The record books will record the Belgian Grand Prix as a race, and honours were duly awarded, but there was little dignity in how Formula One went about it on a rain-soaked afternoon at Spa-Francorchamps. It was the shortest race in the sport’s history, over in just three laps and eight minutes, all behind the safety car.
Max Verstappen was declared the winner for Red Bull, with George Russell second for Williams and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in third. However, in what must count as a farcical determination by F1 to declare a result come what may, none of the drivers actually did any racing.
Hamilton, the world champion, was dismissive of what had taken place, convinced F1 had merely been trying to meet financial obligations. “Money talks. And it was literally, the two laps to start the race, it’s all money scenario,” he said. “So everyone gets their money and I think the fans should get theirs back too, because, unfortunately, they didn’t get to see what they came and paid for.
“There was no point at which we could race, so there wasn’t a race. But there is a rule that says to get to a legal race is two laps. So we did two laps behind a safety car. That activates a bunch of things. My biggest concern is that the fans should get their money back I think and I don’t know if by doing those two laps means they don’t. We have better values than that as a sport.”
He later posted on Instagram: “Today was a farce and the only people to lose out are the fans who have paid good money to watch us race. Of course you can’t do anything about the weather but we have sophisticated equipment to tell us what’s going on and it was clear the weather wasn’t going to let up.
“We were sent out for one reason and one reason only. Two laps behind the safety car where there is no possibility to gain or lose a place or provide entertainment to fans isn’t racing. We should have just called it quits, not risked the drivers and most importantly refunded the fans who are the heart of the sport.”
With persistent rain all morning the circuit was very wet and the start was formally suspended after two exploratory formation laps. The rain began to fall harder and a waiting game began. It became clear that the weather was not improving but where other sports do not shy away from announcing “match abandoned”, F1 would do no such thing.
After a delay of three hours and 17 minutes and despite the rain not apparently being significantly lighter the race was deemed OK to start, with the cars leaving the pit lane behind the safety car. With the mandatory two laps complete a race result could be declared and half points awarded, the race was stopped once more and a mere 20 minutes later declared over.
In eight minutes of “racing” the order was decided exactly as it had been in qualifying. For George Russell, who had brilliantly put his car into second on Saturday, this was his first F1 podium but doubtless not how he imagined taking it. It means Hamilton’s championship lead over Verstappen has been cut to three points.
There appeared to be a desperation to try to reach some form of result. The FIA regulations state that the maximum time within which the race can take place is three hours. The clock began counting down when the race was scheduled to start at 3pm.
However at 5pm the FIA announced they had stopped the clock, citing “Force Majeure”, bringing into question why they had instigated a three-hour race limit in the first place. In the end, with their two laps done F1, the FIA and the promoter could declare that a race has technically taken place and that they have met obligations to broadcasters and ticket-holders.
There is no argument that the conditions were very poor. With rain, mist and standing water there must also have been consideration of the accidents that have taken place in wet conditions through the Eau Rouge-Raidillon corner sequence this weekend. On Saturday in qualifying Lando Norris had a major accident at the corner in similar conditions. On Friday the W Series had a six-car pile-up at the same spot in the wet and several weeks earlier the Williams development driver Jack Aitken suffered severe injuries after a major accident there in the Spa 24 Hours.
In 2019 Anthoine Hubert was killed and Juan Manuel Correa suffered serious injury in an accident at the top of the hill at Raidillon. The barriers and run-off of the corner is set to be reconfigured next year but it seems in these circumstances the particular danger it presented was exacerbated by the treacherous driving conditions.
There was also a general consensus in the paddock that conditions were unsuitable to go racing. Verstappen had said he believed it was OK to start during the two formation laps but drivers reported that the lack of grip and visibility made it untenable. McLaren’s Lando Norris said he was aquaplaning and Hamilton posted on social media: “This rain just won’t let up. It’s far too dangerous for us to go out. Puts everyone at risk. Safety has to come first”.
The Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was unequivocal that the conditions were unacceptable. “If it continues like this you can’t start,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous, through Raidillon, Eau Rouge and up the straight. From the second or third car you have next to no visibility. As much as I love racing and I love also the risk of racing, this is a step too far.”
No F1 race has been abandoned before the start in the 71-year history of the championship but much as there was agreement they could not go racing in Spa, F1 did just enough to avoid that.
Mired in the mud, on the banks of the circuit in the Ardennes mountains there were 75,000 fans. They had stuck out the day in temperatures no higher than 13C and in wind and rain that had been persistent and chilling since first thing in the morning. Their cheerful stoicism will not be recorded in the record books but perhaps it deserves to be more than F1’s ruthless expediency.