Someone asked me a while back whether Eduardo Freitas would make a good Formula 1 race director based on my experience of reporting on the World Endurance Championship. I’m not sure I gave an answer. That question has now become a pertinent one given the long-time incumbent of the hot seat in race control at WEC races will be one of two alternating replacements for Michael Masi in Formula 1.
That I didn’t immediately respond to my inquisitor a few weeks ago should probably be interpreted as a yes. Motor racing officials — like their equivalents in football, cricket, boxing and, I’m sure, other sports with which I’m not so familiar — remain largely invisible when they are doing what the participants and the watching world think is a good job. Or rather not doing a bad job.
It’s the unfortunate lot of the sporting official that they only step into the limelight when they do something out of the ordinary or controversial. Or to put it another way, when they screw up, or are perceived to do so. The best race directors, football referees and cricket umpires are the ones we don’t talk about. Not until, perhaps, they’ve moved on and we reminisce about just how good they were, maybe in the light of the actions of their successor or successors. That was a burden Masi had to carry after following the late Charlie Whiting.
Freitas has a lot of respect in the WEC paddock, though that’s not to say he doesn’t have his detractors among the drivers, team managers and engineers. He maybe hadn’t quite become that kind of ‘invisible’ force in race control to which I alluded earlier, but his actions and his abilities weren’t a regular talking point.
That is until WEC had its own version of “Masi-gate” at the end of last season. Freitas, who will be sharing F1 race director duties this season with ex-DTM man Niels Wittich, was inevitably implicated in the furore.
There were clear parallels between the controversies that marred the end of the 2021 WEC and F1 campaigns. They both decided the outcome of an FIA world championship title in the dying minutes of the last race of the season and on each occasion it appeared that the governing body’s rules and regulations had not been adhered to.
The officiating of the late-race incident between Michael Christensen and Alessandro Pier Guidi that gave Ferrari the GTE Pro world title over Porsche was inevitably questioned. It was questioned by Porsche, as well as commentators like me, because it appeared that the FIA’s international sporting code (ISC) had been thrown out the window.
Pier Guidi was ordered to hand back the position he’d gained when his AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo hit class leader Christensen’s Porsche 911 RSR from the rear at the last corner with 11 minutes of the Bahrain 8 Hours season finale remaining. That was an unusual penalty — though not unprecedented, I believe — for that kind of contact. A stop-go would have been more normal.
“You can’t make up the rules as you go along just to ensure some late-race excitement”
That it was subsequently rescinded only added to the confusion. Pier Guidi was slowing up to allow Christensen to catch up the 10 seconds he’d lost a result of his spin, when the Porsche driver ducked into the pits for the splash of fuel that he and then the Ferrari needed to get to the finish. What made it doubly confusing was that the Ferrari driver never did give back the position: the penalty was rescinded, though this was never communicated publicly.
Yet the real controversy of the dying moments of the 2021 WEC campaign was the time it took to decide the penalty. The order to Pier Guidi to cede position came less than two minutes after the original incident. The problem there is that such contacts must be reported by race control to the stewards. The ISC says so.
Under FIA rules, it is the stewards who arbitrate on such incidents. It is they who dish out the penalties, not the race director. There’s a clear separation of powers: race control is the executive, the stewards the judiciary.
Porsche’s question — and mine — was how could the three stewards sitting in a separate room have made a decision in a bit less than 120 seconds? (My calculations actually made it somewhere around 110 seconds.) My question is based on the assumption that they would have wanted to replay the incident multiple times and view different camera angles that weren’t shown on the live TV feed. And perhaps view some of the other data available to them. Could that be done in two minutes?
The belief that it could not, and therefore the penalty initially imposed on Pier Guidi was taken not in the stewards room but by race control, was the basis of Porsche’s post-race protest. The text of that protest isn’t in the public domain, but we know the German manufacturer argued that the ISC had not been adhered to from the bulletin — from the stewards — dismissing the case. It stated that all decisions regarding the Pier Guidi-Christensen incident was “investigated and taken” by… the stewards.
Porsche served notice of its intent to appeal this decision, though opted against pushing on through to the FIA’s International Court of Appeal, just like Mercedes after Abu Dhabi. Exactly why, we don’t know. Was it that it didn’t want to drag the sport and the company name through the courts, like Mercedes, or did it believe it was a case it couldn’t win? Perhaps it decided there was no way it could prove that Freitas and the assistants around him made the call rather than the stewards.
It was the final act of Michael Masi's stint as Formula 1 race director: his unprecedented call to speed up the end of the safety car procedure, made in the…
But if you think about that short period of time between the incident taking place and the penalty being imposed, you’ll probably come to your own conclusion. ‘Bahrain-gate’, if I may call it that, just like ‘Masi-gate’ highlighted the need for motor races to be run to a coherent code with little or no room for interpretation.
I concede that officials need to keep a race flowing, and in Bahrain, time was of the essence if a fierce battle that had raged for more than seven hours was to continue. I can’t help but think the pressure to ensure that we still had something “called a motor race”, to invoke Masi’s words from Abu Dhabi, might have played a part in proceedings that day in the desert last November.
But you can’t make up the rules as you go along, or interpret them as you want just to ensure some late-race excitement. A race director should be akin to faceless civil servant applying the regulations as they are written, not some kind of ringmaster manipulating them to dramatic effect.
And if that’s the case, I won’t keep getting asked about the merits of this or that race director.