Formula 1 race director Michael Masi became a target of fan frustration after making the controversial call that ultimately helped Max Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton to the 2021 title.
The FIA-elected representative made the surprise call to permit lapped cars to move ahead of the late safety car, clearing the path for Verstappen to have a direct shot at leader Hamilton in a final-lap showdown in Abu Dhabi following Nicholas Latifi's crash.
The decision was derided by Mercedes and swathes of F1 fans, particularly after Verstappen opted to pit for fresh tyres, while Red Bull chief Christian Horner appeared to get his wish after appealing to Masi over radio.
But former F1 figurehead Bernie Ecclestone believes Masi—who was appointed race director following Charlie Whiting's sudden death in March 2019—deserves some sympathy after a hectic 2021 season.
Sydney-born Masi attracted criticism from drivers and pundits alike for several high-profile decisions over the course of the campaign, at times showing too much urgency to ensure races were completed.
"He was in many cases overwhelmed with his job the whole season and maybe shouldn't have had it at all," Ecclestone said in a recent interview with Bild.
However, he did admit that the right decisions were made in the Abu Dhabi decider.
"But it was the right decision to let them [Hamilton and Verstappen] race."
Reports emerged following the 'Decider in the Desert' suggesting Masi would be fired following Verstappen's maiden title win, which has gone down as one of the most controversial in F1's history.
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Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was highly critical of Masi following his judgement in Abu Dhabi, which occurred after Williams ' Latifi crashed out of the race with five laps remaining.
Wolff raised concerns with Masi at the time for restarting the race with Verstappen just behind Hamilton, but he has since backed plans for teams to no longer be able to communicate with race chiefs during races.
In Verstappen's defence, Ecclestone previously told Sky that Hamilton went unpunished for an illegal manoeuvre during the early phases of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
"About being robbed, it's complete and utter nonsense," said the 91-year-old. "If you want to think about it carefully, on the first lap of that race he [Hamilton] went off the circuit and came back on again and Verstappen stayed on the circuit and did absolutely nothing wrong.
"Lewis wasn't punished at all for that so he shouldn't be complaining too much. These things happen all the time in sports. We shouldn't blame the race director, he did exactly what was the right thing to do."
Mercedes initially signalled their intention to appeal the Abu Dhabi result but eventually stood down in their protest, accepting Hamilton would not win a record-breaking eighth world title on this occasion.
Hamilton, 37, is still considered a doubt to keep racing after falling silent since the 2021 season finale, although Mercedes have dropped hints the Briton will be back in a bid to reclaim his crown.
Masi, meanwhile, remains in his role as F1's race director and is on course to again be a key decision-maker in the upcoming 2022 campaign.
Verstappen will begin his title defence at the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 20, the first stop on a record-breaking schedule comprising 23 races.
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