The eyes of the world were firmly focused on Formula One on Sunday afternoon, and even more so on race director Michael Masi after a hugely controversial end to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
With Lewis Hamilton leading in the latter stages, a shunt involving Nicholas Latifi brought out a safety car and a series of contentious decisions led to Max Verstappen overtaking his Mercedes rival on the final lap of the final race of the season.
But who is race director Masi and what happened that was so contentious? Here, Sportsmail takes a look…
Max Verstappen won the world championship after beating Lewis Hamilton in late drama
Race director Michael Masi was at the centre of huge controversy at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Until the latter stages of the race, Masi and his team at the FIA will have been happy with how the race was unfolding. There was very little to do, and if the spotlight is away from them, then usually that means there’s very little controversy.
That was, until Williams driver Nicholas Latifi said hello to the wall and left his mangled car right on the racing line. The stewards had no option but to bring out a safety car, which decimated Hamilton’s lead and opened the door for Verstappen.
Initially, it appeared Masi was not going to allow the lapped cars to unlap themselves, as stated in the rules, meaning that Hamilton had all-but secured the title, given that there would be one lap to go, and Verstappen still had five cars between himself and his title rival.
At the last moment, though, the unlapped cars were told to get out of the way, leaving a one-lap shootout between Hamilton and Verstappen to decide the title.
The Red Bull man, on fresher tyres, got the overtake done with relative ease, leading to fury from Mercedes that their man had effectively had the title stolen from them by one man – Michael Masi.
In the aftermath of the race, two Mercedes protests were refused by the FIA, and the team now have until Thursday to decide whether they will take matters further. On that one, it’s a ‘watch this space’ situation, but Masi is certainly in the spotlight.
Verstappen’s fresher tyres allowed him to dive down beyond Hamilton and then win the title
Hamilton was left bemused at the end of the race, having missed out on an eighth world title
Put plainly, he is the FIA Formula One race director – the man who makes the decisions on raceday, and ensures everything runs smoothly. Of course, there’s a sense of irony in that today, given that things were far from smooth at the weekend.
He is also a ‘safety delegate’, the ‘permanent starter’ and ‘head of the F1 technical department’, giving him a whole lot of clout behind the scenes in F1.
On race weekends, his role is to manage the logistics of the Grand Prix, inspect cars in Parc Ferme before a race, enforce FIA rules, and control the lights that start each race. Every Friday before a Grand Prix, Masi also holds a drivers’ briefing to discuss track-related matters.
In his early forties, Masi is from Sydney in Australia, and is of Italian descent. He initially studied marketing before moving into motorsport and first began his career as a volunteer in the Supercars touring series.
Masi is from Sydney in Australia and has been the FIA Formula One race director since 2019
Only since 2019, and when he first got it he admitted himself that he’d been ‘thrown in at the deep end.’
Masi only arrived at the top level of motosport in 2018, when he was appointed by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile as the deputy race director for Formula Two and Formula Three. At the same time, he was deputy to F1 race director Charlie Whiting.
Whiting’s tragic death just days before the start of the 2019 season ‘as a result of a pulmonary embolism’ left the sport in a difficult position, and Masi stepped up to take the lead that season.
Since then, he has been in charge, with last weekend marking the end of his third season in the role.
Masi had previously flown under the radar but greater access this season has made it tougher
Until this season, Masi flew very much under the radar, but it’s fair to say that 2021 has not been plain sailing for him. New broadcast technology brought in this season has meant that Masi is far more in the public eye than he was before.
Now, fans can listen in to Masi’s chats with team bosses and viewers get more of an insight into the decisions he is making and why they have happened.
That, coupled with the fact that there has been a lot of controversy in a tight title fight this season, has let to the Australian getting plenty of stick from fans and teams alike.
There was a previous incident in Russia in 2020, where Hamilton took umbrage with two five-second time penalties handed his way, going on to state: ‘I’m pretty sure no one’s got two five-second penalties for something so ridiculous before.
Masi has to be across everything F1; pictured is Bahrain 2020 – the Australian is at the scene of Romain Grosjean’s fireball crash just hours after the incident occurred
He also claimed that ‘they’re trying to stop me, aren’t they?’ Masi hit back, insisting that ‘if a breach has occurred of the regulations they will consider it on its merits,’ insisting that the driver being Hamilton had no bearing on the decision.
Of course, Saudi Arabia in the penultimate race of this season is still at the forefront of people’s minds, in which Masi courted controversy in the way he dealt with a series of incidents between Verstappen and Hamilton.
He was forced to intervene after a restart on lap 15 when the Dutchman cut up the inside of his Mercedes rival, forcing him to take evasive action and therefore dropping him back down the order.
Masi came to an ‘agreement’ with Red Bull that Verstappen would give the place back to Hamilton, but the pair then collided, leaving Hamilton complaining about Verstappen’s ‘dangerous driving’.
Masi was in the firing line in Saudi Arabia when Verstappen (left) and Hamilton collided
In truth, it’s probably too early to make a call on that as of yet. The dust has far from settled on the 2021 season and F1 will be keen to get this controversy out of the way before they begin looking ahead to March 2022 and the start of next season.
That said, reports on Monday claimed that Masi is ‘fighting for his job’ in the wake of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The Sun write that he has been proven to be out of his depth and ‘the Australian is set to pay with his job when the FIA elects a new President on December 17th’.
Jean Todt is stepping down to be replaced by either Mohammed Ben Sulayem or Graham Stoker, and it has been reported that the pressure is mounting on them to make replacing Masi their first job.
It is as yet unclear whether Masi will keep his job ahead of the 2022 Formula One season
Not directly, but his close friend Mark Skaife, a five-time Australian motor racing champion, has lifted the lid on his post-race feelings.
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald in the wake of Sunday’s race, he insisted that Masi is very thick-skinned and more than able to handle any stick he receives.
‘I’ve had a few messages from Michael and he’s fine – he’s a robust, resilient sports administrator, someone who loves motor racing and only wants the best for motor racing,’ Skaife said.
‘He’s been working at the highest levels in motor-sport administration for a long, long time.
‘What happened will be water-cooler debate the next week, and everyone will have a view.
‘I think you needed to finish a race with a race, and what Michael tried to do was the right thing.
‘Michael’s mandate this year, and we’re talking about a season that has been the most volatile and competitive in the history of Formula One, is to have that ‘play-on mentality’, and Michael wanted to make sure he kept the cars racing.
‘You never wanted to see one of the great seasons finish under safety car conditions.’
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