Steward Ops: Michael Masi’s Inconsistent Line

The 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix provided a thrilling start to the 72nd Formula One season, with an epic, race-long battle for top honours between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. However, there was a controversial incident which decided the race in Hamilton’s favour. 

The incident and how track limits affect outcome of the race

On the 52nd lap of the race (out of 56), Verstappen, on fresher tyres after pitting later than Hamilton –  Mercedes had nabbed the lead by undercutting Red Bull – passed the reigning champion around the outside of Turn 4, only to then immediately slow down on the back straight, allowing Hamilton back past. Confusion erupted as to why Verstappen had to give back the place, with suspicion at the time being that Red Bull had been ordered by Michael Masi, the race director, to allow Hamilton back through as the pass had been made off the circuit. After the race was over, Verstappen confirmed that fact.

Max

The controversial move: Verstappen swoops around the outside of Lewis Hamilton to take the lead of the race, going beyong the allowed track limits at turn 4. Photo: Formula One (Youtube)

Since last Sunday, track limits have become one of the pivotal points of discussion. This topic isn’t entirely new for Formula One of course, but the events that unravelled during the days leading up to the Bahrain Grand Prix eventually culminated in the controversy involving the move Verstappen pulled. In a post-race interview, Charles Leclerc revealed that the drivers had been informed in the drivers briefing that they were allowed to go over the white line at Turn 4 with all four wheels – but only during the race.  That information, though, changed across the weekend. It started with there being no monitoring of track limits on the exit of Turn 4, but soon before FP2 it was revised so that it would be monitored for the remaining practice sessions and qualifying before being left alone for the race. Like a toddler who can’t decide which magazine they would like at a supermarket, Masi then had another change of heart, which led to the events on Sunday afternoon.

During the race, the drivers quite fancied exploring the surroundings of Turn 4. Such was the advantage of running wide out of the corner that multiple drivers kept doing it lap after lap. This is where the can of worms gets opened and they all come crawling out. While running out into the run-off area was allowed for that lap time gain – until the stewards started to get bothered by how much Hamilton was doing it – overtaking was not allowed. This is why Verstappen had to give the place back to Hamilton. Race control deemed that he had completed the overtake outside the actual racetrack, and therefore, the overtake was illegal. This apparent change of heart, where the rules meet in a supposedly grey area, has been vehemently denied by Masi, but it becomes quite hard to ignore once the fans try to rationalize it. Sam Collins does a great job explaining this in the following tweets.

But, as mentioned, the can of worms was now open, and once you start digging your way in there, you find some that are ready to bite. Esteban Ocon’s overtake on Yuki Tsunoda depicted below is an example of that. While he does get pushed off the track a tiny bit due to the Japanese rookie slightly losing control of his AlphaTauri, he uses the run-off to carry the speed to eventually complete the overtake. Admittedly this situation is not exactly the same as Verstappen vs Hamilton, it poses the question: what is considered gaining an advantage? It’s this grey area that seems to exist today that has been the point of discussion and, unfortunately, isn’t the first time it has happened since Masi took over.  

A small trip through inconsistency?

Since Masi took over from the late and much-missed Charlie Whiting, the consistency displayed has, it can be argued, gone downhill, and is probably on the verge of breaching track limits itself. Examples of this inconsistency can be found far beyond the extent of the run-off for track limits. Let’s take the example involving Sebastian Vettel’s grid drop this weekend. Vettel received a 5-place grid penalty and 3 penalty points applied to his superlicense as he failed to slow down for the yellows in sector 1 after Nikita Mazepin spun at the end of Q1. But, according to the stewards report, Vettel did slow down accordingly – he just didn’t abort the lap. 

But Vettel – and the other three drivers – were under investigation for a similar incident, when Carlos Sainz Jr’s Ferrari came to a stop in sector 2. It seems the same procedure was used by the drivers involved, but there was a different criteria applied in that incident. Another such example of this criteria inconsistency can be observed once you compare what happened in the first race at Austria last year when Hamilton was alleged to have failed to slow down in qualifying due to yellow flags which he couldn’t see. No further action was taken at the time but then, after a Red Bull protest, Hamilton received a three-place grid penalty. For what it’s worth, Verstappen got the same penalty for the same infringement the year before in Mexico, with a small difference – he got his one straight away. It showcases a danger of, when a yellow drops, it’s perhaps better to floor it and hope no penalties come afterwards if it’s not guaranteed penalties will happen… 

However, it is worth noting that, at times, flashes of consistency can be found. Mid or late-race incidents, like the one involving Kimi Raikkonen and George Russell at last year’s Eifel Grand Prix or Sebastian Vettel’s contact with Max Verstappen at the 2019 British Grand Prix, have usually been penalized with a 10-second time penalty. Of course, the minor changes that can be found – for example, Albon and Hamilton’s collisions at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix and 2020 Austrian Grand Prix only warranting 5-second penalties for the seven-time world champion – can be justified by how the FIA usually has a different chief steward, who has more influence in those decisions than the race director himself. That itself is also an influence into how, sometimes, penalties can vary from race to race without much explanation why.

 

Four different incidents, with four different consequences: how to evaluate them fair, but also in a consistent fashion?

The criticism being dished out to Michael Masi is not just limited to inconsistent penalties. Last season, after the Mugello safety car debacle, several drivers commented that the SC rules needed rewriting – something Masi did not believe was required. Last weekend at Bahrain, Max Verstappen used those same rules to restart the race following Mazepin’s shenanigans at Turn 3. Verstappen decided that, as he was the race leader, to back the field up for as long as possible before accelerating to try and catch everyone else unaware. This was a scenario very similar to the one created by Valtteri Bottas last season at Mugello, and while this time it passed without much incident, it had fans watching from gaps between their fingers and hoping that there wouldn’t be a repeat of the scenes in Tuscany. Let us not forget that a very similar incident occurred in Formula One’s main feeder series a few years ago, leading to the culprit receiving a race ban

While it is an admittedly difficult job that Masi is doing – not being made any easier by rotating the people around him every weekend – it is also worth noting that the stewards have access to far more data than what we see during the broadcast. The viewing public can get sector times for various portions of a lap. Meanwhile, the stewards have access to micro-sectors, which theoretically should offer a greater breakdown of each part of the lap, almost to a corner-by-corner level. With that level of data available, it is very important that decisions are kept consistent throughout the season. Not only does this make the process of applying penalties easier to the actual race direction, but it also helps, from a spectator’s perspective, to better understand why decisions are taken. 

What warrants an advatange out on the racetrack? Formula One needs to rethink the grey areas of rules... Photo: Formula One

What warrants an advatange out on the racetrack? Formula One needs to rethink the grey areas of rules… Photo: Formula One Media

If Formula One wants to keep growing, and making sure fans stay engaged – and while controversy is always great for discussion – grey areas involving track limits and application of penalties need to be ironed out. Fans don’t want to see another Bahrain 2021 or Canada 2019, with races being decided on technicalities and constantly changing rulings on what can or cannot be done inside the racetrack. With the racing on track looking as if we might get one of the closest championship battles in recent years, the only thing fans will be wanting is for it to be decided on the circuit instead of the stewards’ office.