Formula One: Masi replaced as F1 race director after Abu Dhabi controversy

Red Bull's Max Verstappen (right) celebrates winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the world championship, in December 2021, as Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton looks on after finishing second. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Australian Michael Masi has been replaced as Formula One race director in the wake of the title-deciding safety car controversy in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the governing FIA's new president said on Thursday (Feb 17).

Masi, who will be offered a new role within the FIA, will be replaced by Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas who will share the race director job as part of a wider restructuring of the sport's refereeing process unveiled on Thursday by the governing body's president Mohammed Ben Sulayem.

Freitas moves into the F1 role having served as race director to sports car racing's World Endurance Championship, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Wittich, who worked in German touring car series DTM, was already set to step up into the role of Masi's deputy this year having been part of race control last season.

Freitas and Wittich will alternate in the race director role as part of the new race control management team which will be in place in time for the first pre-season test in Barcelona on Feb 23.

They will be assisted by FIA stalwart Michael 'Herbie' Blash who will return as permanent senior advisor, having retired in 2016 after 50 years in the sport.

Blash served as deputy to the highly-respected Charlie Whiting.

The pair, who worked together at the Bernie Ecclestone-owned Brabham team in the 1970s, stepped up to form a crucial double-act in race control in the 1990s.

"Respect and support of the referees is in the essence of the FIA," said Ben Sulayem, who in December was elected the body's first non-European president.

"That is why these structural changes are crucial..," the Emirati ex-rally driver added.

Masi, who was thrust into the race director role after Whiting's sudden death on the eve of the 2019 season, came under fire when he altered the safety car procedure in December's Abu Dhabi finale to set up a last lap showdown between title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

The Australian got only the lapped cars between race-leading Hamilton and second-placed rival Verstappen out of the way after a late-race crash, allowing the Red Bull driver to pass his race-leading Mercedes rival seven corners from the finish and take his first title.

Michael Masi was heavily criticised for the sequence of events that led to Verstappen passing Lewis Hamilton to deprive the Briton of a record eighth title. PHOTO: FORMULA1.COM

Ben Sulayem said unlapping procedures behind the safety car will be reassessed and presented to a meeting of the F1 Commission ahead of the start of the upcoming season.

He said a virtual race control room, operating in a similar way to football's VAR, would be set up away from the track to assist the race director in the decision-making process.

Direct radio communications during the race, broadcast live on TV, will also be removed to shield the race director from external pressure, after Red Bull and Mercedes team bosses Christian Horner and Toto Wolff were heard repeatedly contacting Masi over the radio to lobby, complain or vent their frustrations during several races last year.

Teams will still be able to contact the race director but through a non-intrusive process.

The changes were unanimously supported by the teams and F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali at an F1 Commission meeting on Monday, said Ben Sulayem.

"These changes will enable us to start the 2022 F1 season in the best conditions, and our sport will be even more loved and respected," he added.

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