Formula One’s new ruler Mohammed ben Sulayem made the incendiary claim on Friday that he could yet re-employ controversial race director Michael Masi.
The Australian official was held accountable for Lewis Hamilton missing out on an eighth world title during the decider in Abu Dhabi last December. Vilified, he paid with his job in February.
Sportsmail understands Masi has returned to his native Australia and remains on the FIA payroll and would ideally like a return to Formula One’s control tower. That would enrage Mercedes and Hamilton, both of whom campaigned for his dismissal. Team principal Toto Wolff recently called Masi a ‘liability’ and said he would oppose his return to high responsibility.
Mohammed ben Sulayem (L) has revealed that Michael Masi (R) could return to Formula One
But on Friday, in his first interview since taking charge of the FIA in December, Ben Sulayem told Sportsmail: ‘I didn’t get rid of Michael. He had a personal overload (of work)— safety delegate as well as race director. He made a mistake. It is not as if we said it is the end of Masi with the FIA.
‘I don’t do that sort of thing. Even people who didn’t vote for me, I embrace. We don’t think of individuals. We think of the operation itself.
‘I don’t know Michael very well. The decision (to sack him as race director) was made by the World Council. It was human error on Michael’s part.’
That was a reference to Masi being held to have freelanced the safety-car rules, producing an exciting last lap in which Max Verstappen, on fresh tyres, pipped Hamilton to the crown.
‘I spoke to him two days ago,’ revealed Ben Sulayem of the official. ‘I have no personal issue (with him). I don’t hate anyone. Michael is there and we might use him. I didn’t say we were getting rid of him. I said we might use him. He may be in a good place to use. We are open to everything.
‘Our race structure was wrong organisationally. And though we have brought in two new race directors, I wouldn’t say we have got it all right yet. We need to clean the stables.
Ben Sulayem won’t let jewellery be worn in the cockpit despite Lewis Hamilton’s complaints
Ben Sulayem wants Hamilton to set an example and send the right message to young drivers
‘It’s not like going to a supermarket and asking for some more stewards. You need firm and fair people, tolerant people. I am thinking, for example, of bringing in rally co-drivers, who have plenty of multi-tasking skills that are required, and training them up. We need a recruitment drive.
‘This lack of people in the FIA needs to be addressed. I would like to see a minimum of three race directors, ideally by the beginning of next year.’
Three! He appointed two in February to succeed Masi — Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas, but only Wittich has undertaken the role so far. Ben Sulayem says Freitas will make his debut, with Wittich also in attendance, in Barcelona next weekend.
So next subject, what does the president make of Hamilton and his insistence on wearing jewellery in the cockpit?
A brief reminder of the facts. The sport’s superstar driver was told he must remove his jewels to conform with a long-existing but unapplied FIA safety rule.
Initially, before the last race in Miami, Hamilton said he wouldn’t comply and would even sit it out if necessary. Then, following a soothing conversation with FIA doctor Sean Petherbridge a few hours before first practice, he acquiesced by whipping off his bracelets, watches, rings, necklaces and earrings.
His nose piercing would require surgical removal so stayed on under a two-race exemption that permitted him time to have the required work carried out.
Ben Sulayem suggested that Hamilton will be fined if he defies the jewellery rule in Monaco
That deal runs out at Monaco on the final weekend of May, and the latest from Hamilton is that he is absolutely again digging his heels in, believing the order is deliberately denying him the freedom to express his personality as he would wish.
Over to Ben Sulayem, sitting in his office on Friday afternoon in Place de la Concorde, where so many French revolutionary heads rolled, including that of Marie Antoinette, who learned to play the piano next door at Hotel de Crillon. Is he visiting his own terror on Lewis?
The Dubai-born, former rally driving Emirati says: ‘Never. After Brazil (a race Hamilton won brilliantly last November despite multiple grid penalties to set himself up for a possible championship title) I wished him all the best as he was getting on the plane home. You can ask Toto Wolff how supportive I was.
‘I was free then because I wasn’t president. I really wanted him to win that eighth title, because records are there to be broken.
‘People say I did what Lewis and Toto wanted by removing Michael Masi. I mean, I do that for them and then I have it in for them — it doesn’t make sense. Lewis saw a doctor in Miami to discuss the jewellery issue — and, guess what, he was a British doctor. I am simply saying the rules are there. It’s not for me to decide the merits of the science — it’s for the medics. I would like Lewis to be a role model, an ambassador, to send the right message to all the young drivers to prevent a tragedy. We should be using him in that good cause.’
At this point Ben Sulayem gets up to locate his mobile phone. He turns it around and briefly flicks through exchanges with Hamilton — scrolling too fast to have betrayed a confidence but slowly enough for me to see there were a number of them. Their last chat was at Miami a week ago on Friday. Hamilton made his plea for leniency by text, having tried to ring the president before.
Ben Sulayem apologised in his return message for having missed the call.
‘I love jewellery,’ adds Ben Sulayem. ‘I absolutely love it. But in the car there can be no choice. People say they (the rules) haven’t been implemented before. Don’t ask me why not. People can ask the old regime why that is the case.’
What if Hamilton defies the rule in Monaco? ‘That’s up to him. There are fines that apply. It’s like if someone speeds on the roads — you can’t stop them doing it but they get fined, even if it was accidental.
The new president has given himself two years to improve the FIA’s financial situation
‘You can’t let people off because they are your friends. There has to be one rule for all, and that’s that.’
Ben Sulayem arrives in his new post aged 60 as one of the least well-known of recent FIA presidents stretching back halfway through last century: dictatorial Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, before he was toppled by Bernie Ecclestone’s old pal Max Mosley, who, in turn, was succeeded by former Ferrari team principal Jean Todt. Like Mosley, Ben Sulayem sprung a surprise by winning, in his case up against Todt’s long-time English deputy Graham Stoker, and he is the first non-European to hold the role.
Mosley is a hero, Ecclestone a close contact, Mrs Fabiana Ecclestone his deputy president.
After giving up a successful rally career in the Middle East aged 39, Ben Sulayem, who made a fortune in real estate and private banking, became the region’s leading motor sport administrator before going for the top global job. He clinched 62 per cent of the vote in December, fulfilling a dream he had harboured for a decade.
He has found the organisation in a more parlous state than he expected. The FIA operate at a loss of some $25million, an unsustainable figure.
He has given himself two years to change this around, taking a 25 per cent cut on presidential spending. The role is unpaid.
The financial wobbles he inherited was just one hospital pass. Has he invited another one by raising the vexed name of Michael Masi?