When the FIA announced Michael Masi was permanently leaving, and in light of the latest debate around race direction in Formula 1, the question of whether a true replacement for Charlie Whiting can ever be found arises.
This is not a Masi-defending article, and I will in no way attempt to justify how he acted on that fateful evening in December 2021 in Abu Dhabi, the occasion of the 2021 Formula 1 season finale, that saw Max Verstappen crowned a first time F1 World Champion instead of Lewis Hamilton becoming an eighth.
Mistakes were made on that day, but it must be stressed that it doesn’t take anything away from Verstappen, who is a worthy F1 Champion of our sport, as much as Hamilton is one of its greats. The two had a titanic tussle on 2021, and either would have been worthy of the Title.
New era of F1 Race Directing not working very well
But as F1 moved on from the Masi era, and entered the current period of dual race direction under Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas – the former coming from a race direction in DTM, the latter having over a decade of experience officiating the World Endurance Championship (WEC) – things haven’t been smooth sailing so far.
The new Race Directors have been clear in their intent to apply the regulations firmly, and that was clear with their policing of the track limits this season, the Austrian Grand Prix being a clear example as we lost track – pun unintended – of the penalties and warnings they gave out throughout the weekend.
There were also complaints about inconsistencies with regards to judging race incidents, with drivers expressing their frustration – Fernando Alonso being the most vocal of late – as tensions are rising between them and the Directors/Stewards.
It reached a boiling point over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend, with Sebastian Vettel’s incident and the penalty he got for leaving the drivers’ briefing abruptly, and that is not a good sign on how things are developing between drivers and officiators.
Whiting’s expertise grew organically with F1 over the years, his death untimely as no successor was ready
This subject probably wouldn’t have been a problem back in the Whiting days, who was with the FIA since 1977 until his untimely death in 2019, acting as a Race Director since 1997 under his former Brabham boss turned F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone who pinpointed Whiting as the man for the job at time, with Herbie Blash, his shadow, plugged in beside him.
Under Whiting the race officiating developed along with F1 over the years, in an “organic” way, with Whiting steering the ship with full support from Bernie as he went on with his duties, doing an incredible job but failing miserably in one aspect; he never prepared a successor for the most important job in F1.
When Blash, in his seventies, decided he had enough and was winding down his presence at races, Masi became Whiting’s deputy in 2018, thus the pair never had enough time together and the Australian struggled to get on top of things when he was unexpectedly promoted.
With this job, knowing the regulations is not enough, managing drivers, teams, officials, FIA and all of F1 was a key element which Whiting mastered, where Masi crucially failed.
You have to be shrewd in playing the F1 game of politics, swimming with the Paddock Piranhas, something Whiting became a master of during his long years of service, thus always enjoying support of both sides, F1 and the FIA.
This could not simply be handed over to a successor, regardless of who that is. But Whiting – at 66 no doubt he felt he had time on his side to tutor the next in line – he probably only made contingencies in case he had to miss a race or two, nothing drastic. His death was unthinkable until the unthinkable happened.
Masi’s appointment was pre-mature but inevitable under the circumstances
Masi was thrown in the deep end after his predecessor’s death but somehow kept going until the inevitable happened at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where he succumbed to the pressure and made a fatal mistake. It was bound to happen, and when it did it was ugly.
But Wittich and Freitas are heading down that path as well and may hit the wall sooner. Despite their experience, DTM and WEC are not F1 which is a totally different beast to handle. Where teams come to the race weekend armed with lawyers and barristers, every move is closely watched, dissected, analysed and mole-hills turn into mountains.
This prompts the question: Should there’ve been a transition period between Masi and his replacements?
At the same time, it has to be said the FIA should have started developing the next “Charlie” a lot earlier, but that probably wasn’t the culture in the Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley days of which Whiting was a product.
Until then, the painful fact is than Race Direction for the pinnacle of motorsport will continue to suffer for some time, that is until a suitable F1 Race Director is prepared and appointed.
Moreover, it wouldn’t hurt to have a fixed panel of F1 Race Stewards at all the races [suggested by James Hunt back in the seventies!] just to deliver simple “consistency”, while clearly outlining their role alongside the Race Director which would make accountability more straightforward when things go awry.
Whatever the case, the forthcoming French Grand Prix, the run-off areas where track limits are likely to provide another stern test for F1 Race Directors and their Stewards this weekend at Paul Ricard.
The spotlight is now stronger than ever on race control as the 2022 F1 world championship heats up for the second half of what promises to be a hard-fought and riveting season.
Thus, until one man is appointed F1 RD, the question remains: Can the FIA find another Charlie Whiting?