Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen will be desperately hoping that the FIA’s decision to sack Michael Masi as race director will be vindicated during the early stages of the upcoming Formula One season. Masi was relieved of his duties in the wake of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which remains a major talking point due to the controversial nature of the final result at the Yas Marina Circuit.
Hamilton drove a near-perfect race to build up a healthy lead over Verstappen before the Dutchman was bizarrely allowed to close up to him during a last-gasp safety car period. The Red Bull man went on to overtake his Mercedes rival on fresher tyres during the final-lap shootout that followed to clinch his maiden Drivers’ Championship title in dramatic fashion.
Masi was eventually removed from his post by the FIA after an internal investigation into the events that unfolded over the last few laps of the race. The Aussie was quickly replaced by Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas, who will act alternatively in the race director role over the course of the upcoming campaign.
It seems clear that the FIA should be credited for taking swift action to protect the integrity of the sport after one of the most controversial endings to a season in recent memory. However, it remains to be seen whether the appointments of Wittich and Freitas will cause their own problems when the competitive action finally resumes at this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
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The FIA were regularly accused of a lack of consistency in their decision-making last season, especially towards the back end of the campaign. Masi bore the brunt of the criticism before he was eventually dismissed by motorsport’s governing body in January, but it seems plausible that a similar issue could emerge in spite of his absence over the coming months.
The presence of two race directors instead of just one could pose its own issues with regards to maintaining a certain level of consistency over the course of the year. Wittich and Freitas will also find themselves under significant pressure to set a high standard from the outset in order to ease any lingering worries from last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which remains fresh in the memory.
The pair undoubtedly boast plenty of experience in motorsport but the question of whether or not they will be able to cope with the weight of the FIA’s expectations on a weekly basis could be another story altogether. Steps have already been taken to improve the decision-making of the race directors by introducing a brand-new remote support network that will be able to provide assistance to those in command when required to make tough calls.
However, it seems as though teams and drivers will simply be forced to wait and see in order to gain an insight into whether things will improve without Masi at the helm. The last thing the FIA are looking for is another season plagued by controversy and the new pair will be desperate to impress from the off in order to repair the damage to the organisation that remains as a result of the farcical scenes that unfolded in Abu Dhabi back in December.