Formula One champion Max Verstappen defended Michael Masi on Thursday, saying the much-criticized former race director was “thrown under the bus” after last season's dramatic finale.
Masi was replaced last week following the controversy at the title-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December.
Verstappen won his first world title there by overtaking defending champion Lewis Hamilton on the last lap after Masi ordered a restart.
“It was very unfair what happened to Michael because he's really been thrown under the bus,” Verstappen said on Thursday at preseason testing in Barcelona. “I sent him a text as well. To immediately sack him is not the right decision. I wish him all the best with whatever comes next, and I just hope it’s better than being an F1 race director.”
Masi's decision turned a gripping F1 title race on its head as Hamilton was coasting to a record eighth world title. What followed was confusion and scathing vitriol toward Masi from some quarters.
Hamilton led the race comfortably until a crash by Nicholas Latifi brought out the safety car with five laps remaining. Verstappen stopped under yellow flags for a fresh set of tires, and Masi flipped his decision and let the drivers separating Verstappen from Hamilton pass the safety car. Verstappen then zoomed past Hamilton on fresh tires.
”(That) the people who did sack him allowed that (rule to happen) in the first place is unacceptable," Verstappen said. “I found that really incredible, so I feel really sorry for Michael. I think he was a very capable and good race director."
Verstappen feels Masi was placed in a hugely difficult position, with Hamilton's Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and his own Red Bull boss Christian Horner heatedly talking to Masi live on air in a pressure-cooker atmosphere.
“Can you imagine a referee in whatever sport has the coach screaming in his ear all the time? That’s a yellow card, red card, no decision, no foul,'" Verstappen posed while drawing a comparison with a soccer referee.
"It's impossible to make a decision. That F1 already allowed that team members could talk to him while making decisions is very wrong. Because it needed to be Michael making the decisions on his own, without having people screaming in his ear."
Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso also expressed sympathy for Masi.
“Michael was trying to protect us all the time, which is what we ask (from) a race director,” Alonso said. “He was protecting us. I remember Spa, we didn't race because conditions were not (suitable) for racing. Baku, where we had the red flag, even if it was one (or) two laps to the end, because it was not safe.”
Governing body FIA has a new race-day structure in place, including a soccer-style Virtual Race Control Room.
“(What) we talked about last year was the topic of inconsistency," Wolff said on Wednesday. "There shouldn’t be room to interpret the rules.”
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