The Belgian Grand Prix is one of most anticipated events on the Formula 1 calendar. One of the few Grand Prix that still take place at a historic circuit, the Spa-Francorchamps course is among the world’s most famous and difficult circuits in professional auto racing. The 2021 Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix was setting up to be another great event in a surprisingly competitive race season as Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton continue to battle for the hotly contested driver’s championship. What was delivered however was a tortuous, monotonous slog through the very worst of modern pro racing. A race weekend that showed our perceived misinterpretation of rules, our inconsistent regard to safety, and what little the collective governing bodies think of the general public. What happened, and how can we make sure this never happens again?
One of the biggest enemies of racing, from entry levels hobbyists to billion-dollar professionals, is the threat of rain. There will be no argument from anyone that the weather for the entire race weekend at Spa was downright miserable. Heavy rain pelted the historic facility almost non-stop, and seemingly at the most inconvenient times. Rain is particularly bad at Spa when you consider the track. In the dry, Spa is challenging and presents a very clear danger with its elevation changes and mixture of high speed and heavy braking corners. In the wet, well we saw some extreme examples of what can happen. The high speed uphill corner complex known as Eau Rouge saw two particular moments of drama that may have forced the hand of Sunday’s problems. The W series experienced a multicar accident that could easily have ended in a fatality, and Lando Norris crashed hard during a potential pole run in the third segment of Formula 1 qualifying. Going into Sunday, there was plenty of conversation about the dangers of both Eau Rouge and Spa itself as a racing facility, made worse still by the rain that persisted into the Belgian afternoon. Even before the racing was set to begin, Sergio Perez crashed his Red Bull at low speed during the pre-event warmup lap due to the wet conditions. Rain was going to affect the day’s Grand Prix, and the whispers of cancelling or postponing were escalating to dull roars and beyond.
As we approached race time, a decision was made for the Safety Car (known as a pace car in America) to lead the field from the grid on the formation lap. Typically, in this situation, the Safety Car would lead the field around single file, potentially for a couple of laps to start the Grand Prix, and then release the field to start the proper “racing” from there. In essence, this ensures a single file rolling start, one that is particularly safer than a field-bunched standing start that Formula 1 does normally. Not ideal from an excitement standard, but given the amount of rain and the circuit, would have been a reasonable decision to make. Despite this, the car’s “spray” from the back was making visibility an issue and many drivers spoke on their radio communications about the inability to see the car in front. Moments like this create the need for decisive leadership. To most race fans, this is a simple either/or question: do we race, or do we not? Somehow, despite this difficult yet seemingly binary question, Formula 1 leadership figured out a way to ruin everything.
After one perceived “formation lap” and another lap at caution speed behind the Safety Car, the field was brought into the pit lane under what appeared to be a red flag condition. This, however, was not a universally understood situation. To some, this was an aborted start. To others, this was one lap of a Grand Prix with a Red Flag stoppage. To others, it was no start at all, and to some there were still some variables that needed figuring to determine the status of the race itself. You could ask ten different people and get ten different answers as to what was happening, but the reality of it all was that there was a pack of cars sitting idle in a pit lane with nothing happening on the race track. For the race fans at home this was frustrating, but the conversation starters generated were certainly engaging to even the most casual observer. Personal anecdote time: I have a running joke with a few of my racing friends about how an existentialist driver would sound in racing interviews. It’s a silly little gag with a couple of my weird pals, but the phrase “but what are LAPS, really?” would come up quite a bit in those conversations. Somehow, some way, the “start” of Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix brought that silly little fake question into the real world. How can the broadcasters, drivers, fans, and governing bodies all have a different theory about how many laps have happened in a race that hasn’t even fucking started?! We’re having genuine conversations on the mystery of whether a time clock is ticking away or not in the background. Conversations on whether Red Bull is allowed to repair the car Perez wrecked some 2 hours ago, and just how many laps down he would be if they allowed him back. Does the red flag mean Perez gets back on the lead lap? mAyBE?! All of this would be great theater if there weren’t 70,000 of apparently the most patient and badass race fans in the world getting soaked beyond recognition, many of them holed up in the mud waiting for a race that might have already started. And what happened next was the biggest slap in the face of all to them.
Darkness was looming as the sunset locally was due within the next couple of hours. Worse still, the timeclock that sets the window of time for the race had ticked all but an hour of the usable race time away before it was paused. Was this intentional? No time to dwell on it, the Safety Car driver is putting his helmet back on, WE MIGHT JUST SEE SOME RACING. The timeclock started once again and one hour began to tick away as the field slowly returned to the track under Safety Car conditions. It wouldn’t have been ideal, but even 30 minutes of actual racing, as cautious and conservative as it likely would have been, could have saved the Grand Prix in some regard. The crowd roared back to life, waterlogged and hungry for the racing they were promised three hours ago as the field continued behind the Safety Car. A couple of laps ticked off giving the race official classification, meaning the event would count and some points would indeed be scored. The rain however, looked worse than it did for the initial aborted start and surely there was going to be no proper racing held today given the precedence set earlier. Sure enough, an official red flag stoppage was issued, and with some 30 minutes remaining on the clock, the race was declared over. Max Verstappen “wins” his sixth Grand Prix of 2021 and closes back in on Lewis Hamilton’s point lead. George Russell snags his first podium due to a brilliant qualifying run from the day before, and in a move in retrospect of pure mercy, was just barely beaten out of the pole and eventual race win by Verstappen. There it is, the fans saw a race…2 laps in 4 hours, all of it at low speed behind a pace car with no passing or even a firm address of the gas pedal. You’ve paid hundreds of dollars for a race weekend, now fuck off like you’ve seen a real race and don’t forget to come back next year.
This is a new low for Formula 1 racing, a series that has made it very clear in the past and present that the fans mean very little to what they’re trying to do. To call this a race is a personal insult to anyone that’s seen so much as a soapbox derby. As of this writing I am unaware of the status of a refund, but anything less than a full credit or refund to every fan that attended on Sunday should be considered theft. To date the biggest farce of a race was the 2005 United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis road course. Very briefly, a tire issue on all but 6 of the cars caused the majority of the field to withdraw from the race, and due to a lot of political wrangling and stubbornness, denied the Indy crowd the race they paid to see. (if you’re unaware of what occurred that day, there are some fantastic writings and YouTube videos on the subject that you should definitely check out). Anyway, that event will forever be a slap in the face to fans, but even at that time there were six cars that raced at a full race distance. It was pathetic, shameful, and arrogant, and yet it delivered a product to the fans that the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix could not. Formula 1 looked ill prepared to handle a rain race at a track like Spa, and seemed more concerned with reaching official classification in order to turn tail and fuck off to Holland for the next race than have something to deliver to the fans at the track and at home. What can possibly be done to prevent this?
The most important issue to tackle is to determine how much rain or water is “too much” to have a Grand Prix. The cars were fitted with what they call the “extreme” rain weather tires, and yet there seldom appears to be a situation in which they will ever want to race on them. Formula 1 seems plenty prepared to race on a damp track, and is all the more willing to hold a standing start on intermediate weather tires, as seen earlier this season. If the track at Spa was too dangerous at 3pm, it was too dangerous at 6pm as well, and any laps that were completed were done so in bad faith. It probably wouldn’t have been the best decision to have an actual race, but it’s something F1 has done before. Given the incidents from earlier in the weekend, it’s painfully clear no one wanted to have their finger on the proverbial button that could have ended up with a driver injury. But if that’s the case, just cancel the damn Grand Prix and save us the pathetic charade…give the fans a refund and try again next year or on another week. Ban the rain tires if we’re never going to use them. Three slicks and a “damp” seem to be all we’re equipped for, so let’s just admit to it and stop lying to ourselves. If a race isn’t doable, we need to find a better contingency plan. I’m a filthy uncultured American, but in NASCAR no matter how much it rains, the fans are eventually delivered a product. I’ve been an F1 fan nearly as long as I’ve been a stock car fan, but unless Formula 1 fixes its rain protocols, I’d be too scared to ever spend money going to one of their events. It rains like all holy hell in Texas and Florida sometimes, so we might just get this royal screw job ourselves in the states if we’re not careful. The 2021 Belgian Grand Prix should serve as a turning point for Formula 1 racing. I just hope it’s one that protects the fans as much as the drivers. God speed.