Michael Masi may not be the most famous figure in the middle of Formula One’s world championship fight but he might yet hold the keys to the contest.
So dedicated is Masi to his thankless task as race director that he has upped sticks from his native Australia to live out of a suitcase with a mate in Elephant and Castle, London, except he is barely there either. An itinerary of 22 races and countless track inspections all over the world sees to that.
Before he returns to Sydney for Christmas comes the defining moment of the gripping tussle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, who are level on points and separated only by the 9-8 victory margin held by the Dutchman.
Race director Michael Masi has addressed suggestions of an intentional crash on Sunday
This means that if Verstappen were to bump Hamilton off the road in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, he would take the title.
Or would he?
Masi is not so sure. ‘I can’t control the actions of the two individuals, only they can,’ says the affable 42-year-old. ‘But within the regulations we have penalties, be it time or grid penalties. In addition, the International Sporting Code has provision for the stewards to disqualify a competitor or dock championship points.
‘So, yes, Max could be deducted points, as could any team. We hope it isn’t necessary, but it is one of the tools available. I will remind all the teams and drivers of these provisions.’ That stark warning will be in the drivers’ briefing in the paddock Friday night.
Both title contenders have claimed it has not been made clear to them what is and isn’t allowed in close combat. They allude to what they believe are contradictory judgments by the stewards. Tempers have been frayed, never more so than in the farcically action-packed race in Saudi Arabia last Sunday, when, among other close encounters, Hamilton and Verstappen collided on track.
Max Verstappen would win the championship if he and Lewis Hamilton did not score points
Verstappen was given a meaningless 10-second penalty for slowing down too much (as well as a five-second penalty for gaining what was adjudged to be an unfair advantage in a separate incident) and plenty of opprobrium fell the Red Bull driver’s way. Others, however, believe neither wanted to lead going into the DRS zone and that Hamilton was equally culpable.
Masi says: ‘While they may not want to admit it, deep down they all know what is deemed legal, what is fair game, what is hard but fair racing and what is not.
‘Every incident has to be treated separately. While they may look similar, they are not necessarily identical.
‘There is a common belief I am responsible for the punishments meted out, but it is down to an independent panel of stewards to decide if a penalty is warranted.’
The distinction between policeman and magistrate has not saved Masi from criticism from the Red Bull and Mercedes camps. Verstappen’s team principal Christian Horner was scathing after the Saudi race, saying the sport missed Charlie Whiting.
He was the long-time race director prior to his sudden death in a Melbourne hotel room, aged 66, on the eve of the 2019 Australian Grand Prix. Suddenly, Masi was thrust into the top job.
Masi insists Verstappen will be docked points if he intentionally endangers Hamilton
‘These comments are no worries,’ says Masi. ‘We have seen in the heat of the battle both Christian and Toto (Wolff, of Mercedes) say various things off the cuff. They are entitled to their perspectives.
‘I would be the first to say I miss having Charlie as a point of reference, with his huge experience.
‘I and my team are doing the best job we can. People are upset if something doesn’t go their way. I understand. It is elite sport.’
One aspect of the Saudi race that attracted especial notice was the ‘offer’ Masi made to Red Bull, asking if they would accept switching the order for one of the two restarts after Verstappen had shoved his way past Hamilton at Turn 2.
‘This happens during a race — giving people the ability to give a position up,’ counters Masi. ‘The difference was it was under a red flag and more focus was on it.
Verstappen (left) and Hamilton have already been involved in a number of collisions this year
‘It is the most pragmatic way of dealing with it, saying, “You can do this or it will be referred to the stewards and it will likely result in a time penalty”. It was just that the discussion took a bit longer because the race was suspended.’
On to this weekend. What is Masi’s final wish?
‘I hope it is not decided in the stewards’ room,’ he says, ‘but by the two guys out on the track. It is up to them and nobody else.’
Sunday’s title decider is set to be on free-to-air television after Channel 4 reached a deal to use Sky Sports’ feed for the race.