The current year was a peculiar one and Formula 1 was no different. The 2020 season was an incredibly strange year for Formula One. But despite all the commotion off track, the racing was as good as ever. One glaring issue, however, were the questionable decisions by race control, especially the one that lead to issues with track safety.
After the passing of venerable race director Charlie Whiting at the beginning of the 2019 season, the position was filled by deputy race director Michael Masi. Occupying the post left vacant by Whiting since then, Masi’s tenure has seen the increased use of the black and white warning flag and a tougher stance on track limits.
While his time in charge has seen many improvements, there have also been serious missteps, including inexcusable safety errors. His first season in the position was relatively uneventful, but his second season has seen the most errors by race direction in recent memory.
His most egregious errors happened when handling dangerous situations involving marshals. At Imola, during the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Masi sent the lapped cars away to unlap themselves during the safety car period, but marshals were still cleaning the track. This led to a very scary near miss involving Racing Point’s Lance Stroll going by a marshal, mere meters separating them. While thankfully nothing happened, it is not hard to imagine how it could go very wrong.
A few weeks later in Bahrain, McLaren’s Lando Norris came across a marshal running across the track to put out a fire on Sergio Perez’s car. While also dangerous, it is a more understandable incident, after the same track witnessed Romain Grosjean’s terrible crash earlier in the day. Although fire is one of the biggest dangers for the drivers, the marshals also need to be wary of the other cars, as this can and has led to serious accident in Formula 1 before.
Another error that lies entirely on Masi’s shoulders is the incident during the second part of qualifying in Turkey. At the end of the first part of a wet qualifying session, Nicolas Latifi’s Williams was stranded on track and, between Q1 and Q2, cranes were brought out to retrieve the car. The work was not finished before Q2 was started, however, and the cranes and the marshals involved in the recovery process were still on track. Adding the wet conditions on track, sending the cars out for Q2 and trusting that double waved yellow flags would suffice was a risk Masi should not have taken.
This may not seem like much on the surface, but this bears a striking resemblance to the 2014 crash that eventually claimed Jules Bianchi’s life. That accident happened in similar wet conditions and even though there were flags being waved, Bianchi lost control of his car in the wet track and sadly collided with the crane removing Adrian Sutil’s stranded car.
Following that accident, various safety regulations were created and/or improved, and the halo was eventually introduced as a result of Bianchi’s crash. At the time, FIA President Jean Todt said “[w]e have to learn from what has happened and we will learn from what has happened, because we cannot be facing such a situation again”. Masi’s decision at Turkey, however, directly contradicts that statement.
When questioned by the media about the incident at Imola, Masi said: “[f]rom that end we will continue to learn…” The time for learning was in 2014, at which point you should not have to learn and potentially risk the lives of drivers and marshals. The job of the race director is not easy. But if one person cannot handle all the responsibilities, maybe a race directing team needs to be put in place, as a way to split up the duties and have higher focus on specific aspects of the job, so everyone can operate safely and effectively.
The stewards were also very weird with their penalties this season, with many penalties being put off until after the race, even the ones that appeared easy to make the decision during the race. Carlos Sainz Jr. and his pit lane speed issue in Abu Dhabi being the prime example. A very simple penalty that could have decided the fight for P3 in the Constructors’ Championship was put off until after the race, leaving everyone wondering if the result on track would stand. Not the ideal situation as the last checkered flag of the season fell.
Another example was Charles Leclerc in Spain. After he shut off his car, he undid part of his seatbelt to get out, but then the car restarted, and he went back to driving with half his seatbelt unfastened. He didn’t drive just half a lap though, eventually completing two laps while not properly strapped to his car. Although it was mostly his only safety being endangered, this incident is not talked about enough and deserved a very harsh penalty, as the rules are in place so we do not have to rely on the drivers’ respect for their own safety.
Race Control does deserve credit for their handling of the Roman Grosjean crash. All the safety measures put in place in the many years since safety became a serious concern in Formula 1 worked and all hard work done to make the sport a safer place paid off. The Medical Car was on the scene immediately, the safety cell on the car stayed intact, protecting the driver, the flame resistant gear lasted for as long as it as supposed to and most importantly the halo proved vital to Grosjean’s survival. Everything worked according to plan and allowed the driver to walk away from the explosion.
This sport would not survive without Race Control and its Race Director, the position is vital to maintaining order and enforcing the rules on track. But the Race Director also has a responsibility to make sure every rule is followed and enforced, so that everyone can return home at the end of a weekend. Masi has shown time and time again this season that he is not able to do this job effectively on his own and the FIA should mandate changes in order to improve this area of the sport in the coming season.
Edited by: Flip Jacobsen