On the morning of March 14th, 2019 the usually unflappable world of Formula 1 awoke to the shocking news that its sporting kingpin Charlie Whiting had succumbed to a pulmonary embolism in his Melbourne hotel room, just three days before the start of the F1 season. Once the shock had sunk in and the permanence of Charlie’s passing grasped the logical question was: “What now?”
Fortune seemingly smiled upon F1 during its period of tragic misfortune, for travelling home to Australia from Formula E’s Hong Kong was Michael Masi, the then 38-year-old motorsport administrator with widespread experience in race and rally direction in his homeland. A lifelong motorsport fan, he ‘gofer’-ed for local teams in his teens and gradually worked his way up the ladder, impressing at every stage with his diligence.
Crucially, the previous year Masi had been selected as one of three understudies to Whiting. In 2017 he acted as deputy race director in Formula 2 and Formula 3, a role he was scheduled to reprise – with additional responsibilities – in 2018. Thus, via succession planning, Masi was in the right place to fill the void left by Whiting.
He was determined to do his mentor – and the sport they both loved – extremely proud. The fact that he was confirmed for the role within six months by FIA president Jean Todt speaks volumes; that he is still there after almost three years on even more so.
The Belgian Grand Prix was Masi’s 50th weekend as race director, but the weather gods dictated that both the race and the chat we scheduled to coincide with that anniversary were washed out. We met instead at Zandvoort, where he described the previous weekend as “a very different, challenging event”, with classically dry Australian understatement.
The FIA had originally earmarked Laurent Mekies and Marcin Budkowski as Whiting’s understudies as F1 sporting and technical heads respectively, having realised that Whiting’s numerous roles had evolved around his unique skill sets, and that they would thus be unable to replace him with a single individual. Indeed, it was once said within FIA corridors that “Charlie doesn’t have a single job description, he has 73…”
However, both deputies departed the governing body after receiving senior executive offers from teams – the former from Ferrari; the latter from Renault – and thus the FIA identified two administrators as replacements, namely Masi and Scott Elkins – the latter now the race director for Formula E and Extreme E. As an aside, Whiting’s technical role was inherited by Nikolas Tombazis.
“After Laurent advised [the FIA] that he was moving to Ferrari Charlie contacted myself and asked if I would be interested in filling a deputy role,” explains Masi. “Throughout 2018 I did a number of events, Scott did a number of events.” The decision was eventually taken for Elkins to concentrate on FE with Masi spending 2019 working with Whiting in deputy roles for F1 and its two junior categories.
This split between sporting and technical responsibilities is significant difference, yet three years on many within the paddock still perceive Masi to be a direct replacement for Whiting. But as was the case with his mentor, Masi does not determine or hand down penalties – that is the role of stewards, who are independent. The race director merely flags up what he considers to be breaches. Masi’s role is regulatory, not judicial.
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A parallel is the civilian legal system: policemen flag up what they consider to be breaches of law and investigate them, with judges handing down any punishments. Thus, to blame Masi for controversial penalty decisions (or technical issues) is not only misguided but grossly unfair.
That said, given the circumstances of his having been parachuted in, does Masi believe he was ready for the role, or would have preferred more preparation time?
He has no doubts that he had what he calls “the basis of the technical competencies of being race director,” but admits that he would have preferred another two or so years to better understand some of the complexities of F1.
“Sitting beside Charlie for another two to four years, however long he may have chosen to ultimately stay in the role, would have been amazing. I’ve said a number of times that the part I really missed – and still do miss on a number of occasions – is having that point of reference of understanding why certain things historically may have happened in certain ways or understanding why certain things were done in certain ways.”
It was, he says, a steep learning curve, although it has lessened as time has gone on not least due to “the support that I’ve had internally, from my team at the FIA, the broader FIA as an organisation and in particular the 10 sporting directors in the teams who have been hugely supportive.
“A number of them have been around from their days of being mechanics on cars, all the way through so they’ve seen F1’s evolution and progression. By speaking to them I’ve got an understanding of why certain things happened in certain ways which has been a huge help for having those points of reference. But many more years of having Charlie’s assistance and guidance would have been amazing.”
The plan, says Masi, had always been to divide Whiting’s various roles by spinning off the technical functions and adapting the sporting portfolio in line with F1’s evolutionary nature, its ever-increasing complexities and those of other single seater categories and motorsport’s burgeoning calendars.
“There’s obviously my role as the single seater sporting director, I have a lot more to do with the entire single seater ladder on a day-to-day basis [than did Whiting],” he explains, “So all the way from F1 to F4, then I have my core F1 team that does the operations, the IT, etc and I’m the safety delegate for all the F1 events.
“I sit on the circuits commission, I do all of the circuit inspections for all the F1 events, new events, proposed events, current circuits, etc. So, the role has changed a little bit in that regard Whereas Charlie’s role was very much as the [F1] departmental director overseeing both sporting and technical items.”
That first race in 2019 remains the only grand prix Masi has run in his home country. During a previous interview about the effects of Covid on F1, Masi outlined the disappointment he experienced as part of the team that cancelled the 2020 season opener in Melbourne, pointing out, correctly, that although the decision rapidly reverberated around the world, a week the entire world itself shut down. So, of the 50 races including Spa, which event was the most challenging?
“Obviously, Melbourne 2019 was hugely challenging for obvious reasons,” he says after some lengthy reflection. The Belgian Grand Prix later that year, which witnessed the tragic death of upcoming racer Anthoine Hubert during Saturday’s Formula 2 race, was another.
“Antoine’s passing was hugely challenging for different reasons, of the broader role of keeping the team together and working through all those tragic sets of circumstances. Then I would also add Bahrain last year, Romain [Grosjean’s] accident for a different set of reasons.
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“Then Spa last weekend would probably fall into that mix of ‘challenging’,” he says. He also puts forward the 2019 German Grand Prix, not because of any serious accident, but the havoc wreaked by the weather. “I didn’t realise until after the race how challenging it had been due to the changing weather conditions,” he says.
“They’ve all been challenging for different reasons, there’s not one specific one that sort of stands out.” But emotional strain of Melbourne 2019 stands out, despite it having been fairly straightforward on-track: “The actual race itself was relatively easy, it was more the emotional perspective.”
Before Hubert’s accident he had experienced death during a race weekend twice before during his role in change of Australia’s Supercars series and its junior categories. “There was Mark Porter’s fatality at Bathurst and then there was Ashley Cooper’s fatality in the support race for the Adelaide 500,” he says. “So I’ve dealt with that type of [occurrence], of working with the team and supporting the overall team through that type of tragic event.”
As covered here recently, the use of the red flag has become increasingly common in Formula 1 of late. Not only did it appear six times during the Zandvoort weekend (only the race itself passed without interruption), but each of the previous three races was stopped and restarted.
I ask him whether there this is entirely due to safety concerns or have red flags become the default option whenever an incident occurs.
“It depends on the session,” Masi says. “Obviously in qualifying if there’s a car in a barrier no one can set a time because it would be a double waved yellow flag so it’s a practical issue to give everyone a fair opportunity on a clean track. Practical safety.
“During races a lot of it comes down to more practicalities. In a number of circumstances barriers needed to be repaired. We could do 20 laps behind the Safety Car, but from a practicality [perspective] we have the ability to suspend and restart, and I think everyone wants to see racing.
As example he tables Lance Stroll’s hefty 2020 Mugello crash which required a full barrier repair lasting 30 minutes: “I think from a viewer perspective, from a practicality side, it was just far easier to suspend the race and go [forward] from that. So I think it’s as much safety as practicality and I wouldn’t tar them all with one brush.”
Another key area of Masi’s work is his circuit inspection duties, from new-build designs through to final inspection ahead of a grand prix weekend, and updates to existing tracks.
“Obviously a circuit designer is always involved,” he explains, name-checking big players such as Tilke, Apex, Driven, IDM, Dromo and former F1 driver Alex Wurz. “They present to us what they’re looking to do.
“We, together with the FIA circuit safety department have a look at their design, get all the simulations, run through simulations, We, as the FIA, have the full capability internally to do that. Depending on what it is, if it’s minor modifications, an inspector is empowered to make minor modifications to a venue year on year.
“Let’s use Zandvoort as an example: They had an existing grade two licence that needed to be upgraded to grade one. It went to the circuit commission of the FIA, there are 40-odd members of the circuit commission.
“On the day before the circuit commission meeting we spend a day [examining] all new or major upgrades, which we go through with other inspectors. That gives us lots of different trained sets of eyes, and we work through [the information] collaboratively. Then I go out and look on-site about different things. You can only do so much when you see something on a plan and even with simulations.”
Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Corniche Circuit, an all-new venue which will hold the penultimate race of 2021, is currently under construction. “We made a number of tweaks to the plan,” says Masi. “Then going through on-site and having a look and seeing what different things actually look like in reality it gives you a very different perspective at times and you make further minor changes along the way.
“You tweak all the way until the first race, then after the race there’s [likely to be] a number of things that will be upgraded for next year. Let’s use here as example – a number of things will be upgraded, it’s just constant improvements, changes to the cars and changes to lines, et cetera.
“All of that all comes into the equation, but so does the suitability for other categories. Even though F1 has the highest grade licence because of the speeds of the cars, we also look at different things such as kerb designs and things like that because they may have to suit GT cars and other categories. All those elements need to be taken into consideration.”
Circuits are not, though, the exclusive preserve of four-wheelers. At some venues Masi has to take the requirements of the biking fraternity into account, regularly meeting with 1982 Moto GP world champion Franco Ucini, his FIM circuit inspection equivalent.
“We try and work together to find [mutually acceptable solutions] and we’re in regular contact about a whole range of things.” The Red Bull Ring is one F1 track which is currently undergoing work to make it safer for bikes. Masi calls it “a great example of the changes that they’re looking to make for bikes and how that impacts on cars – the FIA/FIA relationship is currently very, very good at a number of levels.”
But while his work away from race weekends keeps him very busy, the intensity of a grand prix weekend is something else entirely. “The mind goes into overdrive,” he admits. “Afterwards you don’t wind down immediately so I get enough sleep, but probably not as much as I would like.”
So with that I let him get to his hotel room for a catch-up nap before he flies off to Monza after a grand prix that was both a commercial and sporting success – notably, without any red flags during the race itself.