Making sense of Masi’s Formula 1 demise

Masi replaced as Formula 1 race director

Michael Masi with Alfa Romeo Sauber’s Fred Vasseur

FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s decision to move Michael Masi out of the Formula 1 race director role was an inevitability.

Masi has been central to debates that have raged since the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

In some instances the criticisms have been fair, but in many cases they’ve crossed the line.

What is fair and reasonable to say is that the Aussie made a mistake in the way he managed the late Safety Car in Abu Dhabi.

It was a high-profile error and one that had significant repercussions on a sport in which its competitors invest hundreds of millions of dollars.

But we should take a step back to understand how and why Michael made the mistake he did.

He was working in a pressure cooker environment at the end of the longest season the sport has ever seen in the midst of one of the most intense championship battles on record.

Michael is a world class race director, hand picked by the late Charlie Whiting as his replacement. That is a hell of an endorsement and speaks of how highly rated he is.

Sadly, he was thrust into Whiting’s position far more quickly than planned, and much of his learnings had to be done on the job without an experienced mentor figure to help guide him.

And while he made a mistake in Abu Dhabi, the decision to move him aside is largely a political one.

Ben Sulayem has just taken on the role of FIA president; with this the first major item he’s dealt with in that office.

It therefore goes a long way to set the tone of his presidency.

No action would have suggested he is out of touch, so something had to be done.

The reforms he announced are logical and long overdue.

Formula 1 is the largest annual sport, and Abu Dhabi was watched by 108.7 million people globally according to the sport itself – a 29 percent increase on the same race a year earlier.

It was inescapable then that the FIA had to react and adding a virtual race control room to support the race director is logical.

Having radio exchanges between the race director and teams broadcast to the television audience is also unfair on all involved, as it lacks any context or sense of timing – we don’t know when those messages were said, we don’t know if there was more to the conversation.

It’s a point McLaren’s Andreas Seidl made last year when asked about the messages, stating those sorts of conversations should be kept behind closed doors.

That Michael will be replaced by two people, not one, is also acknowledgement that he was overworked.

In effect, the FIA is acknowledging that it had created a situation in which the Formula 1 race director would fail.

It mattered not who that individual was, it seems an inevitability that mistakes would be made given the circumstances in which they performed that role.

What was also curious was the timing of the announcement.

As the world’s media was focused on Ferrari’s 2022 car launch, the FIA dropped a video on social media with Ben Sulayem making his announcement.

Ferrari is the sport’s biggest team and garners the most international media attention.

Why then publish such a key statement at that time? It is too coincidental to have been accidental.

It should also be added that the team which has felt most hard done by since Abu Dhabi, Mercedes, is set to unveil its 2022 car tonight.

But there is another aspect to all of this, and it’s one of perception.

There is a saying that goes ‘perception is reality’, and in the eyes of many fans Michael cheated Lewis Hamilton.

It is unimaginable to think he would do any such thing, and the outcome in Yas Marina was the result of a tired, overworked individual under intense pressure making what they felt was the correct call.

Michael Masi did not rig the world championship or decide he wanted Max Verstappen to win. He did his best to ensure a racing result. Nothing more, nothing less.

However, that is not how many have chosen to see it and that effectively forced the FIA into making the decision to move him aside.

Formula 1 is a hugely commercial sport. It is enjoying strong growth with a swathe of new sponsors entering in recent times.

It’s been described by Zak Brown as something of a golden era of the sport, akin to when tobacco money flowed freely among the paddock.

But underpinning all of that is the fundamental fact that Formula 1 is a fair sporting competition in which the best succeed.

The notion that an individual changed that outcome, and it was therefore reduced to luck, fundamentally shakes that to its very foundation.

Companies will not shell out vast sums of money if they believe the sport is corrupt.

And while it is not, perception is reality and Michael lost the support of the fans.

While he remained in the race director role he was effectively a commercial liability to the sport, which is many times bigger than one person.

So while there were suggestions that Michael would remain in the job, and there was great support from within the FIA for him to continue, his position was untenable.

As unpalatable as the situation is, the outcome was inevitable.

Michael was and remains a world class race director. The challenges thrown in front of him were simply insurmountable, and it is unfortunate that it is he who paid the price in that lesson being learned.

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