Why Masi’s departure from F1 was an inevitable call

Thursday’s confirmation from the FIA that Michael Masi had lost his job as Formula 1’s race director did not come as a complete surprise given the fallout from the Abu Dhabi controversy.

Why Masi’s departure from F1 was an inevitable call

However, while we knew changes to F1’s system of refereeing were coming, there was always a chance that the beleaguered Australian would remain part of a revamped system, perhaps working alongside others.

Indeed until just a few days ago sources suggested that he would still be in the picture.

In the end, and after discussions with F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and the teams in London on Monday, new FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem agreed that Masi’s position was untenable. Given the strength of feeling expressed not just by fans on social media, but also behind the scenes by F1’s insiders, he had to move Masi out.

It’s not just the race director that has changed, but also the system around that role. It could be argued that Masi was unfortunate not to have been given a chance to work under the new arrangements, with no radio bullying from team pitwalls and with the aid of outside help from a remote site that Ben Sulayem likens to football’s VAR system.

Splitting the race director role between WEC veteran Eduardo Freitas and former DTM man Niels Wittich, who was already signed up as Masi’s deputy for 2022, is an intriguing choice. Both men have huge experience in other series, but both still have a great deal to learn about F1.

On the one hand by using two race directors F1 loses the continuity that it enjoyed in having a single referee at all events, and who in theory provided consistency to the decision-making process. Indeed, when the idea of splitting the role emerged a few weeks ago sources suggested that it had already been dropped for exactly that reason.

Race Director Eduardo Freitas

Race Director Eduardo Freitas

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

However, as time passed and discussions continued it became apparent that it was impossible to find one fully qualified candidate who was both willing and able to do the F1 job on his own.

Freitas, for example, already has a lot on his plate with his regular job in WEC, and would not have been able to commit to 23 F1 weekends, while Scot Elkins – another possible choice – was already committed to Formula E and the DTM.

The upside of splitting the role is that there is less danger of one man both becoming all-powerful, while at the same time carrying the weight on his shoulders of doing what is clearly a very difficult job on his own, with all the attendant pressures both from competitors and the wider world.

Freitas and Wittich can now share that burden, and in effect keep each other company even if they only spend a few weekends actually working alongside each other.

The FIA has also made the wise choice of bringing back some of the experience it has been missing since Charlie Whiting died on the eve of the 2019 season.

Whiting worked for many years with his close friend and former Brabham colleague Herbie Blash in the role of deputy race director. They had the kind of relationship where each knew what the other was thinking, and they could finish each other’s sentences.

Unfortunately at the end of 2016 Blash found himself eased towards early retirement by the then FIA hierarchy. He was forced to give up the role, which in turn allowed new deputies to be trained with a view to one of them eventually taking over from Whiting. Indeed, Masi got his foot in the F1 door via that route.

In the middle of last year the FIA lost another valuable player in Colin Haywood, who served for many years as the F1 race control systems manager, and who was in effect the third key member of the Whiting/Blash team. He served for a while as Masi’s deputy before opting for retirement, and his absence was noticeable in the latter half of 2021.

Herbie Blash

Herbie Blash

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Blash, who turned 73 in September, has plenty on his plate with his work with Yamaha in Superbike racing. He now returns to F1 in a newly created role as permanent senior advisor, sitting with the race director and his deputy and giving them the benefit of his vast experience. He also helps to bring some credibility at time when teams and drivers may be nervous about dealing with the newcomers in race control.

The other key changes outlined by Ben Sulayem have been expected, and were already revealed a few weeks ago by FIA secretary general for sport Peter Bayer in an interview that was more revealing than his colleagues had wished for.

Remote assistance for the race director, via what Ben Sulayem calls a Virtual Race Control Room, is a logical step. Hitherto Masi could potentially be looking at replays of collisions for foul play while at the same time monitoring the track clear-up work and the operation of the safety car.

By giving the race director expert help with the first of those tasks – as seen in football with VAR but also with big calls in the likes of cricket and rugby – he is freed to concentrate on the safety aspects. He can then ask his colleagues for a verdict on who was responsible for an incident, before passing any info onto the stewards for further deliberation.

The decision to stop broadcasting pitwall to race control conversations, and take the team principals out of the loop, was mooted as early as race day in Abu Dhabi.

Such conversations certainly added to the entertainment last year, and it was fun while it lasted. However, in Abu Dhabi it clearly got out of hand and many observers believe that the pressure put on Masi by Red Bull boss Christian Horner and his sporting director Jonathan Wheatley had a direct bearing on the call he then made to let lapped cars pass Lewis Hamilton.

Masi was in the loop on the decision to broadcast his radio channel – in other words it wasn’t forced upon him.

The Safety Car Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, the rest of the field

The Safety Car Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, the rest of the field

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

It’s unlikely that Whiting would ever have allowed such traffic to be broadcast, even if pressured by F1’s bosses. Indeed when you saw the occasional TV shot of him alongside Blash in race control during a safety car period the chances are it was actually shot on the Friday, when he reluctantly allowed F1’s cameras in to record some stock footage…

Team managers and sporting directors will still be able to talk to race control, but only within strict guidelines when information has to be exchanged, and there won’t be the sort of emotional lobbying heard last year.

Ben Sulayem says Masi, who already held other jobs such as that of safety delegate and circuit inspector, will be offered another role within the FIA, and it remains to be seen whether he decides to stay on.

On a personal level, his removal is obviously a bitter blow for him, and he could be forgiven for thinking that he’s been made a scapegoat. He may not have got everything right, but he’d done some good things over the last three years. And don’t forget he faced an impossible situation when asked to replace a man who had done the job for over two decades, and long before any scheduled succession. Ultimately it was too much, too soon.

And even in the short time since Whiting’s death the level of abuse thrown around on social media by followers of F1 has ramped up considerably, and it was a lot for Masi to have to deal with. He’ll now be able to take a step back and perhaps enjoy his life once again.

Michael Masi, FIA

Michael Masi, FIA

Photo by: Erik Junius

In the end this story was much bigger than one man. The Abu Dhabi GP, with the battle for the title between two titans of F1 going to the final round, should have been a great day. Instead the fallout of what happened was hugely damaging, angering Hamilton fans and bemusing neutrals who were new to the sport.

And that’s why Stefano Domenicali has had a hands-on role in helping to frame the way forward. Changes had to be seen to be made.

The Bahrain GP will represent a fresh start for everyone, and we can only hope that the new joint race directors don’t ever find themselves in the sort of situation that Masi faced last year.

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