The FIA has dismissed Michael Masi as Formula One’s race director after his role in the controversial finale to last season’s championship-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The sport’s governing body is to replace Masi with two new personnel, Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich, and has introduced a series of new structures, including a standalone race control unit to function similarly to VAR in football.
The FIA has not, however, published the report of its investigation into what happened in Abu Dhabi and Masi’s level of culpability in making decisions that decided the world championship in Max Verstappen’s favour, ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
The newly appointed FIA president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, announced on Thursday that Masi would not be sacked from the sport’s governing body but offered another post. The Australian took over as race director after the death of Charlie Whiting in 2019. He has been liked and respected in the paddock but events have clearly taken their toll; at a meeting of the F1 commission on Monday he was described by observers as a shadow of his former self.
The Portuguese Freitas, who is a widely respected race director for the world endurance championship, and Wittich, the race director of the DTM, the German touring car championship, will alternate in their new role. The German had already been set to join as assistant to Masi this year. The division of the role does raise questions over the likely consistency of decision making.
They will be assisted by the return of Herbie Blash. Blash, who is 73, has been involved in the sport since the late 1960s and was an assistant to Whiting for more than 20 years. With huge experience and being greatly respected in the paddock, he will take on a role of permanent adviser that will go a long way to easing the teams’ apprehension about the new system.
Masi’s intervention in Abu Dhabi, improvising with the rules around the safety car and the way cars could unlap themselves, proved decisive in the title fight between Hamilton and Verstappen. Ultimately it allowed Red Bull’s Verstappen, on fresh tyres, the chance to attack and pass Hamilton on the final lap, securing the championship in the process.
Masi and the FIA were immediately subject to scathing criticism as to how it had been handled. Hamilton believed the race had been manipulated and his Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, warned the British driver might retire from F1 were he not satisfied with the conclusions of the FIA’s inquiry. It is believed his continued participation in F1 was dependent on the FIA putting in place structures such that a repeat of the events could not occur. That he will now race appears clear, however, as he will be attending the launch of the Mercedes car on Friday.
In the aftermath of the events, anger and the sense that the sport’s integrity had been severely damaged were widespread. The FIA referred to much of the controversy as a “misunderstanding” and said it hoped the investigation, which began last December, would bring clarity to the situation.
Ben Sulayem believed the changes were necessary to ensure public trust in the rules being applied correctly and that they had the unanimous support of F1’s CEO, Stefano Domenicali, and the team principals.
“With this plan, FIA opens the way for a new step forward in Formula One refereeing,” he said. “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, organisers, and of course, the fans.”
Alongside the new personnel, three major organisational changes were confirmed. A virtual race control is to be established at the FIA, away from the circuit, to use technology to assist the race director. It will operate in real time feeding relevant information to the track as required, with the intent of allowing the race director to be able to focus on immediate track-related issues such as safety, while the VAR team investigate rule infringements.
After Masi was subjected to intense pressure by direct communication from both Red Bull and Mercedes during the crucial final laps, this access is to end, replaced with a “non-intrusive” process if the teams wish to ask questions. Finally, the unlapping procedures are to be re-examined and assessed with potential changes to be made before the start of this season.
Mercedes have made no comment on the decisions but at the launch of the new Ferrari, the Italian team’s Charles Leclerc expressed his sympathy for Masi. “I have a lot of respect for Michael for what he has done, he had a difficult job, especially in Abu Dhabi,” the driver said. “Whatever happened it was always going to be controversial. But the FIA has made a decision, has a lot more info and I fully trust it is the right decision.”