The FIA’s decision to replace Formula 1 race director Michael Masi, and the announcement of sweeping changes to officiating in the sport, shows what the governing body intends to do about the controversy sparked by last year’s title-deciding race in Abu Dhabi.
It was never likely to, for obvious reasons. Were the FIA to acknowledge mistakes were made in the handling of the final-lap restart, which changed the outcome of the world championship, it would cast doubt on the validity of the result.
Mercedes launched a protest immediately after Lewis Hamilton lost the championship on the final lap. The team pointed out the long-established procedure for restarting a race after a Safety Car period had not been followed and that the protocol for allowing lapped cars to re-join the lead lap had been changed.
Their complaints were rejected on the day, and Max Verstappen confirmed as race winner and world champion. But 67 days later the FIA has announced sweeping changes to the future management of race control, including the replacement of the person who took the contested decisions. The move leaves little room for doubt that the complaints of Mercedes, which were dismissed by the stewards in Abu Dhabi, ultimately carried some weight.
Masi decided to bring the Safety Car in a lap earlier than required by the rules. The FIA said today it will create a Virtual Race Control Room to “help to apply the sporting regulations” correctly in future.
Masi chose to allow only the drivers between Hamilton and Verstappen to un-lap themselves, in a break with convention which contradicted his own words of a year earlier. The FIA has said the “un-lapping procedures behind safety car will be reassessed.”
Finally, Masi himself is being replaced. In short, while the FIA has not said what went wrong or who was responsible, it has announced it will revise the relevant procedures and replace the person who took the decisions.
You don’t have to look hard to read between the lines here. If the FIA believed its rules were enforced correctly in Abu Dhabi it is hard to imagine it would make such sweeping changes which touch upon every point of dispute which arose from the championship-deciding race.
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It gives a strong impression the FIA, under the new leadership of Mohammed Ben Sulayem, has accepted the season finale was mishandled – with over 100 million people watching.
Mercedes were certain they would have won an appeal over the race had they proceeded with one (a view shared by others). They only chose not to, according to team principal Toto Wolff, because the FIA’s appeal system offered no way for Hamilton to be awarded the title retrospectively.
In the aftermath of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Wolff said Masi’s decisions “robbed Lewis Hamilton of a deserved world championship”. The sweeping changes being made to race control in response to last year’s controversy vindicate that view.
There was never any possibility that the FIA’s inquiry over Abu Dhabi would result in a change to the outcome of last year’s world championship. But as the wait for the outcome of its analysis dragged on for more than two months, it became clear many felt frustrated by the unjust and unfitting end to a season which had been one of F1’s most competitive for many years.
As many observed in the aftermath of the race, both Hamilton and Verstappen had demonstrated over the course of 2021 that they would make worthy champions. It wasn’t the fault of either driver that the championship was decided in such an unworthy fashion.
F1 has seen acrimonious conclusions to championships before. Ironically, Masi showed his sensitivity to that possibility by indirectly reminding the title contenders not to collide with each other on the eve of the finale.
In the end it wasn’t either of the competitors who triggered the controversy, but the race director himself. That is partly what has made this such a difficult problem to resolve.
But the scale of the changes the FIA has made reflect an acceptance that last season went badly wrong and it cannot be allowed to happen again. Today’s announcement gives F1 the chance to put an end to the acrimony and enter its radical new era of technical regulations with renewed optimism that we may all enjoy a season of great racing which is both exciting and fair until the final lap.
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