Michael Masi replaced as F1 race director after FIA review of 2021 Abu Dhabi GP finale
Michael Masi replaced after FIA review into 2021 Abu Dhabi GP; Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas to alternate as F1 race director in 2022; Masi to be offered new role in FIA; Virtual Race Control Room created, direct communication between teams and race director removed
Last Updated: 18/02/22 6:50am
Michael Masi has been replaced as F1 race director following a review into last year's Abu Dhabi GP, the FIA has confirmed.
Masi had been under intense pressure due to his handling of the 2021 finale, namely for the Safety Car decisions that opened the door for Max Verstappen to pass Lewis Hamilton for a controversial race and title win.
FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem confirmed a number of structural changes as part of a 'step forward for Formula 1 refereeing' on Thursday, one being that Niels Wittich, former DTM race director, and Eduardo Freitas, WEC race director, will act alternatively as F1's race director.
Masi will be offered a new role within the FIA, which Sky Sports understands will be a safety role.
Wittich and Freitas will be assisted by Herbie Blash as the permanent senior advisor, with Blash returning to F1 five seasons after stepping down as deputy race director to the late Charlie Whiting.
The new race management team will be in place from next week's test in Barcelona.
A Virtual Race Control Room will also be created, likened to football's VAR, while direct radio communications between teams and the race director will be removed.
The unlapping procedure behind the Safety Car is also to be reviewed by the F1 Sporting Advisory Committee and presented to the F1 Commission prior to the season getting under way in Bahrain on March 18.
What happened in Abu Dhabi and why has Masi been replaced?
In the final stages of the Abu Dhabi GP on December 12, Masi handled the late Safety Car period in a way not prescribed by the F1 rules - and the decision had a huge impact on the championship.
The Australian, who has been F1 race director since 2019, ordered only the lapped cars between Hamilton and second-placed Verstappen through under the Safety Car, providing the Dutchman, on fresh tyres, a shot at passing Hamilton - who was on old rubber - on the very final lap.
Verstappen duly passed Hamilton for the race and championship victory.
"It's called motor racing, Toto," Masi told a furious Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff after the race.
While Masi's actions were justified by the FIA stewards following a Mercedes team appeal, F1's governing body lodged a full review into the process and admitted F1's image was being tarnished.
The investigative stage began last month and the FIA spoke to key representatives, including all the drivers, before the F1 Commission meeting on Monday. Both Wolff and Red Bull boss Christian Horner were at that meeting where the Abu Dhabi inquiry was discussed, and Ben Sulayem has now revealed those first changes.
Masi's removal as race director comes just a day before the launch of Mercedes' new car and the return of Hamilton with a media interview. Both Mercedes and Hamilton were said to be "disillusioned" with F1 following the events of Abu Dhabi but Masi's exit may well go some way to healing that relationship.
The FIA's announcement also coincided with Ferrari's car launch.
Speaking after the F1-75 car was revealed, team boss Mattia Binotto said: "It's not a surprise for us at all, something that has been analysed and discussed with all other teams.
"What happened in Abu Dhabi has been overdiscussed, overanalysed. I think the fact it took so long shows the complexity of the matter, nothing obvious.
"It's very difficult to say everything was wrong, any mistakes or not. Certainly when you're taking such a decision, you're under a lot of pressure in the heat of the action, the pressure is very, very high and the communications from teams to race director certainly doesn't help.
"It was not an obvious situation and a difficult decision to take. We need to trust the FIA for its independence and its capacity to take the right decision to move forward. In that respect we can only support. At Ferrari we support the decision of its new chairman and the entire FIA, and we will continue to collaborate to improve the future for our racing."
Will Masi departure 'pacify' Hamilton?
Sky Sports News' Craig Slater
"It is interesting in announcing Masi's departure, they don't outline the reasons for him going. He is to take up a new position within the FIA structure.
"My understanding was, in addition the fact he did not implement the rules correctly in terms of the way cars unlap themselves behind the safety car, and indeed with regard to the precise point the at which the safety car could be withdrawn, it was also felt within Formula 1's leadership that perhaps the noise and controversy which surrounded him made his position as the race director - which has to carry authority with teams and drivers - as untenable.
"It is not unexpected news, it's exactly what we predicted and the timing is significant from a Mercedes perspective.
"We reported all year that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were waiting on the FIA's investigation findings to see if Lewis would continue in F1. Well this comes just in advance of Mercedes' launch for 2022 on Friday, at which Hamilton will be present.
"Now that the FIA have announced something concrete, this represents the kind of self-assessment, self-criticism and admission - even if it isn't explicitly stated - that some mistakes were made in Abu Dhabi, which ought to pacify Hamilton and at least give Mercedes some confidence going forward that Formula 1 will be trying to operate to the very highest standards in terms of following clear, concise and predictable rules.
"It's sad for Michael Masi, a very committed individual. There is a lot of sympathy for him throughout Formula 1."
Why will a new VAR-style system help the future of F1?
Sky Sports F1 analyst Karun Chandhok
"We have all expected some sort of a change to be coming. It's been coming for a little while now, the pressure was ramping up, so I wouldn't say I'm entirely surprised.
"I think what I'm more encouraged by is the fact that the system is changing and this is something that I've written about and talked about.
"Michael is a capable race director and we can all agree he made a mistake in Abu Dhabi and if he had his chance again he would do it differently, but I don't think the system helped him and for me the most important news coming out of today isn't that they're replacing Michael, but they're setting up structures around whoever the race director will be to make the sport more fairly controlled.
"It's quite hard for one person to have control of the overall picture and I think that's what happened in Abu Dhabi so just to have a few more eyes on how things are unfolding on track will be undoubtedly helpful for the race director.
"They [Wittich and Freitas] have got a tough job. Michael Massi and Abu Dhabi has made the race director much more famous than any race director and these two gentlemen are walking into a very high pressured environment."
FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem's proposal in full
Firstly, to assist the race director in the decision-making process, a Virtual Race Control Room will be created. Alike the Video Assistance Referee (VAR) in football, it will be positioned in one of the FIA Offices as a backup outside the circuit. In real-time connection with the FIA F1 race director, it will help to apply the sporting regulations using the most modern technological tools.
Secondly, direct radio communications during the race, currently broadcast live by all TVs, will be removed in order to protect the race director from any pressure and allow him to take decisions peacefully. It will still be possible to ask questions to the race director, according to a well-defined and non-intrusive process.
Thirdly, unlapping procedures behind safety car will be reassessed by the F1 Sporting Advisory Committee and presented to the next F1 Commission prior to the start of the season.
And finally, I would like to inform you that a new race management team will be put in place starting in Barcelona for the test session.
Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas will act alternatively as Race Director, assisted by Herbie Blash as permanent senior advisor.
Michael Masi, who accomplished a very challenging job for three years as Formula 1 race director following Charlie Whiting, will be offered a new position within the FIA.
I presented this complete plan to the members of the World Motor Sport Council and the Senate who gave their full support.
With this plan, FIA opens the way for a new step forward in Formula 1 refereeing. Without the referees, there is no sport. Respect and support of the referees is in the essence of the FIA. That is why these structural changes are crucial in a context of strong development and the legitimate expectations of drivers, teams, manufacturers, organizers, and of course, the fans.