Formula One’s reputation was further dented on Friday night when the meeting between Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and FIA president Muhammed Ben Sulayem was shrouded in contrived secrecy, with Lewis Hamilton’s future participation in the sport unresolved.
The two big beasts met privately in Geneva to deliberate the controversial end to the season in Abu Dhabi that saw Hamilton lose the title to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on the last lap.
But on Friday night, both sides retreated into silence over the nature, extent and result of the discussions. The pact of secrecy blows apart the FIA’s stated ambition to introduce a fresh breath of transparency.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff (left) spoke to new F1 ruler Mohammed Ben Sulayem (right) to discuss the farcical conclusion to last season on Friday – with Michael Masi’s future debated
Mercedes demanded that race director Masi is sacked over the lapped cars call in Abu Dhabi
It is understood that no firm agreement was reached, with both sides reluctantly agreeing to abide by the ludicrously long timescale the FIA has put in place to investigate the matter – mid-March.
Race director Michael Masi hopes to cling on to his job after the affairs of December 12, when he contentiously brought in the safety car and so allowed Verstappen, on newly changed fresh tyres, to pass Hamilton and win a race the Briton had dominated. Sources close to the scene are split on Masi’s prospects of remaining in post.
While Wolff wants the 42-year-old Australian official to be sacked, with suggestions his departure is a prerequisite to Hamilton seeing out the last two years of his annual £30-million contract, others belief that Mercedes are bullying the FIA and that they should not be allowed to dictate how Formula One is run.
Mercedes star Hamilton is likely to carry on for 2022 but the outcome of this meeting is crucial
The investigation with be finalised at the FIA World Motor Sport Council meeting on March 18, two days before the opening race in Bahrain. An update on the direction of travel is expected earlier than that, with the smart money on Hamilton continuing.
Ben Sulayem, a 61-year-old rally driver from Dubai who met with Wolff, was voted president of the governing FIA in December, and at the top of his in-tray is the debacle in Abu Dhabi.
Wolff wants to see Masi removed from his role before the start of the 2022 season in Bahrain in March. Right now, every question in F1 circles surrounded the future of Hamilton and whether he will return after such a contentious defeat.
Max Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton on the last lap after a controversial safety car call
Since losing out on the title on the last lap to Red Bull rival Verstappen, Hamilton, 37, has declined to commit to seeing out the remainder of his two-year contract with Mercedes, which is worth in the region of £70million.
Mercedes previously withdrew their legal action against the governing FIA, believing they had no chance of winning an appeal on the basis it would require the FIA to overturn their own stewards at further great damage to the sport.
But Mercedes, the 2021 constructors’ champions, demanded the thorough investigation that is currently being carried out to repair F1’s integrity following the debacle in Abu Dhabi.
Masi cannot continue as race director because he ‘has done much damage’ and trust has ‘utterly evaporated’ in his judgement, believes former race driver Johnny Herbert.
‘I think he has done too much damage to Formula 1 and I think because of the position that he’s in, we have got to have trust,’ Herbert told Sky F1. ‘I think that trust has completely and utterly evaporated.’
But Herbert’s fellow Sky F1 pundit Martin Brundle is not so sure change of one man is the solution, believing that ditching Masi does not ‘solve the problem’ as he pushes for greater reform.
Brundle said: ‘This is way too big of a job for one person to handle this in a 23-race season, it’s only going to grow. Masi, if he stays, needs a lot of support around him and I suspect that is what they’re looking at at the moment.’
Former racing driver Johnny Herbert (right) feels there is no longer trust in Masi in his position
Former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone suggested earlier this month that race director Masi was ‘overwhelmed’ throughout the 2021 F1 season – though is adamant the right decisions were made in the controversial title decider in Abu Dhabi.
Ecclestone has told German publication BILD: ‘He was in many cases overwhelmed with his job the whole season and maybe shouldn’t have had it at all. But it was the right decision to let them race.’
Speaking to Sky Ecclestone dismissed talk of Mercedes being ‘robbed’ as he referenced a first lap incident in which Hamilton went off the circuit following an overtaking attempt by Verstappen and kept the lead.
He added: ‘About being robbed, it’s complete and utter nonsense. If you want to think about it carefully, on the first lap of that race he [Hamilton] went off the circuit and came back on again and Verstappen stayed on the circuit and did absolutely nothing wrong.
‘Lewis wasn’t punished at all for that so he shouldn’t be complaining too much. These things happen all the time in sports. We shouldn’t blame the race director, he did exactly what was the right thing to do.’