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The conclusion of last year’s championship-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix prompted a furious reaction not just from Mercedes, but also many fans and motorsport figures.
FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi took a hotly disputed decision to arrange a hurried restart in which a selected number of lapped cars were permitted to regain the lead lap – only those which separated leader Lewis Hamilton from title rival Max Verstappen. These departures from past practice led to cries of foul play after Hamilton, the race-long leader, was passed by Verstappen immediately after the restart, losing the race and the championship.
Four days later Mercedes backed down from their threat to appeal over the contentious call, which would have thrown Verstappen’s title in doubt. But not before outgoing FIA president Jean Todt sanctioned a detailed review of the incident.
The FIA statement which announced the review did not inspire much confidence. It claimed “significant misunderstanding” by fans – rather than the handling of the race itself – had created “an argument that is currently tarnishing the image of the championship”. Did it intend to sweep the whole thing under the carpet, ignoring the vociferous complaints of many fans and prolonged silence of Hamilton, its biggest star?
On the strength of developments since then, no. Todt’s successor Mohammed Ben Sulayem has entrusted secretary general for sport Peter Bayer (pictured top with Ross Brawn) with handling this sensitive review.
Bayer became the FIA’s secretary general of sport in March 2017 after being nominated by Todt to replace the departing Jean-Louis Valentin. Born in Austria, his earlier career included spells as CEO of the Innsbruck 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games and later of the Ocean Masters monohull sailing class series.
As secretary general for sport, Bayer heads one of the two main pillars of the FIA’s mission – sport and mobility. Overseeing all forms of sport that fall under the FIA’s governance – from karting to hillclimb, rally and rallycross to touring cars and all forms of single-seater formula racing – Bayer has held ultimate responsibility over the team of directors who preside over their respective disciplines. These include Masi as director of single-seater racing and Marek Nawarecki as director of touring cars.
With the directors of each discipline having the most hands-on control over their areas, Bayer’s role has been typically focused more on promoting wider FIA programmes that affect all of the categories under the organisation’s umbrella. In short, Bayer’s mission is to ensure ‘best practice’ is maintained throughout all series and championships run in the FIA’s name, from the safety of all competitors, officials and spectators to ensuring rules and protocols are followed to the letter.
An example of this is the FIA’s annual International Stewards Programme – a four-day event acting as a conference of sorts for all those involved with stewarding of FIA-sanctioned race events. A special ‘competitors’ panel’ held as part of last year’s event saw Masi host a seminar on stewarding which featured Carlos Sainz Jnr, Jean-Eric Vergne and Lucas Di Grassi alongside other notable figures within motorsport.
“An annual coming together is vital for stewards and race directors to develop the exchange and discuss cases,” Bayer said at the conclusion of the programme. “It’s great to see so many different people from all over the planet coming together and making sure they will improve their skills on how to legislate motor sport, which they do in the name of the FIA.”
Another example of the work Bayer has undertaken to ensure sporting fairness is upheld in FIA competitions targets the serious issue of corruption – this, it must be stressed, has not been alleged in relation to Abu Dhabi. The ‘Race Against Manipulation’ programme involves an online ‘e-learning’ platform for all those involved in its motorsport competitions either as drivers or officials. As well as warning about the dangers and penalties of being found guilty of any betting-related offences, the programme also aims to “identify the behaviour of competition fixers” and reminds personnel of their obligation to report anyone they suspect of knowingly manipulating race outcomes.
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Bayer’s FIA role has previously involved input into the creation of future regulations and the implementation of existing rules. When concerns over high performance ‘qualifying modes’ for power units arose in 2020, it was Bayer who informed teams of the FIA’s decision to require all teams to run their engines in the same power mode for both qualifying and the race.
He had input into the drastic overhaul of F1’s technical regulations for 2021, which was later postponed to this year due to the pandemic. And he is involved in the discussions between the FIA, F1, teams and manufacturers over the future power unit rules for 2026 and beyond.
The Abu Dhabi case is not the first time an incident during a grand prix has been escalated to Bayer’s level. Other serious matters have also received his attention.
A few months after taking up his role in 2017, Bayer was among a panel of FIA figures which reviewed Sebastian Vettel’s collision with Lewis Hamilton in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Having angrily driven into his rival during a Safety Car period, mistakenly believing Hamilton had deliberately brake-tested him, Vettel was handed a 10-second stop-go penalty by the race stewards and summoned to an extraordinary meeting with the FIA in Paris to explain himself to Bayer and Todt. No further penalty was issued to Vettel after the then-Ferrari driver accepted full responsibility and gave a public apology for his actions.
Two years later another serious matter received Bayer’s attention. During the Monaco Grand Prix Sergio Perez narrowly avoided hitting two marshals when they ran across the track. Bayer commissioned a report into a safety lapse which could have had dire consequences, and subsequently decreed footage from Perez’s onboard camera should be used before future racing events to educate marshals about the dangers of crossing a live track.
Bayer’s remit as regards the review of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is to supply “proposals to review and optimise the organisation of the FIA F1 structure for the 2022 season”. He has also been appointed as the FIA’s director for single-seaters. He therefore has the scope to push for significant changes, which many will expect following an episode which tarnished the reputation of the world championship.
Bayer’s role in the FIA’s response to the Abu Dhabi controversy does not begin and end with the race. Following Hamilton’s failure to fulfil his obligation to attend the FIA’s prizegiving gala in Paris in December, Bayer is required to report the infringement to the president.
It remains to be seen how dim a view they may take of that breach of protocol given the arguable mitigating circumstances. But significantly, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has already given Bayer his backing.
After a Formula 1 season which involved several debatable on-track incidents, Wolff said his team’s decision not to take their case over the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to the FIA’s International Court of Appeal was due in part to assurances from Bayer that the body would be active about addressing concerns and complaints over stewarding in the sport. Wolff also indicated other team principals feel the same way.
“I think in the day and age of transparency such decisions cannot be made any more in backroom deals and why I am optimistic is that most stakeholders in the sport will share my frustration on the decisions that have been made all throughout the year,” Wolff explained last month. “I had assurances from Peter Bayer and Stefano [Domenicali, Formula 1 CEO] that in the next weeks and months we will close the gaps that have opened up more and more over the last few years.”
The appointment of Bayer shows the FIA and its new president do not underestimate the damage which was done to the sport’s credibility by the events of Abu Dhabi and are taking serious steps towards tightening up their procedures to avoid a repeat.
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