There is a drastic problem eating away at the forefront of motorsport, particularly Formula One.
Recent seasons has seen the narrative of numerous Grand Prix move from the track to that of Race Control and that is an issue that threatens to undermine the integrity of the sport.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where moods changed, but there was little doubt that Brian Barnhart was an unwanted man. Over a period of several Indycar seasons, there had been curious decisions that raised eyebrows and stories of an aggressive presence during driver briefings that, over time, began to whittle away at his reputation as Race Director.
But it was when significantly absurd notifications began to decide winners of races, almost on a whim, followed by further bizarre explanations on television and in other media, the mood turn significantly. Eventually, a disastrous attempt at a late-race restart on the wet oval surface at New Hampshire resulted in a multi-car crash that took out several drivers, including championship contender Will Power.
Barnhart’s sudden decision to then nullify that restart and not include it in the final race result incensed the paddock further, prompting Power to show his displeasure through the use of direct hand signals.
It was the race that effectively sealed his fate. During the post-race television coverage, Barnhart appeared on screens attempting to explain his actions, but it was a dreadful mistake. Not only was his appearance fumbled, it also gave a face to the criticism levelled at Race Control.
Barnhart had become the story. From that point, there was no return.
The then Indycar CEO, Randy Bernard, gave Barnhart his backing – an employment death knell if ever there was one – and come season end, Barnhart was removed from the Race Director chair and moved to other duties within the Indycar bubble.
When Beaux Barfield was announced as Barnhart’s replacement in January 2012, the fresh attitude he represented was more keenly felt than the mere changes he brought to the rule book. Fresh from officiating the American Le Mans Series, upon his announcement, Barfield commented that, “There will be general changes (to the rulebook). If you essentially put too many words in any given rule as an official, you paint yourself into a box. That’s what you really have to be careful of.”
It is not too unfamiliar a story. Those who follow Formula One are, of course, all too aware of how decisions can affect races and, ultimately, championships. Barfield continued, “The decisions come down to the Race Director, period, end of story, because ultimately I have to sit in the drivers’ meeting and explain to the drivers exactly what my expectations are. I absolutely have the final say. Stewards are there for a safety net and to help and assist when you get into a difficult call or difficult situation.”
The final season of Michael Masi’s reign as Formula One’s Race Director had all the hallmarks of Barnhart’s 2010-11 disaster. There was some quite legitimate distaste amongst the fanbase following the outcome of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but also one must not forget the controversial decisions during the penultimate race in Jeddah and the inaction following questionable driving tactics in Brazil, all of which involved primary protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
Most concerning of all was the choice to run the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps behind the safety car in ultra-wet conditions for two laps and then declaring it a race run with half-points awarded, thereby effectively any possibility of refunds for fans. There were other decisions that raised questions.
And yet, it is possible to field a smattering of sympathy for Masi. Initially groomed for the role of Race Director by predecessor Charlie Whiting, Masi’s promotion was hastened significantly by the sudden death of Whiting in March 2019.
Whiting come to the role of Race Director with authority, and he also did so with a wealth of experience, having earned two World Championships as chief mechanic with Nelson Piquet in the 1980s. He then moved into roles within the FIA, supporting then F1 Race Director Roland Bruynseraede, until his departure at the end of 1995. By the time of his death, Whiting had also been involved in motorsport for longer than Masi had been alive – experience is not something that can be bought or traded, it is earned with hours and years.
For all this, Formula One – more so than many sporting categories – is one that that surrounds itself with an impatient cacophony and one could not unreasonably question whether Masi truly had the full support required for the role and whether he was property shielded from influential noise.
Given the overwhelming success of streaming programmes such as Drive to Survive and the presence of the most hotly contested championship fight in decades, the pressure must have leaned on Race Control.
One of the lightly whispered concerns was whether the hand of Formula One’s promoters, Liberty Media, would gently press upon those running the game, gingerly reminding the sport that they now run the show. Not that I would think such a thing…
The 2021 finale will linger long in the memory, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Beyond being a rather processional race with precious little in the way of action, it will forever be tainted with the damned praise of controversy.
According to McLaren team boss, Zac Brown, the teams have been pushing to ensure Grands Prix end under green if there is any opportunity for that to happen following late incidents. Such a push, while understandably welcome, only served to add yet another complication to the mix.
The sport demanded a ‘sporting finish’, but Nicholas Latifi’s crash will probably go down in the history of motorsport as the worst timed accident possible. It was not a significant enough crash to warrant a red flag, but – with only six laps remaining – it required either a safety car or virtually safety car to get it cleared and then when it looked as if it could be cleared quickly, the brakes sparked up and caught fire, thereby extending the safety car period.
But these circumstances should have been foreseen. It should not have been beyond the possibility that a late race safety car could alter the trajectory of the event and if that was considered, then the action required for clean and green finish were set aside for the worst possible choice.
Amidst the myriad of radio calls from Red Bull and Mercedes to Race Control, a narrative of confusion and indecisiveness on behalf of Race Control was painted, whereas the teams come across as bullies searching for another bite.
For all that though, the decision to not let a small group of lapped cars unlap themselves, before reversing that action only moments later served to drill that lack of certainty home. That the messages were broadcast around the world only served to harm the perception of the Race Director and ramp up post-race pressure on the FIA.
These were part of the show, of course. As with all broadcast messages, they are cut and spliced to create and drive a narrative, adding layers to a spiralling story, although in this case, the story spiralled out of control.
That the FIA are adding a blockade between the teams and Race Control during the running of on track sessions is a welcome change, albeit too late for Masi; however, it indicative of a desire to embrace calm professionalism over entertainment.
In Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich – both of whom will share the Race Director role from 2022 onward – Formula One has found a pair of suitable replacements and the addition of Herbie Blash as support will no doubt be extremely welcome. There will be errors and decisions that some will disagree with, but Freitas and Wittich come with the knowledge and experience to put a competent stamp on the role.
If they perform as expected, they should be mostly invisible – and that is the best way for a Race Director to be. Remember, the Race Director should not be the story.
Formula One may need to formulate new sporting regulations to address crashes late in a race, without compromising the run to the chequered flag with miserly half-measures that end up satisfying no one.
Formula One is a sport and it is entertainment – believing otherwise is a foolish endeavour. Under constant assault and threat from a wide variety of entertainment of all avenues, it is fighting hard to build upon hard won viewership gained during the Verstappen/Hamilton battle and it will battle tooth-and-nail not to lose them.
There is a lot to fix this year.