OPINION: The Michael Masi Mess 12 | 12 | 2021

    By Jim McGill

    IN THE BUILD-UP to the much-anticipated finale of the 2021 F1 season, Race Director Michael Masi stressed in countless interviews he didn’t want to see the title decided in the Stewards’ Room. Well, the Aussie achieved that. Instead, directly because of his actions, the F1 Drivers’ World Championship is now likely to rumble through the courts. Potentially, it could end up at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which would be massive.

    While newly-crowned world champ Max Verstappen and seven-time champ Lewis Hamilton each acted with dignity and respect in the aftermath of the Abi Dhabi Grand Prix — after competing fiercely and fairly within the rules they were given — the whole motorsport world was talking about Masi.

    For a man who once said of his role, “I’m essentially the umpire,” he fell at the first simple hurdle. The sign of a good referee/umpire is you often don't notice them. Well, we certainly noticed the Sydney-born Aussie on Sunday.

    Let’s deal with the facts first. As Hamilton appeared to be cruising to his eighth world title, 11-seconds ahead of his only rival for the title, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen with five of the 58-laps remaining of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi crashed.

    It’s what followed in this closing five laps, and specifically the build-up to what became the final lap, that we need to focus on.

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    Immediately after the crash, the Safety Car was deployed. Verstappen pitted from second for fresh tyres. Crucially Hamilton stayed out in his Mercedes. Why? Because if he had pitted, the Red Bull driver would have stayed out and inherited the lead. The consensus on both pitfalls was the race would finish under the Safety Car. It was far from clear that the race would restart.

    The other concern for Mercedes was if Hamilton pitted he would then need to overtake Verstappen, knowing the Dutchman would be crowned champion if neither car finished the race.

    What’s important to highlight here is that when Verstappen rejoined the track after his final pitstop there were five lapped cars between him and Hamilton.

    What followed next was totally unprecedented.

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    Masi initially informed the teams that lapped cars would NOT be allowed to overtake, retaining the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen for the final lap of the race which now looked as though it would be run under green flag conditions.

    But that was against protocol, so understandably Red Bull complained.

    Within seconds, Masi had changed his mind. He instructed those five cars to overtake Hamilton and the Safety Car, putting the Dutchman right behind the Mercedes.

    Crucially, Masi’s decision still left two lapped cars between Verstappen and the Ferrari of third-placed Carlos Sainz, and one between the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas' and Yuki Tsunoda's Alpha Tauri.

    But that too was against protocol. So Mercedes complained. Nothing changed.

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    With one lap to go, the race restarted. To no one’s surprise, Verstappen, with so much extra grip, passed Hamilton into Turn Five. Twice Hamilton tried to retake the lead down the two subsequent straights, but couldn’t achieve it.

    What had been a thrilling season-long battle between the two greatest drivers of the year had been reduced to a single lap sprint for the world title.

    But with Verstappen having fresh tyres, it was a race akin to Usain Bolt racing the second fastest 100m runner in the world; but while one wore his favourite running spikes, Bolt was forced to wear a pair of oversized wellies. There could only be one winner.

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    After the race, we know many other drivers were baffled by Masi’s decision. This was not the way lapped cars behind the Safety Car are usually dealt with. In any other race, it would have been expected to finish behind the Safety Car.

    But Masi felt different.

    There is a grey area in the rules governing allowing lapped cars to overtake the Safety Car. And here things get messy.

    The rule states: "If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message 'lapped cars may now overtake' has been sent to all competitors, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car."

    Crucially, that was not the message relayed to the teams. Instead teams were informed that only certain cars were to pass the Safety Car. This instruction is not in the regulations.

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    The grey area then became even more dense for Masi. Within the same article, 48.12 of the sporting regulations, it states: "Once the last lapped car has passed the leader, the Safety Car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap."

    That is not what happened. The following lap was the last lap. At the start of it, the cars were released to race. The rules appear to say they should not have been.

    But to confuse the situation even further, there is yet another rule which states the race director shall have "overriding authority" on a number of matters, including the Safety Car.

    It was this rule the Race Stewards used to justify the fact they would not allow Mercedes’ post-race appeal.

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    That raises the most crucial question of all: does this rule actually mean Masi can decide to do whatever he wants in such a situation. Or, even more bizarrely and concerningly, he has the ultimate authority in the correct application of the rules?

    Can the Race Director, in this case Masi, actually essentially make the rules up to fit his situation?

    Without question, Masi’s decision on the penultimate lap decided the World Championship. And the manner in which he dismissed Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, when he complained after the chequered flag, by telling him simply: "It's called a motor race, Toto,” left many aghast.

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    The corporate might of Mercedes will now take the case to court. Because of Masi’s actions, the credibility of the entire sport and of the FIA is at stake.

    Whether Masi simply wanted to manufacture a controversial race finish for the Netflix-generation of F1 viewers, fuelled by the global success of the ‘Drive to Survive’ fly-on-the-wall series. only he knows.

    What his decisions definitely delivered is an unholy mess. One which left millions of F1 fans around the world bewildered and disappointed that such a long-anticipated showdown should not, in the end, be decided by Hamilton or Verstappen, but by the —some would say arrogant — actions of a bureaucrat.

    And in that single act, he totally destroyed the sporting integrity of the highest level of motorsport.

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    Jim McGill

    All photographs copyright of Mercedes AMG F1 and Red Bull Racing

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