F1: Michael Masi has been SACKED as race director after Abu Dhabi Grand Prix controversy

F1: Michael Masi has been SACKED as race director after Abu Dhabi Grand Prix controversy

The FIA have confirmed that Michael Masi has been sacked as race director following his handling of the chaotic last laps of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. 

Masi oversaw the chaos at the end of the 2021 race at the Yas Marina circuit in December where his unprecedented calls under the safety car enabled Max Verstappen a final lap run on Lewis Hamilton with much fresher tyres to snatch the Formula One world championship in the most dramatic fashion.

Replacing Masi will be Eduardo Frietas and Niels Wittich who will rotate in the role while being supervised by Herbie Blash as a new permanent senior advisor. 

Mercedes had pressed for Masi’s departure ever since he made his contentious decision: namely, disadvantaging Hamilton by withdrawing the safety car, and allowing only the five lapped cars inbetween Verstappen and Hamilton to overtake it prior to the Dutchman having clear air 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. 

Masi’s future had been a topic of much discussion, and his fate was still in the balance as recently as Monday night when an FIA inquiry into the race ended without resolution in London – where the former race director was present.

Michael Masi has been dramatically axed as Formula One race director

Michael Masi has been dramatically axed as Formula One race director

While Masi will no longer be race director, he will be offered a new role within the FIA.

New president, Mohammed ben Sulayem, could hardly be accused of rushing his first major decision – despite it coming more than two months after the controversy unfolded. 

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.

New head of Formula One, Mohammed ben Sulayem, made the call to sack Masi from his role

New head of Formula One, Mohammed ben Sulayem, made the call to sack Masi from his role

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

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

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

Ladies, gentlemen,

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

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

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 was unhappy at Masi's initial ruling Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was left incensed by the race director's change of mind

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

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

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 (left) sportingly congratulates Verstappen (right) on his title success after the race

Hamilton (left) sportingly congratulates Verstappen (right) on his title success after the race

F1's chief executive Stefano Domenicali felt Masi should have been axed New head of Formula One, Mohammed ben Sulayem, had addressed concerns from Mercedes

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 Mohammed 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.

Freitas will alternate in the role along with Niels Wittich following Masi's departure Eduardo Freitas will now act as one of the two rotating race directors in Formula One

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

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.

Hamilton took an extended period of silence across social media, fuelling retirement murmurs

Hamilton took an extended period of silence across social media, fuelling retirement murmurs

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