It’s a washout: the Belgium Grand Prix exposed the importance of driver safety

By Anna Noble

Lasting just 3 minutes and 27 seconds, the 2021 race at Spa will go down as the shortest in history. With the drivers completing just three laps behind the safety car to get a final classification before the race was red-flagged for a final time. To call it a race is an exaggeration, to be frank, it was merely a parade. 

Sunday’s events have faced fierce criticism. Lewis Hamilton argued the FIA’s decision to restart the race despite the heavy rain continuing to complete the necessary laps was “farcical”, implying the decision was motivated by money and to deprive the spectators of a refund for the aborted race. Sebastian Vettel echoing Hamilton’s “money talks” sentiment on the team radio ahead of the restart quipping that the rain was worse so it must come down to “TV money”. 

Rain had battered the track all weekend. The driving conditions were near impossible resulting in a series of big crashes across Formula 1, W Series and Formula 3 events. 

Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Lando Norris all lost control, crashing primarily due to the extremely wet conditions on track. 

Norris’ was the second of three serious crashes at the notoriously dangerous Eau Rouge and Raidillon corner in just 24 hours. Less than 12 hours before Norris’ shunt, there was a six-car pile-up in the W-Series which saw Beitske Visser and Ayla Agren requiring hospital checks. Just hours after Norris’ shunt there was a third crash in Formula 3, fortunately, those involved were okay. 

Three crashes all in the same place over one weekend, have amplified calls for improved safety measures at Eau Rouge and Raidillon. This weekend’s events came a mere month after William’s reserve driver Jack Aitken was left in a back brace with a fractured vertebra and broken collar bone following a multi-car pile-up at Eau Rouge in the Spa 24 hours race.

Lasting just 3 minutes and 27 seconds, the 2021 race at Spa will go down as the shortest in history.

The Eau Rouge corner at Belgium’s Spa circuit is iconic, much loved, but, notoriously dangerous. This weekend marked the second anniversary of Anthoine Hubert and Juan Manuel Correa’s horrific crash at Eau Rouge and Raidillon which killed the former and left the latter in a coma. Hubert’s death is remembered as one of the darkest moments in recent motor-sporting history. Questions need to be asked as to why, two years later, there are still so many crashes? 

The corner at Eau Rouge is one of the fastest corners on the F1 calendar, which has ensured that it is one of the most famous. Drivers and fans alike love the challenge and technical skill required to master the corner. Yet, the corner has been proven to have a fatal flaw: the position of the barriers and lack of run-off areas. When cars hit the barriers, they bounce back across the racetrack into the oncoming traffic coming at 200-300km/ph. There is no time to slow down. Of the four recent crashes, Norris was the only driver that was not hit by other cars after he was bounced off the barriers, with Vettel managing to slow down alongside him and confirm Norris was okay. 

Calls for reform to the barriers at Eau Rouge and the inclusion of new gravel traps have been predated Hubert’s death. Following, Aitken’s crash these calls have been reignited with several drivers including Alfa Romeo reserve driver Callum Ilott, Correa, and Aitken himself commenting on the need to improve safety. Ilott, a close friend of Hubert, stated “enough is enough” there “needs to be a change at this corner and I am very surprised nothing has happened yet”. These calls were amplified after this weekend’s crashes with Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc, and Carlos Sainz also all expressing their desire for change. 

Just weeks ago, Michael Masi, the FIA race director, seemingly dismissed the concerns of drivers following Aitken’s crash at Eau Rouge, insisting that Spa was safe from an FIA perspective. There are plans to reform the barriers and run-off areas at Eau Rouge and Raidillon to prevent cars from being bounced across the track by the barriers, with the expectation that such will be put into place by next year. Yet, prior to these changes why was the circuit deemed safe to race at, particularly considering the intense rain all weekend which was heavily forecasted?

Masi and the FIA have also faced heavy criticism over the weekend for their responses to the treacherous conditions on track. In the minutes before Norris’ shunt, multiple drivers had been complaining of dangerous driving conditions including significant aquaplaning on track with many including Norris called for the qualifying session to be red-flagged. After being informed of Norris’ accident, Vettel who had also called for a red flag was furious lamenting “What the F**k did I say? What did I say?” over the radio. The FIA’s failure to listen to the drivers had significant consequences, it was only down to luck that Norris was not hit by a car behind and avoided serious injury. 

Hubert’s death is remembered as one of the darkest moments in recent motor-sporting history. Questions need to be asked as to why two years later, there are still so many crashes.

Failing to listen to drivers regarding safety, particularly those with the experience of Vettel, who has raced in F1 for 14 years, is concerning. The fact that the FIA deemed it safe to initially start the race on Sunday despite the weather and track conditions being significantly worse than when Norris crashed should be scrutinised. 

Perez crashed into the barriers on the way to the grid and the session was red-flagged almost instantaneously. Several drivers including George Russell, Verstappen and Hamilton later commented that the ultimate restart took place in worse conditions. The move to restart the race appeared to be an attempt to get a result and as Hamilton claimed to deprive spectators of the right to a refund. 

Flowers were left at Eau Rouge and Raidillon for Anthoine Hubert this weekend, social media flooded with tributes to a 22-year-old who died too soon. Motorsports are dangerous by nature, but there should not be unnecessary risk factors such as barriers that can be changed. 

Whilst ultimately abandoning the race was the right decision the FIA made mistakes, ones that could easily have resulted in someone being injured or even killed. They need to listen to the drivers; they are the ones best positioned to access when driving is too dangerous. At the end of the day, it is their lives at stake. 

Image: Paul from La Lente via Flickr

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