The FIA originally seemed to view the controversy over the conclusion to last year’s world championship in Abu Dhabi as being largely a matter of perception.Nicholas Latifi, and the related communications between the FIA race direction team and the Formula 1 teams, have notably generated significant misunderstanding and reactions from Formula 1 teams, drivers and fans, an argument that is currently tarnishing the image of the championship and the due celebration of the first drivers’ world championship title won by Max Verstappen and the eighth consecutive constructors’ world championship title won by Mercedes,” noted a statement from the World Motor Sport Council on the Wednesday after the race.
Then-FIA president Jean Todt agreed to a “detailed analysis and clarification exercise for the future” in order to “draw any lessons from this situation and [for] clarity to be provided to the participants, media, and fans about the current regulations to preserve the competitive nature of our sport while ensuring the safety of the drivers and officials.”
Over two months later, with Todt’s successor Mohammed Ben Sulayem now in place, the outcome of the “exercise” was presented. But far from clarifying any of the details of the Abu Dhabi debacle, it instead outlined a series of drastic changes, including the replacement of FIA F1 race director Michael Masi.
“The structural changes are crucial in a context of strong development and the legitimate expectations of drivers, teams, manufacturers, organisers, and of course, the fans,” said Ben Sulayem.
Many of the changes, including Masi’s exit, were indicated in an interview given by Ben Sulayem’s deputy Peter Bayer last month, and therefore did not come as an immediate surprise. But it remains to be seen how effective each of them will be, and whether the sport’s governing body has gone far enough with its reaction to a fiasco which spoiled the conclusion to terrific season of racing.
Virtual Race Control Room
“To assist the race director in the decision-making process, a Virtual Race Control Room will be created,” Ben Sulayem explained.
“Like the video assistance referee (VAR) in football, it will be positioned in one of the FIA offices as a back-up 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.”
Ben Sulayem’s reference to VAR immediately caught the eye as it is not universally liked by football fans, to put it mildly. But its F1 equivalent sounds like a very different beast indeed – a separate dedicated operations centre to share the burden of running track sessions.
As a step towards easing the pressure on the race director, this seems like a sensible move in a series which is governed by increasingly labyrinthine regulations.
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No broadcasting of race communications
A key aspect of the Abu Dhabi controversy involved the manner in which Red Bull and Mercedes lobbied Masi during the race to make calls which suited their interests. This appeared to prove pivotal when Masi made the unprecedented decision to only allow a portion of the lapped cars to regain the lead lap.
That followed a message from Red Bull’s sporting director Jonathan Wheatley in which he remarked to Masi: “You only need to let them go and then we’ve got a motor race on our hands.” When Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff objected to the decision after the race, Masi used a tellingly similar phrase: “Toto, it’s called a motor race.”
F1 only began broadcasting communications between the race director and team personnel early in 2021. In the immediate aftermath of Abu Dhabi, many were quick to call for the communications to be outlawed.
Ben Sulayem confirmed the broadcasting of the messages will no longer take place but the discussions will be permitted in a limited form.
“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,” he said. “It will still be possible to ask questions to the race director, according to a well-defined and non-intrusive process.”
While it’s one thing for teams to put their side of an incident they are involved in to the race director, it’s quite another for them to instruct him on how to handle a Safety Car or VSC period (something both title-contending teams were guilty of in Abu Dhabi). Restricting what they are allowed to discuss is therefore sensible.
However removing those conversations from public broadcast seems like a retrograde step: How will we be able to judge if teams have overstepped the mark in their discussions if we can no longer hear them?
Change to un-lapping procedures
The question of whether lapped drivers should be allowed to regain the lead lap at the end of Safety Cars is one F1 has gone back and forth on over the years. The procedure was originally introduced in 2007, then dropped in 2009, then reintroduced in 2012 since when it has remained.
Can F1 justify clinging to the rule after the damage caused by its incorrect application? For now Ben Sulayem has said only that “un-lapping procedures behind the 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.”
Some alternatives have previously been considered and rejected, such as sending lapped cars to the back of the field instead of waving them past the Safety Car.
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Masi out, Wittich and Freitas in and Blash back
The FIA’s decision to replace Masi with not one but two choices of director for the upcoming season, and add a permanent senior advisor into the mix, is a profound change to the structure of this demanding job.
It sends a clear signal one outcome of the inquiry was that Masi had too much on his plate. That’s not hard to imagine: Over the final six weeks of last season he oversaw five races on three continents, while crossing oceans in between to oversee work on two new additions to the calendar and one drastically altered layout.
Masi’s reassignment to an as-yet unspecified role will have shocked few as it was indicated by Bayer previously. Mercedes were obviously furious at his handling of Abu Dhabi, but there had been earlier indications of discontent as well: Following the previous race Red Bull team principal Christian Horner remarked F1 “missed Charlie Whiting”, Masi’s predecessor.
In his place come two veteran race directors from the World Endurance Championship and the DTM, Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich respectively. Dividing the role between two people will inevitably prompt questions over whether they will make consistent decisions between them.
This is where a familiar name from F1’s past fits in. Herbie Blash, who worked alongside Whiting as deputy race director for more than two decades, will lend his massive experience in the new role of permanent senior advisor to the FIA race directors. He will bring instant credibility to the new structure, but at 73 years old, he is unlikely to want to remain in the post for the long-term.
The FIA’s response to the Abu Dhabi fiasco is detailed and far-reaching. But did it need to go further?
The changes are aimed at preventing a repeat of the errors of Abu Dhabi in the future. But last week McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl argued the FIA needed to put a system in place which allows for errors to be corrected.
“We need to accept mistakes can happen, on the team’s side but also on the FIA’s side,” he said. “So these things can happen again, for example.
“For me it’s very important as well that we also discuss a racing mechanism where you have, let’s say that we’re in a position that if mistakes happen, where should you raise your hand and admit them and have a mechanism in place in order to correct those mistakes also, or correct the consequences that such mistakes or controversies could have. That is as important as trying to avoid similar controversies in the first place.”
This is where the FIA’s response to Abu Dhabi appears to fall short. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said the reason they did not appeal against the outcome of the race was not because they didn’t think they would win, but because they expected that even if they did win, there was no mechanism by which the outcome of the race could be changed, and Lewis Hamilton’s lost championship regained.
The FIA has taken many steps to help race control avoid errors in future. But it does not appear to have addressed the tricky question of what it will do if, or when, similar mistakes are made again.
2022 F1 season
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