January 17, 2022

Abu Dhabi inquiry under way – what next?

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen
Race director Michael Masi’s failure to apply the rules correctly allowed Max Verstappen to overtake Lewis Hamilton on the last lap of the last race of 2021

The inquiry into the biggest crisis to hit Formula 1’s governing body for years began in earnest this week.

New FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem held talks with Mercedes Formula 1 team principal Toto Wolff on Friday, the first of a series of meetings between the Emirati and F1 team bosses to dig into the solutions to the controversy arising from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

But there remain questions as to the timeline of the inquiry stages laid out by the FIA on Thursday, and as to whether the organisation fully understands the threat to its credibility created by this situation.

In a nutshell, FIA race director Michael Masi failed to apply the rules correctly during a safety-car period at the end of the final grand prix of the season, and his actions led directly to the world championship changing hands.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton was on course to win it before the late caution period. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen snatched it from him when the race was resumed under questionable circumstances for one final lap of racing.

The row is not about who was world champion. It’s about fair and equitable competition.

The man appointed to apply the rules seemed to make them up as he went along, apparently as he struggled to deal with the pressures of the situation, under stress from interventions from both title-contending teams. And the result is that the integrity of the sport has been called into question.

Upping the stakes, while Hamilton has said not a word in public since the race, it has become clear that the seven-time champion is extremely unhappy about the situation and will not make a decision on whether to continue in F1 until he sees how the FIA is going to deal with the issues raised by Abu Dhabi.

Substantive action will be required to start rebuilding Hamilton’s trust in the governing body.

The alternative for the FIA is to face the prospect – however remote it might seem – of the most successful driver in history walking away from the sport and saying he is doing it because he does not trust its governing body to administer F1 fairly.

If the FIA does not realise it is facing a crisis now, it certainly would if that happened.

What is the focus of the inquiry?

The FIA promised this inquiry three days after Abu Dhabi. But work on it did not start until last week. And Ben Sulayem’s meeting with Wolff happened a little over a month after the Abu Dhabi race. This is a delay that some in the sport find inexplicable, even allowing for Christmas.

The impression is that the FIA was initially working under the belief that the issue would go away as time passed. Hamilton’s indirect intervention this week has dismissed that idea for good.

Mercedes prefer not to comment for now, and the FIA has failed to respond to requests as to how Ben Sulayem’s meeting with Wolff went.

But Wolff – who, along with Hamilton, boycotted the FIA’s prize-giving ceremony last month in protest at Abu Dhabi – will have left the president under no illusions about how Mercedes feel about what transpired, and laid down some of his expectations for ways to move forward.

Central in all this is the position of Masi. The controversy in Abu Dhabi was by far the biggest of his time as race director, but it was not the only one.

As a person, Masi is widely liked. But the 2021 season was marked by a series of complaints from drivers and teams as to the consistency and clarity of decision-making. And it is fair to say that in his professional role Masi has lost the trust of many – if not all – of the teams and drivers.

A new race director seems to many insiders a minimum starting point for any reorganisation that follows this inquiry.

Beyond the general lack of trust in Masi’s suitability for the role, it is hard to imagine how the new season could start with Hamilton in a Mercedes and Masi still running race control. In the wake of Abu Dhabi, that does not look to anyone like a sustainable situation.

And if Masi did stay in his role, it is unlikely this controversy would ever end – the next mistake made would drag all it up all over again.

Ros Atkins on… the Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen F1 title drama

What happens next?

After Ben Sulayem’s meeting with Wolff, he will go on to have similar discussions with all the F1 team principals, to form a clear picture of where they all stand on the issues raised in Abu Dhabi.

After that, the detail of the inquiry will be undertaken by FIA secretary general for motorsport – and newly appointed executive director of single-seaters – Peter Bayer.

On 19 January Bayer will chair a meeting of the FIA’s sporting advisory committee, on which sit the sporting directors of all the F1 teams, to discuss the use of the safety car.

There, it will be made clear to him that Masi failed to operate the rules as he should have done, and ways to ensure the sporting regulations are cleared up to remove any perceived ambiguity will be discussed.

In the days following that, on a date not yet made public, Bayer will have a “shared discussion with all the drivers”.

Hamilton is expected to participate, and likely discussion points will be the way Masi and F1 officials failed to handle racing incidents in a consistent way through 2021.

Many drivers were also unhappy with the operation of the safety car in Abu Dhabi – McLaren’s Lando Norris said it was “made for TV” and his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo said: “I’m glad I wasn’t part of that.”

But they will also likely want to discuss driving tactics of the new world champion – Verstappen’s tendency to force rivals off the track when racing them, expecting them to make way for him, and leaving them the decision to either crash or give way.

This issue came to a head after the controversial incident at Turn Four during the Brazilian GP, when Verstappen went in so fast defending his lead against Hamilton that both went off the track.

The rest of the drivers did not understand how Verstappen was not penalised for that. At a meeting at the following race in Qatar, the drivers sought clarity from Masi on what was allowed in similar situations, most believing that the rules forbade them from forcing rivals off the track.

But they walked out saying they did not get that clarity. And at the very next race in Saudi Arabia Verstappen did a similar thing, this time receiving a penalty.

By the end of the season there was still no certainty in the drivers’ minds about what would be judged acceptable in wheel-to-wheel situations, to the dismay of many of them.

After that, Bayer will present his analysis to the F1 Commission – the team bosses, Ben Sulayem and F1 president Stefano Domenicali – in early February, again on a date that has not been confirmed.

Bayer has also been asked to present to Ben Sulayem “proposals to review and optimise the organisation of the FIA F1 structure for the 2022 season”.

This is interpreted as meaning a decision on whether Masi retains his job, and also ways to ensure that the race director receives more support, and less distraction during grands prix. Again, there is no date for this.

Does the timeline work? Some F1 insiders were perplexed when the FIA published the outline of its inquiry on Thursday, because it seems to operate with no regard for the approach of the new season.

The only confirmed date committed to was that “the final decisions will be announced at the World Motor Sport Council on 18 March”.

But this is the first practice day of the first race of the season. The first of two pre-season tests is on 23-25 February.

Can the teams go into the first running of their new cars without confirmation on whom they will be dealing with at the FIA on both sporting and technical matters, given the position of single-seater technical chief Nikolas Tombazis has also been questioned in recent days?

Equally, if a new race director is to be appointed, they will need time to prepare for their new role.

And then there is Hamilton. He can hardly make a decision on his future after he has driven his car for the first time, or after the first practice day of the new season.

So, despite the timeline issued by the FIA on Thursday, the picture of the way F1 will change as a result of the Abu Dhabi controversy will have to become clear much earlier than the Friday of the Bahrain GP.

What are the likely outcomes?

It seems inevitable that Masi will be replaced as race director, but the question is by whom?

The obvious candidate is Scott Elkins, who performs the role for the FIA’s all-electric Formula E championship and the DTM German touring car series.

Elkins was previously alternating the role of understudy to former FIA F1 director Charlie Whiting with Masi. It just so happened that it was Masi’s turn the weekend Whiting died in Australia on the eve of the 2019 season, so he was drafted in. It could easily have been Elkins who found himself catapulted into the role had Whiting’s tragedy happened on another weekend.

However, it is believed Elkins has concerns about the profile and pressure of the role in F1.

One person who many would be happy to see take over is Steve Nielsen, a former sporting director of the Renault and Williams teams who has held the same title for F1 under managing director of motorsport Ross Brawn since 2017.

Nielsen, 58, is widely respected, would have the confidence of the whole paddock and would be more than capable of handling the pressures of the role. But there is no obvious reason why he would swap his current position for one with the FIA.

Beyond the position of race director, there is the question of the sporting regulationsexternal-link and whether they are fit for purpose.

The two articles that caused such controversy in Abu Dhabi – 48.12 and 48.13 – seem clear enough in how they lay out the sequence of events in which the race can be restarted after a safety car.

But Masi still found a way to interpret them differently – and the stewards still managed to use them to retrofit an explanation for his actions in rejecting Mercedes’ protest on the evening after the race.

These will need smoothing out, as will article 15.3. On the face of it gives the race director “overriding authority” over the clerk of the course in the operation of a number of aspects of the weekend, including the safety car. But in the aftermath of Abu Dhabi some have suggested that that phrase gives the race director carte blanche to do what he likes.

This is not an argument that stands up to logic, not least because it would obviate the need for any sporting regulations at all if the race director could operate on a whim. But it is one that needs eliminating from possible use.

And then there is the operation of the weekend and the race director’s position.

It has already been accepted – if not specifically outlawed in the rules – that team bosses will no longer be allowed to lobby the race director.

But, while Whiting had his deputy Herbie Blash by his side as a sounding board, Masi has conspicuously lacked support for the past three years.

Whoever is the race director going forward, they will need a better system around them to ease the load of one of the most high-pressured jobs in sport.

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