Lap 48 of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix promised to have a huge impact on 2021's spicy Formula One championship. Lewis Hamilton pulled outside of Max Verstappen at Turn 4 in an effort to pass, but Verstappen ran Hamilton wide. Fans watching the race were torn between it being a racing incident or something worth a penalty, but one clear fact remained: F1's stewards didn’t have access to video angles that may have impacted their decision before making a call.
F1 race director Michael Masi has taken the brunt of the argument here. The incident was noted by race stewards, but they opted against investigating it. No penalties were handed out, and the race continued on as normal. Hamilton ultimately made the pass and took victory, but fans were left wondering about consistency.
As it turns out, Masi had made his decision before actually consulting all of the video angles of the event. From Motorsport.com:
Asked by Motorsport.com if the FIA had access to the pictures when making the call during the race, Masi confirmed that it did not.
“No, it was only that the cameras that are broadcast, as I’ve said before, which is basically what we have access to throughout,” he said.
Masi said that the footage, plus that from both cars’ 360-degree cameras, will only be looked at after the weekend.
“The forward facing, the 360, there’s all of the camera angles that we don’t get live that will be downloaded and we’ll have a look at them post-race,” he said. “It hasn’t been obtained yet. It’s been requested.”
Later, a tweet from Antonio Lobato quoting Masi revealed something totally different:
Translated, that tweet claims that after Masi saw Vertappen’s onboard, he decided that the action was punishable and would have resulted in a penalty of some sort.
The whole situation has raised a lot of questions. Why was Masi so keen on moving past the incident if it was possible he didn’t have all of the information? How significantly would it have changed the championship battle? Why not keep the investigation pending until after the race?
While I can understand the desire to want to prevent a Formula E-like post-race snafu where the finishing order changes drastically due to some post-race penalties — and the desire to want to avoid deciding F1's spiciest championship battle in years with over-stewarding — Masi’s admission signals a serious issue F1 has with its stewarding, which has seemed inconsistent at best throughout this year. The stewards are, of course, different at every race, but as race director, Masi has the ability to help redefine the course of F1's stewardship, and he's the one on whom criticism will fall.
The main issue here is that the Hamilton/Verstappen incident was reminiscent of one between Sergio Perez and Lando Norris earlier this year. In Austria, Norris was penalized for defending against Perez hard enough that Perez left the track. Perez then earned a similar penalty for pushing Charles Leclerc off the track. It was a controversial penalty that left Masi explaining that the attacking car had a right to space, explaining, “A car’s width should have been left to the edge of the track because the two cars were alongside each other.”
At that time, Masi defended the stewards against a similar incident between Verstappen and Hamilton, where the former pushed the latter off the track at the first turn of Imola. There, he reasoned that the first turn should be given some leniency, since it’s the one point of the race where all the drivers are fighting their hardest.
When it came to Verstappen and Hamilton’s latest incident in Brazil, though, Masi again invoked the “let them race” rule at the time of the initial decision.
Masi was previously criticized by Fernando Alonso for not providing consistent penalties this year.
“I don’t even engage in that side of it,” Masi said in response. “Every driver is entitled to their views and comments, either internally or to the media, and that’s fine.
“The rules are applied equally for everyone. We judge each and every incident, looking at the actual incident and what occurs.”
Unfortunately for Masi, taking into consideration all of those outside factors doesn’t exactly provide for consistent stewarding. Issuing one penalty for an incident, but not issuing a penalty for a similar incident due to one small factor raises more questions than it does provide answers. It makes it impossible for a driver to understand what moves to make or what kind of defense or attack will be allowed. That lack of assurance — more than the issuing of penalties — is what kills racing because no driver has any idea what will happen when they make a move.