F1 race director's comedy error that black-flagged the wrong car


Michael Masi isn't the only F1 race director to fumble a race finish. Damien Smith retells the 1957 Moroccan GP chaos

Jean Behra, 1957 Moroccan GP

Behra won comfortably in Casablanca

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

I can’t help feeling sorry for Michael Masi. Sure, the FIA race director made a hapless Horlicks of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix climax, by which time he’d already lost credibility with Formula 1’s teams and drivers through his questionable decision-making in Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Should he remain in his role this season – and given the apparent and surprising lack of alternatives that might well be the case – the Australian will be under intense scrutiny once the new season gets rolling next month. Pressure comes with the job, of course. But imagine what it’s like for the human being inside that FIA uniform. Masi must have endured a mentally taxing winter.

He’s hardly the first racing official to make the wrong call in a fluster and lose his head. But in a modern world in which toxicity on social media colours every walk of life, it’s harder now than it’s ever been to work in a front-facing role in the glare of the public eye. That thought has occurred plenty of times over: imagine viewing through the prism of modern social media Michael Schumacher’s ‘professional fouls’, the Senna/Prost rivalry, Villeneuve vs Pironi, Hunt vs Lauda and so on. Those were tough times enough in an analogue world for the people caught in the midst of such maelstroms; in our digital age, when perspective is so often lost in blizzards of online vitriol, they would have been unbearable.

Back when the world was a gentler place and perspectives on frivolous activities such as motor racing far less corrosive – yes, it was literally life and death, but somehow nowhere near as serious – cock-ups among officials were perceived with a large slice of humour. Remember that? Back before motor sport became win-at-all-costs, any chance to pop the bubble of blazer-clad pomposity was taken with glee, although usually without malice. Take this charming and comical example from the 1957 Moroccan Grand Prix.

From the archive

The race ran on October 27 as a non-championship affair on a fast, new circuit laid out in Anfa, on the edge of Casablanca, in what turned out to be a precursor to a full-blown points-scoring grand prix the following year. That occasion at the end of the 1958 F1 season is marked in history for Mike Hawthorn pipping Stirling Moss by one point to become Britain’s first world champion – but overshadowed by the awful tragedy of the fiery accident that would claim the life of promising Vanwall ace Stuart Lewis-Evans. A year earlier, a full field of F1’s finest travelled to north Africa and relished the experience – mostly.

Following two days of practice, a day off on the Saturday and a colourful build-up to the race that included a ceremony involving the King of Morocco, a grand prix typical of the era played out: mechanical maladies depleted the field, on a track that offered a stern test of both man and machine.

Up front, Jean Behra – the swashbuckling Frenchman who somehow never won a points-scoring GP – dazzled in his Maserati 250F, seeing off the depleted Vanwall challenge: Moss had flown home early with a fever; Tony Brooks took pole position, only to be side-lined in the race with a terminal misfire, and Lewis-Evans finished a fine but distant second, half a minute down on the jubilant winner.

Among those to record DNFs, Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari V6 broke early on and his Mon Ami Mate Peter Collins went off twice, the second ending his chase of Behra once and for all. Juan Manuel Fangio did make the finish, but the newly crowned five-time world champion laboured home only fourth. Even the maestro made mistakes: he was delayed when he dented the nose cowling of his 250F on a straw bale and needed a push-start from marshals to get going again. But it was his second pitstop that was more unusual – and plain comical, due to flustered officialdom. And it was all Rob Walker’s mischievous doing.

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The privateer patron had struck a deal with Cooper to join forces on a two-car entry, Roy Salvadori driving in works colours and Jack Brabham in Walker’s blue with white noseband. Neither of the little rear-engined 2-litre racers fared well, both retiring with gearbox trouble, only for a decision to be made to replace Brabham’s ’box behind the pits and allow him to re-join in the interests of earning a few quid for finishing the race. Motor Sport’s Continental Correspondent, Denis Jenkinson, had travelled to Casablanca to witness the first race at the new circuit and reported what happened next.

“Brabham in the dark blue Cooper motored out of the paddock and shot off back into the race, his mechanics having fitted a new gearbox. This having been done behind the pits, it naturally invoked the wrath of the officials, especially the race director, Raymond Roche” – known as ‘Toto’ Roche – “who bore down on Rob Walker muttering dark threats. After a shouting match, he returned to the starting line and prepared to bring Brabham in with the black flag, but, unfortunately, Mr. Roche is short-sighted and the lowering sun made visibility difficult, so that he flagged everyone except Brabham!”

There was more to it than that, as Brabham recalled in his autobiography. “Every time I came round Rob would tap him on the shoulder and start remonstrating with him, and every time Roche looked back he’d see nothing even resembling our little Cooper,” wrote the future three-time world champion. “This went on for two or three laps until Roche almost literally had steam hissing from his ears. After Rob distracted him yet again he suddenly broke away, spun round, and waggled his black flag violently at the next car by. It happened to be Fangio, the new world champion, in his Maserati.”

Juan Manuel Fangio, 1957 Moroccan GP

Fangio was black-flagged but a guilty conscience is what derailed his race

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

And Masi has trouble managing radio calls from Toto Wolff and Christian Horner…

Roche also failed to follow his own regulations, much like F1’s current race director. “There being no number displayed with the flag, as required by FIA rules, no one took any notice, until Fangio received the flag,” reported Jenks. “Next lap round the world champion drew into the Maserati pit, only to be waved on back into the race. It later transpired that he had been push-started earlier when he hit the straw bales and had stopped through guilty conscience!

“Eventually this comedy came to an end when the Cooper pit signalled Brabham in and the car was withdrawn, but not before the Moroccan public had given vent to their dislike of the race director.” The equivalent of our social media storms today… But as Jenks added, motor sport’s 1950s Toto was “perfectly correct in disqualifying the car, for the regulations always say that all work must be done in the pit area”.

At least he got that right. Masi is following in a fine tradition.