Belgium shambles needs some answers from Formula One

Official inquiry into rain chaos must not be swept under the carpet

NEEDLESS to say the hunt is already on for a scapegoat after a farcical one-lap Belgian Grand Prix.

Who is responsible for The Race That Never Was?

I don’t need a spoiler alert before I speculate that, in true F1 fashion, the official inquiry triggered on Wednesday will surely decide ‘no-one’.

And while teams, drivers, fans, and journalists look for answers, FIA President Jean Todt appears to be reaching for his broom.

Even though 70,000 drenched fans didn’t get a race worthy of the name and dozens of paying television broadcasters were left to blunder about in the dark as the cars circled gingerly but the official time screens said the event hadn’t started.

Teams were left puzzled and drivers forced to risk their lives on unnecessarily recce laps in atrocious conditions.

Todt joined the fray on Wednesday with a statement that satisfied few saying the day “presented extraordinary challenges”.

No it didn’t. Rain at an event at which is rains almost every year is not extraordinary. It’s normal.

More than 1,000 team personnel worked in Spa that day and I will guarantee you every one of them came prepared for rain by the bucket load.

Such was the scale of the downpour expected Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff were equipped with black, knee length, waterproof capes and hoods.

Todt’s statement was an unsatisfactory and transparent box-ticking exercise. Brave spectators. Tick. Very sorry. Tick. Could not run the race is safe conditions... recognised by stakeholders. Tick. Rules correctly applied. Thank and congratulate the FIA team, the ASN... tick, tick, tick.

Move along please. Nothing to see here.

Fans who stood on muddy banks in drenched cagoules for upwards of five hours deserved better but still danced, smiled and sang.

The day was a bitter pill for those who probably spent $500 on tickets, food and a tent.

It’s somewhat ironic the only thing driving at any speed that day was the rain.

Team concerns centred on prize money dished out on grid positions. For example, in one freak fudged ‘race’ Williams have earned so many points lower ranks rival Alfa Romeo cannot hope to recoup toe difference in the rest of the year.

Then there are the safety concerns. Spa is one of the most dangerous tracks in world motor racing.

Anthoine Hubert’s death two year ago hangs over F1 but in the last month a dozen drivers have been injured, including two hospitalised last Friday in the W Series. The circuit’s answer is an $80m safety programme already underway.

I’m old school and I’ve seen races in worse conditions. Malaysia, Canada, Japan and Australia to name but four in recent decades.

Like ex-racer Martin Brundle I believe the throttle pedal works both ways and drivers should be given the chance to race but not forced to do so. Max Verstappen was certainly pushing for it.

The most frustrating aspect of Spa 2021, though, was not ‘the race that never was’ but the chaotic shambles it became.

The biggest error, to my mind was forcing the grid out twice when half a dozen laps first time around would have sufficed.

That’s not hindsight talking, just common sense.

By consensus the final outing forced on the grid was another box ticking exercise so the fiasco could be officially classified ‘a race’ with all that implied financially.

The FIA, of course, deny such cynical actions, insisting their primary consideration is safety.

Much as F1 is a sport it is also a complex eco system of interlinking contractual obligations.

Television companies and sponsors pay promoters Liberty, Liberty pays the teams, the teams pay the drivers. No race means no money for Liberty but teams and drivers still earn their cut by dint of turning up. No race and the fans can demand their money back from the track owners who will seek recompense from the promoters, again Liberty Media.

Failure to stage a Grand Prix is a shame for fans but a seismic financial disaster for Liberty, especially in these cash-strapped, Covid-blighted, times.

One ‘racing’ lap changes all that.

So the focus inevitably falls on the actions of Race Director Michael Masi. He has proved eminently capable since taking over in the wake of his predecessor Charlie Whiting’s sudden death in 2019.

But in his learning years he has had a hand in some dubious driver penalty calls (stewards notwithstanding) that have only served to hamper the cause of open racing.

And with his airwaves crowded by 20 drivers squawking on team radio, 10 team bosses firing off similarly on radio, email or text, maybe besieged Masi was as submerged as the track.

So, rather than sweeping this one under the carpet maybe the FIA could help one of their own – for everyone’s sake.

Updated: September 2nd 2021, 8:36 AM
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