OPINION: Major changes hint at major problems

Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

OPINION: Major changes hint at major problems

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: Major changes hint at major problems


The timing was hardly perfect, but maybe that was intentional… The FIA deciding to announce the restructuring of race control just as the Ferrari was launched, when all eyes should have been on recent president Jean Todt’s former team.

It could have been new president Mohammed Ben Sulayem making a statement – both literally and figuratively – that he isn’t going to change any plans just because they might annoy Ferrari. Or perhaps the hope was to bury the impact a little. Or maybe it was just terrible organization. But either way, it made a lot of noise when it landed.

Michael Masi losing his job as race director was the final part of Ben Sulayem’s statement, but it was also the biggest headline. His position had become untenable ever since the events of Abu Dhabi, and there was no way he could realistically remain in place.

But that doesn’t mean it was all his fault. Far from it, actually.

Let’s start with the driver reaction that came after the news broke. Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were both speaking as part of the Ferrari F1-75 launch, and both had kind words for the Australian.

“Personally I would like to wish Michael all the best in his new role,” Sainz said. “I’m sure he will be given a lot of responsibilities, because we as drivers – or me at least – we trust him in whatever he has done lately, and he’s done for the benefit of Formula 1.

“I also welcome the new race directors and I’m sure they will have a very difficult task to complete. Like we saw the last few years in Formula 1, it’s a very difficult role, especially filling in the shoes of the late Charlie (Whiting), who we all definitely miss.

“But we also accept that this role needs to be done properly, needs to be supported like the FIA is planning, so I actually like what I see and what the ideas are from the FIA. So hopefully we can keep improving as a sport, and the ruling of the sport can keep improving to give more clarity to all the Formula 1 drivers, but also the fans and teams.”

“Yeah, I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Leclerc said. “I think Carlos said everything. I have a lot of respect for Michael and everything he has done. He’s been in a particularly difficult seat for the past year, and especially in Abu Dhabi, with an end like this, it was always going to be controversial. But again, the FIA has made a decision and has a lot more information than I do here, so I fully trust that this is the right decision and we will go forward with this.”

You could argue it’s easy for the drivers to say such things after Masi’s departure, but even before the outcome was known – first communicated in part to the F1 Commission on Monday – the likes of Sebastian Vettel were defending him.

But it’s not the drivers that stand out at this point, it’s the fact that such big changes are being made to the overall officiating structure by the FIA.

Race control is being brought up to modern standards with a permanent hub at one of the FIA offices – in either Paris or, more likely, Geneva – that will act as a virtual race control in much the same way VAR (Video Assistant Referee) works in soccer.

To then split duties between two race directors in Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich is another major step that changes the way the position will be handled, and the FIA goes even further with the hugely popular Herbie Blash returning to effectively reprise his deputy race director role under the new title of permanent senior advisor.

Significant and varied experience is added in the form of WEC (Freitas), DTM (Wittich) and F1 (Blash), while the pressure is automatically taken off one person by sharing the races between the first two. The fact teams will no longer be able to directly contact the race director in the way they pestered Masi is also a clear statement that the previous set-up was not an easy working environment for the race director, who needed more support, less responsibilities, and fewer distractions.

When you add those final three points up, it’s almost not a surprise that Masi got it so wrong at times, especially in Abu Dhabi.

What the FIA has done is inadvertently admit fault and look to correct it, although there is no detail published in terms of the actual findings of the analysis into the final race, only its solutions.

It’s not a move that will appease all fans, and nor will it end all debates about stewarding decisions and the handling of races. But it is a number of important steps to improve the situation in a major international sport that had not kept up with advancements in technology when it came to officiating, nor its own rulebook. 

Masi couldn’t stay, but the fact that he’s just one part of the changes highlights just how much needed to improve. If parts of this structure had been in place 12 months ago, there’s every chance different decisions would have been made at crucial times. With so much more help, hopefully it means better ones will follow, regardless of who is ultimately calling the shots.