Former F1 world champion Jenson Button has jumped to the defence of the sport’s under-fire race director Michael Masi, insisting contact between officials and teams should not come as a surprise because it happens frequently.
Masi’s future hangs in the balance following the controversial ending to last season’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which handed Red Bull driver Max Verstappen the world title on the final lap.
After a crunch meeting of the sport’s major players over Masi’s future on Monday, F1’s governing body issued an inconclusive 46-word statement following a four-hour summit in central London.
Former F1 world champion Jenson Button has jumped to the defence of Michael Masi
Masi’s future is in the balance after the controversial end to last season’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
In the final stages of the race on December 12, Masi ordered only the lapped cars between Lewis Hamilton and second-placed Verstappen through, providing the Dutchman, on fresh tyres, a shot at passing Hamilton – who was on old rubber – when the safety car departed.
The decision came after interventions from Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner and sporting director Jonathan Wheatley, who put pressure on Masi to release the backmarkers.
And Button, who won the 2009 F1 world title with Brawn, believes that Masi should not be accused of giving in to Red Bull’s protests because conversations between teams and race officials are commonplace on race day.
He told Sky Sports News: ‘I think when you hear that (Red Bull’s interaction with Masi) on its own, you think it sounds bad and it sounds like they’re manipulating the race director.
‘But it’s very, very different than that. Every team speaks to Michael Masi and puts their point across, they always do.
‘If you listen earlier in the race, Toto Wolff was also saying: “We don’t want a safety car here, we want a virtual safety car”, and things like that.
The race director made dramatic and controversial calls at the end of the Abu Dhabi GP that led to Max Verstappen (above) winning his first ever Formula One world championship
Red Bull chief Christian Horner (left) was unhappy at Masi’s initial ruling, while Mercedes boss Toto Wolff (right) was left incensed by the race director’s change of mind
‘They’re always trying to get their point across, that’s the way it has always been in the sport.’
Button also added that he believes in-race contact between the race director and the pit wall should be banned moving forward to prevent similar interference happening again.
He added: ‘Maybe that needs to be changed, maybe they shouldn’t have their opinions voiced to Masi and maybe that’s a way forward so Masi can make the decision on his own.
‘I think after the race the teams can go and talk to Masi but during the race I think it’s wrong. There’s so much emotion coming from the teams.
‘For Masi it’s difficult because there’s so much adrenaline and a lot of people watching what he does.
‘I think it’s better that the stewards can discuss it between themselves and come up with a decision, and obviously have the rulebook in front of them as well.’
With around five laps to go during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Hamilton led second place Verstappen by 12 seconds and was cruising towards a victory that would have crowned him world champion for a record eighth time.
Once the safety car came out and Verstappen pitted, there were five cars including Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel (not pictured) between Hamilton and his title rival
However, only these cars were ordered by Masi to overtake the safety car to set up straight fight between Hamilton and Verstappen ahead of the final lap of the race
However, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi then crashed late on around the circuit, bringing out the safety car due to the debris littered over the track.
Mercedes and Hamilton were boosted when Masi gave the instruction that the lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake the safety car and rejoin the back of the pack before the end of the race.
A seething Verstappen said on the radio: ‘Yeah, of course, typical decision… I’m not surprised.’
But Red Bull, furious with the call, then contacted Masi over the radio, protesting that the cars should be allowed to overtake to set-up a one-lap sprint between the title contenders without backmarkers in the way.
‘Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out of the way?’ Horner said. ‘Christian, give me a second. Okay. My big one is to get this incident clear,’ Masi replied.
The significant moment came a few moments later from Wheatley, who put more pressure on Masi to release the backmarkers.
‘Those lapped cars; you don’t need to let them go right the way around and catch up with the back of the pack,’ he informed Masi. ‘You only need to let them go, and then we’ve got a motor race on our hands.’
Hamilton (left) sportingly congratulates Verstappen (right) on his title success after the race
An under pressure Masi twice acknowledged he ‘understood’, and moments later gave the order for only the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to be let go, and not the other backmarkers further behind the Dutchman as is usual under safety car conditions.
Verstappen on his new softer tyres breezed past Hamilton during the final lap, during which point furious Mercedes team boss Wolff was heard shouting down the radio to Masi: ‘Michael, this isn’t right, Michael! No Michael! That was so not right!’
Hamilton himself was left scathing as Verstappen skated past, claiming on his team radio that: ‘This has been manipulated, man.’
Verstappen then went on to claim victory and the world championship and Masi’s role has been under huge scrutiny since.
One school of thought is that Masi could be forced to take up a lesser role, with Portuguese Eduardo Freitas moving across from the World Endurance Championship to replace him.
But the under-fire Masi has found the support of a number of drivers in recent days, with four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, British driver Lando Norris and his McLaren team-mate Daniel Ricciardo all speaking up on his behalf.