Following the debacle surrounding the closing stages of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the FIA decided to release Michael Masi from his duties as race director and instead chose to have not one dedicated race director but two.
Eduardo Freitas, a veteran of nine seasons in the World Endurance Championship, was brought in alongside the relatively unknown Niels Wittich, who had presided over the new-look DTM championship in 2021.
However, Wittich did come into the season under a cloud, as under his watch, the DTM season finale at the Norisring descended into utter farce following a farrago of issues that included several cases of impaired driving etiquette and foul play that changed the outcome of the championship.
With Freitas remaining as the race director of WEC and more eyeballs being on race control than ever before, the pair would have their work cut out.
But how did they get on when it came to the crunch?
Opening salvo goes well until rain causes headaches
Whilst Freitas remained preoccupied for the first quarter of the season, Wittich was the first to jump into the hot seat for the first four races, doing an amicable job clamping down on blocking and track limits breaches.
Miami was supposed to be Wittich‘s fifth race before handing the reigns over to Freitas. However, the pair tested for Covid-19 on the eve of the weekend, causing the FIA to briefly look outside of its organisation, in case Wittich wasn’t ready in time to travel, although he later recovered in time for the start of the weekend.
On return to Europe, Freitas finally got his chance, having a steady debut weekend in Barcelona. But during his second race in Monaco, he endured a nightmare race after a power cut caused by a rainstorm wrecked the FIA’s starting procedure, forcing him to delay the start and irritating the drivers.
Freitas wasn’t at fault for the power cut, but he did have to carry the can for the delay; however, he wouldn’t have long to lick his wounds as he was back in action a fortnight later at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Wittich taking charge in Baku.
For the rest of the first half of the season, Freitas and Wittich enjoyed relatively trouble-free weekends even if Austria had relighted the debate about track limits after several lap times got deleted, with some drivers getting penalised during the race or multiple breaches.
Same fumbles with different race directors
When Formula 1 returned to the Ardennes Forest for its yearly visit to Belgium, Wittich received an unwelcome surprise after several teams decided to take grid penalties, dramatically changing the look of the grid.
Wittich also had to delay the start of qualifying through no fault of his own after a barrier needed repairing following a crash in the Porsche Supercup race.
A fortnight later, at Monza Wittich had to end the race under safety car following Daniel Ricciardo’s late retirement.
Although it was the correct call, the FIA faced criticism for allowing a crane on track to retrieve the stuck-in-gear McLaren with the crowd also unimpressed at the anti-climatical ending.
Freitas took over for F1’s two-week trip to Asia but the problems continued as he was forced to delay the start in Singapore following a rain shower, with the official result only being confirmed two hours after the race as the stewards investigated the race winner Sergio Perez for not keeping within ten car lengths behind the safety car.
But Freitas‘ real undoing came in Suzuka when following Carlos Sainz’s race-stopping opening lap crash, a recovery vehicle was dispatched onto the circuit to recover the stricken Ferrari just as the red flag went out.
With visibility, non-existent drivers could barely see where they were going, with some just narrowly missing the truck, especially infuriating Pierre Gasly and opening up the wounds left behind by Jules Bianchi’s dreadful fatal accident at the same circuits eight years earlier.
The incident and the inquiry following the shortened Japanese GP consigned Freitas to the bench for the rest of the year, leaving Wittich in charge of a relatively trouble-free final four races.
Were they an improvement on Masi?
Very few people in any walk of life ace their first year in a new job, and neither Wittich nor Freitas had a perfect year enforcing F1’s rule book or race control system that needs some TLC and modernising following the abrupt end of the Charlie Whiting era.
Freitas‘ future is the more uncertain of the pair following the Suzuka debacle, and he may decide to stick solely to WEC for the foreseeable future making Wittich the sole race director for 2023 and beyond.
Ironically, the 2022 season vindicated Masi of the mistakes he made in 2020-21 as even better-qualified and much-lauded race directors made similar mistakes throughout the year, making some wonder if the sport had learned its lessons from 2021.
Maybe the system that hasn’t been touched since the Whiting days needs to be changed with more stewards and cameras rather than having a rotating band of race directors.
Just a hunch, you know?