New year, same old controversy.
The dust may have settled on the 2021 World Championship, but the tension surrounding the highly controversial season-ending 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is still lingering in the air.
We now know that the safety car was brought out after Nicholas Latifi’s Williams was stranded in the middle of the track after the Canadian hit the barrier at Turn 14 during his battle with Mick Schumacher for 17th.
As the laps ticked down to the chequered flag, the chances of a restart became smaller and smaller until Michael Masi unexpectedly decided on Lap 57 to let five lapped cars unlap themselves in preparation for a restart.
Once the safety car returned to the pits, Max Verstappen breezed past Lewis Hamilton into Turn 5 on the last lap of the race, and despite Hamilton’s best efforts, Verstappen clung on to win the final Grand Prix of the season and the championship, much to the delirium of the Red Bull team.
The final ten laps of what had been a damp squib of a season finale has scarred the sport’s reputation and have given it some unwanted global attention from ex-drivers and celebrities who have panned the decision to restart the race.
In the days that followed, the FIA’s outgoing and incoming presidents sympathised with the distraught and enraged runner-up who lost a certain race win through a decision that was out of his control.
But whilst Hamilton elected to show his disappointment for how the sport’s ringleaders handled the final ten laps of the race by not speaking to the media or turning up to the FIA’s annual awards gala in Paris, his team boss spoke of his disillusion with the sport that he and his lead driver love so much.
As the Christmas decorations came down and 2021 made way for 2022, many were waiting for news from the FIA.
The FIA did announce something to the waiting fans. They had started an inquiry.
This announcement achieved nothing but fan the flames of discontent as people demanded a swift change in how the sport’s races are run and who becomes race director.
So what should change for 2022 and beyond?
The first change and arguably the most important one is how the races are run and what penalties should be handed out to drivers if they cause an accident.
Although he was catapulted into the position after the sudden death of the late Charlie Whiting in Melbourne three years ago, Michael Masi’s tenure as race director has been chaotic at times, with the Australian under fire for his decision making in 2020 and 2021.
Masi’s problems began to resurface in Austria when Lando Norris was handed a five-second penalty for his part in a Lap four battle with Sergio Perez before the Australian compounded his problems by ignoring several drivers concerns about the safety of the Eau Rouge and Radillon section at Spa Francorchamps in spite of Jack Aitken’s horrific accident at the Spa 24 Hours.
As if a six-car pileup in the W Series race that put Beitske Visser and Ayla Ågren in hospital wasn’t bad enough, Lando Norris’s accident in Q3 caused Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel to head to the stewards’ office to have a word with Masi after he had voiced his rage on the team radio about the decision to start the session in abysmal weather conditions.
But Spa would be considered small potatoes compared to what happened in Brazil when Verstappen and Hamilton went off the road as they approached the Descida do Lago, with the Dutchman not being handed a penalty for the near-collision.
This incident caused serious questions to be asked about the inconsistencies of the stewards [in this case, not Masi's fault], which rather bizarrely changes every race as many questioned why Norris was given a penalty, yet Verstappen wasn’t.
The fact that a decision on Verstappen’s fate wasn’t made until the eve of the Qatar weekend is frankly bizarre when you consider that the stewards at the Rolex 24 Hours in Daytona made a decision on two-class deciding overtakes within seconds whilst the FIA have to take 3-5 business days to reject or proceed with an appeal.
A better way to improve the consistency and speed of decisions would be to add a team of 6-10 driver stewards who travel to the first 13 races of the season, with the line-up getting refreshed for the final ten. This idea could help ensure that there aren’t inconsistencies in decision-making as there wouldn’t be a musical chairs style system of stewards coming and going.
Time penalties should be dropped, too, with ten-second stop/gos being brought back for on-track incidents such as causing a collision or jumping the start, whilst drive-through penalties could be used for more minor incidents such as going over the white lines when leaving the pits. This is because drivers and teams have used time penalties as cop-outs in order for them to evade the real consequences of their actions, as they usually serve their penalty at their pitstops.
This makes the penalty utterly meaningless as the ultra-fast pit crews can get a stop completed in two to three seconds, meaning that the driver has only had to endure a seven-nine-second pit stop.
To fully implement the stop gos and drive-throughs, teams would be told that their driver can’t serve their penalty at their pitstop and, therefore, will have come to the end of the pits within three laps. Failure to do this means that the driver who was to blame the incident will be black flagged and subsequently banned from the following two Grand Prixs pending a proper excuse that the team and driver can prove, i.e., telemetry or a breakdown in communications.
Other valuable changes to the sport’s rulebook could include the banning of teams being able to change their tyres during the red flag unless they’re at risk of exploding and also a ban on team principals and sporting directors talking to the race director during the race, although that looks set to happen anyway.
Article 15.3 of the FIA rule book, which states that the race director has the authority to start or restart a session, should be rewritten with the Clark of the Course sharing the responsibility in order to make sure that all FIA regulations are followed and that the track is safe enough to be used.
Another change that is luckily being implemented for this year is the abolition of the Q2 tyre rule, which forced the top 10 to preserve the set of tyres that they used in Q2 for the race’s opening stint as if they were four priceless Faberge eggs.
By ending this rather tedious rule, drivers can now fully go on the attack in the final part of Qualifying without having to fear about flat spotting or degrading their tyres before Sunday’s race.
As for Mr Masi’s future, it has become quite clear for some time that his position as race director has been under threat, and after the farrago of Abu Dhabi, which saw him and his team of stewards freeze under pressure at a critical time, many wondered if we would ever see him back in the paddock.
But Masi will feel encouraged that he has received the backing of Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris, who have come out and defended the Australian by saying that he is doing a good job and that he needs more help.
Not that he will have much time to make up his mind as the FIA’s executive director of single-seaters Peter Bayer hinted in an interview that Masi could be replaced or have his responsibilities slashed as a result of the Abu Dhabi fiasco.
However, if Masi is moved on from his role as race director who will take on what has long been regarded as an impossible job.
Well, to put it bluntly, fans shouldn’t be expecting a high profile replacement just yet as the favoured candidates to succeed Masi, Scott Elkins and Eduardo Freitas,.have commitments to other series for 2022 and will probably be unavailable until at least 2023 unless Mr Freitas decides to combine his WEC commitments with a stint in F1.
Instead, Formula 1 could be run by deputy race director Niels Wittich and senior steward Garry Connelly who will surely be installed as caretaker race directors until a permanent replacement is found for the following season.
But this solution may not necessarily work either.
Wittich was the man who presided over last season’s disastrous DTM season finale at the Norisring that saw championship contender Liam Lawson being savagely taken out by Kelvin Van Der Linde at the first corner earning the South African a five-second time penalty.
Then, to add insult to injury, the privateer Mercedes teams ran amok after not only using team orders to hold the pack up but also sending the hard-charging Nick Cassidy into the wall when he was closing in on Maximilian Götz, with the Kiwi’s retirement giving the German the win that he needed to claim his first DTM title.
In this writer’s opinion, Mr Freitas is the right man for the job if Masi decides to depart his role as not only is he experienced and well respected by teams and drivers in WEC, but his decision making and timing is excellent and therefore would suit the sport perfectly.
Whatever happens this season, the FIA will have to up its game this year in what looks set to be an exciting and precarious 2022 season for the sport’s governing body.
The governing body needs to regain control of a sport that is currently being run by drivers and teams who now believe that they can get away with any breach of the regulations without facing the consequences.
It’s time for the grown-ups to retake control and set out in layman’s terms what is right and what is wrong before we get a repeat of the chaos that engulfed the second half of the 2021 season.