one of his team members, who will act as a filter. And team principals will definitely not be allowed to talk. Again, one could ask, why hadn't anyone in the FIA realised during 2021 that the radio chatter was getting out of hand, and perhaps impose restrictions for that all-important Abu Dhabi finale?
Another clear conclusion is that Masi should have had more support. Race control lost a great deal of experience when Herbie Blash left in 2014, when Whiting died in 2019, and when former deputy race director Colin Haywood retired early in 2021 - having served alongside Masi for two years. There are good reasons why both Blash and Haywood have been called back to support Wittich this weekend.
The much-heralded virtual race control facility, which will act like a form of VAR, will provide extra help for Wittich and his fellow new race director Eduardo Freitas.
Niels Wittich, Race Director, FIA
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
To summarise, there is nothing in the report that says Masi screwed up or did anything untoward. And this, as noted, was without him being allowed to defend himself and provide extra context on why he did what he did on that fateful evening in Abu Dhabi.
Those who know Masi well make it clear that he didn't take the decision to remove him well. For the moment, he's still employed by the FIA and undertaking some of the secondary roles that he had, but the big prize that he'd worked so hard for has been taken away.
There have even been whispers in the paddock that Masi may be pondering legal action regarding his dismissal from his former role. If that proves to be the case then it would appear that the report can only help his cause.
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