The drama of a standing start is a vital part of Formula One’s appeal. So it’s not hard to understand the widespread disappointment on Sunday when, for the second time in five races, a rolling start behind the Safety Car was used instead.
A downpour 20 minutes before the race was due to begin left large patches of standing water across the grid, particularly on the right-hand side. While standing starts on wet tracks do still happen – as at last year’s United States Grand Prix – on this occasion it was considered too dangerous.
As the cars pulled away behind the Safety Car it was easy to appreciate why this was the correct decision. Even at much reduced speeds the cars behind the front rows instantly vanished in a cloud of spray. Had a standing start been used and one of the front runners failed to get away – due to a technical problem, for example – those starting at the back would have been accelerating flat-out towards a stationary vehicle they had no chance of seeing.
Formula One will always be dangerous but it is the responsibility of those in charge to protect drivers from unreasonable risk. Exposing them to a danger which no driver, however skilled, could avoid is an example of that, despite vociferous criticism from fans and pundits on Sunday.
The best self-defeating example from the rose-tinted-specs brigade came from those who dug out pictures from past wet races, such as the 1989 Australian Grand Prix, to illustrate how F1 was better before it was ruined by ‘health and safety’. Never mind that one of the two world champions who led the start of that race withdrew in protest at the conditions. Never mind that the other ultimately lost his life due to the safety standards of the time.
Never mind that other drivers on the grid that day furiously criticised the FIA for letting the race go ahead when it did. And so it was telling that after Sunday’s race drivers largely supported the decision not to have a standing start.
However many did criticise how long they spent behind the Safety Car before the start was given. Five laps lasting a tedious 13 minutes passed before the field was finally released.
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The instant the race began almost half the field appeared in the pits to replace the wet weather tyres with intermediates. This could be taken as a sign that the start was indeed given too late, but it is also symptomatic of a little-discussed problem with F1’s tyres.
While much has been said about the shortcomings of Pirelli’s slick tyres, most recently after Sebastian Vettel’s blow-out in Austria, the performance of its wet weather tyre has drawn rather less comment. Vettel made a reference to it in the immediate aftermath of Jules Bianchi’s crash at Suzuka in 2014 but understandably the focus at the time was on the seriousness of the crash which ultimately claimed Bianchi’s life.
One of the findings of the FIA’s investigation into Bianchi’s crash was as follows: “Although the characteristics of the wet weather tyres provided by Pirelli did not influence Bianchi’s accident or its outcome in any significant way, it is recommended that provision is made for the tyre supplier to develop and adequately test wet weather tyres between each F1 season, such that it is able to supply the latest developments to the first event.”
Pirelli conducted wet weather tests before becoming F1’s official tyre supplier in 2011 but its testing opportunities have been restricted since then. However changes to the rules in the wake of Bianchi’s crash allowed them to run a dedicated wet weather tyre test at Paul Ricard in January and six days are being given over to wet weather testing for next year’s new range of tyres.
The haste with which drivers ditched the wet weather tyres on Sunday suggests Pirelli still have work to do. But having better wet weather tyres is not going to reduce the visibility risk of standing starts in full wet conditions. So what more could F1 to reduce the need for Safety Car starts?
At Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, which sees plenty of rain, grooves were cut into the start/finish area to aid draining and prevent rainwater from forming puddles – an idea other circuits might benefit from.
But perhaps Formula One should also reconsider its insistence that the cars must be sent from the grid once the appointed start time arrives. In the circumstances we saw on Sunday where the rain has stopped, why not allow the grid to dry to the point where a standing start becomes possible?
A desire to have races starting on time to please the television broadcasters has been the justification for this in the past. But the obvious dissatisfaction many have expressed with anti-climactic Safety Car starts shows it’s time to rethink that reasoning.