Masi’s ‘personal friend’ devastated to see him sacked after ‘tortuous’ months since Abu Dhabi GP

Michael Masi was removed as race director by the FIA following the controversial close to the 2021 championship in Abu Dhabi.

Eugene Arocca, CEO of Motorsport Australia, sympathises with Michael Masi after his removal as Formula 1’s race director, and maintains that he will always be welcome at Australia’s motorsport governing body should he wish to return.

Masi has been forced to step down by new FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem following the contentious events of December’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when he allowed a limited number of lapped runners to pass the Safety Car ahead of the final lap of the race.

This led to a final lap overtake from Max Verstappen to snatch his maiden championship from the clutches of Sir Lewis Hamilton, and many fans had since been calling for his sacking.

They are also campaigning for the 58th and final lap of the title-decider to be voided, and for the Briton to be awarded his record eighth championship.

The FIA launched an enquiry into the events in the UAE capital and, following a meeting with team bosses earlier this week, Masi was replaced with alternating race directors Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas.

They will both be supported by Herbie Blash – who worked closely with Masi’s late predecessor Charlie Whiting – as well as a virtual support room, which ben Sulayem has compared to the VAR system used in professional football.

Arocca reveals that he is close to Masi, and is thoroughly disappointed by the news of his sacking.

“He’s a personal friend,” Arocca said in an interview with SpeedCafe.

“I’ve known him as long as I’ve been involved in motorsport, which goes back 10 years, and we’ve become good buddies.

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“So it’s personally disappointing and devastating for me to see what has occurred.”

While Arocca acknowledges that the FIA will have had their reasons for removing the 44-year-old, he still finds it difficult to accept.

“I’ve got to be very mindful that I’m not part of a process, I wasn’t privy to the information that was being considered by the FIA, but on a personal level if you see a mate, and particularly an Australian, have to go through what he’s gone through, I’ve got a certain amount of empathy and disappointment and frustration and anger,” he revealed.

Arocca insists that Masi, who was juggling four jobs at any given time and had Mercedes and Red Bull in his ear all season, is vastly more competent than a lot of fans on social media have given him credit for.

“Unlike many others, he’s actually been administering, involved in managing motorsport for many, many years. That’s a good thing. He’s got an extensive background and history,” he added.

“He’s very insightful, intelligent, and able to make decisions in the heat of a moment.

“That’s something that people may have lost in some of the debate.

“It’s really easy to be a critic on the sidelines thinking what he went through when he was making those decisions.”

Given the pressure of the situation and the many new factors coming into play in a condensed period of time – such as the brake fire on Latifi’s car – Arocca emphasises that many people would have come to the same conclusion as his compatriot did, and that he showed all the characteristics of a “strong leader” in the closing stages of the race in December.

“There would be other people that would be completely paralysed in exactly the same circumstances,” he stressed.

“He made the call. That is the first character trait of a strong leader.”

Former FIA president Jean Todt recently revealed that he approached the 44-year-old as a “human being” to see if he was okay after the torrent of abuse he received as a legacy of his decision, and Arocca also reveals that messages were exchanged between himself and the former race director.

He concedes that his friend has found the last couple of months quite difficult.

“I can’t speak on his behalf, but I would say that one of the more difficult elements of all this, let’s call it this incident, happened late last year, some three months ago now, and to a large degree it’s been a process that hasn’t leant itself to really being in a good frame of mind,” he said.

“It’s been a tortuous two or three months of discussion, debate, criticism, public airing of view.

“You have to have a hide that’s pretty thick to be able to withstand all that and come out the other end feeling okay.

“Gladly, based on the fact that he responded this morning, and he was obviously pretty flat, he’s a man who’s got fantastic resilience.”

Arocca went on to praise Masi for his experience, knowledge and efficiency, and therefore declares that the door is open for him to return to Motorsport Australia.

“We would love to tap into his knowledge at any level,” he stated.

“He’s just an elite talent that would be wasted to the sport if he’s not used in some capacity, and so we’ll keep an open mind.

“At the moment, we’re obviously concentrating on the year ahead, and when he’s decided what he wants to do, no doubt amongst many others, he’ll be contact by not only us but by others.

“He’s just such, I’ll use the word elite.

“He’s officiated for three years in one of the most public, high pressure sporting events with an element of danger in the world, and he’s done it during a pandemic with significant levels of travel, stress, other duties, and in my view that stands well on his resume for any employer anywhere in the world.”

Whether Masi will still have a role at the FIA remains uncertain, and the governing body will conclude their enquiry into the events in Abu Dhabi on 18 March – the weekend of the opening round of the 2022 season in Bahrain.