In December 2020, I wrote a pretty standard feature calling out Race Director Michael Masi on his questionable actions throughout the 2020 season. Little did I know that it was just the beginning and that almost a year after my first article was published, I would have enough material for a second.
Before we start, we need to remind ourselves of the duties of the race director. The race director does not review incidents or assign penalties; that is the job of the race steward. Many of the controversies this season hinged on stewarding decisions. The race director is solely in charge of the operation and safety of the racetrack in all sessions that take place during the weekend.
There was one key addition to the 2021 broadcast that has shown Masi’s true colors: the FIA–eam radio broadcast. Being able to hear the communication between a team representative or team principal, and the race director is not something I ever knew I needed, but wow was I glad to have it. In an already contentious championship battle, hearing the teams plead to the race director over a missed penalty or questionable decision added to the drama tenfold.
But I also feel this addition strayed away of what it was intended to do. By hearing these communications, we got to see Masi’s personality, He earned the moniker “Sassy Masi” online for his quick and cheeky remarks in response to team bosses. While having a bit of fun on the radio is nothing crazy, sometimes it felt as if the team representatives saw Masi as an obstacle or joke, rather than a colleague. The teams should work alongside the race director to make sure things run smoothly, but these exchanges added a layer of tension that led to complications further down the line.
While there may have been minor mistakes on his part, the most glaring mistakes on Masi’s part came at the last two races of the season, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. These two races held massive significance for the championship, as we were right as the end of a hotly contested championship for both the drivers and the constructors titles.
The controversy surrounding the Saudi Arabian GP started right from its announcement. The track was finished mere days before the weekend began, already breaking the FIA’s established rule requiring the track to have its final inspection approved months before race time. The layout was tight, and the chances for a nasty accident were sky-high, Masi needed to be on his A game for this event to proceed safely.
As running took place on the days leading up to the race, it was clear that the chance for a catastrophic pileup was greater than on any other track, doubly so if a car was stranded or crashed. These fears were realized during the F2 feature race on Sunday morning, when Théo Pourchaire, who stalled in his grid position, was collected by Enzo Fittipaldi. Both drivers were hospitalized, and while Pourchaire was released with no injuries, Fittipaldi suffered a fractured heel as a result of the 72G impact. Masi was not at the helm for the F2 race, but this incident showed us the ever present danger of the track.
Later in the evening, it was Formula’s turn to race around the streets of Jeddah, and tensions were high. The cars got off to a surprisingly clean start, but come Lap 10, the wheels started to fall off. Mick Schumacher hit the barriers at Turn 22, causing an immediate safety car. Masi took four laps to call for a red flag to repair the barriers, which some saw as a questionable decision.
The second restart was less than desirable and was a perfect example of another hallmark of the Masi era: the lack of communication on restarts. More often than not, drivers leave the pit lane confused about both their starting position and how the race will restart. Red flags can be a busy time for Race Direction, but that is no excuse to resume without a clear starting order for the cars and drivers not knowing whether the start will be standing or rolling.
As cars came around for their outlap, they learned that it would be a standing start. It worked the first time, so it should be fine the second time, right?
Wrong. There was a pile-up in the middle of the grid, and it caused a rred flag. Who could have guessed it?
At the front of the grid, Hamilton and Verstappen fought tooth and nail as they always do, and an off-track overtake by Verstappen would be the main point of contention during the next red flag period. As soon as the cars got to the pits, Red Bull and Mercedes both got on the blower and started arguing with Masi about who should be in what position. This should not be a complicated decision for any race director, but for some reason Masi made it complicated.
Instead of reviewing footage, making a decision, and sticking to it, Masi decided to play Deal or No Deal with the teams and give them an option on track position. This is apparently something that has always happened between race direction and teams in situations like this, but just because it has always happened doesn’t mean it’s not stupid. The only reason we as fans were made aware of it is the nifty little FIA–Team Radio broadcast now played on the world feed.
This “Deal or No Deal” incident is a perfect example of possibly Michael Masi’s biggest flaw: he is spineless. Instead of being the iron first iron-fisted decision-maker he should be, he lets team bosses take the power from him in debates. The buck stops at him, and he shouldn’t leave things up for debate. He needs to start making strong statements and showing team bosses who’s really in charge.
A major theme of Masi’s tenure as race director has been improper communication between the governing body and the teams, and this race was a highlight reel of his poor communication skills. Whether it was failing to relay information about the restart procedure or the confusion surrounding Hamilton and Verstappen’s swapping places that took place later in the race, Masi needs to communicate better with teams before his lack of clarity and slow communication, becomes a serious safety hazard.
We left the streets of Jeddah and embarked on our yearly journey to the deserts of Abu Dhabi for the final race of the season. Usually, this race is a dreadfully boring affair, with the championship being decided long before the final race in the last few seasons, but this year it all came down to the finale.
With points tied, the championship was going to be decided this weekend, so everything needed to go on without a hitch. For the first four sessions and even the majority of the race, things ran smoothly. Hamilton and Verstappen fought it out as they always do, but nearing the end of the race it looked like Hamilton would be taking home his eighth crown.
Then things took a turn. As we neared the final laps of the race, Nicholas Latifi found himself in the wall at turn 14 after a battle with Mick Schumacher, and the safety car was called out. With less than 5 laps left in the race and quite the clean-up job ahead, it looked as if this season was going to end under a Safety Car period. There was not enough time to let all the lapped cars unlap themselves, and with four cars between championship contenders, that posed an obstacle for the trailing Verstappen.
Initially, Masi made the call for the race to go green but not to let lapped cars unlap themselves. Hamilton breathed a sigh of relief as he lapped the course on ancient tires, which were in no shape for a fight. But then Masi, for whatever reason, reversed his decision and let only the five cars in between Hamilton and Verstappen unlap themselves, putting the Dutchman right on Hamilton’s rear. The green flag flew, and on much fresher tires, Verstappen made the overtake and secured his championship.
The final few laps of this race have been dissected and analyzed to death in the month since it happened. Factions have formed, and conspiracy theories have been plucked out of thin air, all to cover up a very simple truth: Michael Masi is unfit to be race director. There is no grand conspiracy against Lewis Hamilton; you can break open the rule book as much as you want, but I find it very hard to believe that Masi’s decision was rated in anything but TV ratings. It was not a sporting decision.
I am not often ashamed to be a Formula One fan, but the final two races of this incredible season were an embarrassment. I hope that anyone who tuned in for the first time to watch was able to see through the messiness on the surface and revel in the great racing that lay underneath. The embarrassment is the fault of no one but Michael Masi and the FIA. Everyone else has done their job properly: drivers, mechanics, team bosses and journalists, so no blame should be placed on them. The sooner F1 fans recognize their common enemy, the sooner the fighting and vitriol will come to an end.