Formula 1 skirted disaster in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Two drivers survived high-speed tyre failures, and several of their rivals voices concerns over how the incidents were handled.
What caused the failures, did F1 respond correctly to them, and what action needs to be taken to avoid similar situations in future races?
Why did the tyres fail?Lance Stroll on lap 30 and Max Verstappen – who had victory in sight – 15 laps later.
F1 can be satisfied that both drivers walked away from huge crashes with not a scratch on them. Each was tipped nose-first into a barrier at one of F1’s fastest tracks at speeds of around 300kph. The two chassis appeared to remain intact, and Aston Martin have already confirmed Stroll will use his again in France once it has been repaired.
The remains of their damaged left-rear tyres, plus Lewis Hamilton’s left-rear which also suffered a cut, were taken back to Pirelli’s headquarters in Milan on Monday for inspection. All of these were of C3 (hard) compound, but Pirelli is also inspecting an unspecified number of other tyres.
This is not the first time F1 tyres have failed without warning in the last 12 months. Both drivers suffered similar failures last year – Verstappen at Imola and Stroll at Mugello. Three other drivers – Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz Jnr – experienced sudden tyre deflations at the end of the British Grand Prix.
Pirelli provided its softest range of tyres for this year’s race at Baku, one step softer than those it brought for the last race at the circuit in 2019. However, no driver used the hard tyres during that race, and most ran stints of well over 30 laps on the medium tyre, approximate to the hard used this year. Moreover, during Sunday’s race, several drivers ran longer stints on their hard tyres than Stroll and Verstappen did, indicating the failures were not simply or solely a matter of wear.
Until Pirelli reveal the details of their investigation, which they intend to do prior to the next race at Paul Ricard, there is not point pre-judging the outcome. However immediately after the race Verstappen suggested debris would be blamed for the failures, and later that evening Pirelli’s head of motorsport Mario Isola said their preliminary analysis indicated as much.
While Verstappen and other had driven through Stroll’s crash scene, where might Stroll have collected damage from? There were few other incidents prior to his crash, though the leaders had to swerve to avoid a tree branch at turn 15 on lap two.
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Have the changes for 2021 not worked as intended?
The latest failures are a worry for Formula 1 and Pirelli as teams were forced to make several costly changes to the cars this year in an attempt to prevent a repeat of last year’s failures.
An initial package of changes was agreed, then F1 decided to go further in order to significantly reduce downforce levels and ease the strain placed upon tyres. The alterations to the floor, brake ducts and diffuser – all at the rear of the car – were a bone of contention at the beginning of this year, as Mercedes and Aston Martin claimed they lost more performance as a result of them than their rivals.
Nonetheless, further failures have occured. There are, however, notable differences between what happened last weekend and the British Grand Prix deflations which prompted the changes for 2021. The Baku failures occured at the rear of the car, not the front, and the Azerbaijan track is a far less punishing circuit than Silverstone.
Furthermore, as Isola noted on Sunday, the left-rear tyre is subject to less severe treatment than the right-rear at Baku.
Were the tyre pressures too low?
Following Friday practice in Baku, Isola said Pirelli had observed “nothing unexpected”. Nonetheless, prior to Saturday’s running the decision was taken to increase the minimum starting pressure for the rear tyres from 19psi to 20psi, bringing it in line with the front tyres. In 2019 the pressures were 20.5psi for rears and 21.5psi at the front.
As Isola described on Friday, one of their target for the tyres they introduced this year was to allow drivers to run lower pressures, in order to reduce overheating and produce better racing.
“With the new construction for the slick tyres we can run at a lower pressure,” said Isola. “One of the targets of the new construction, because it’s more robust, is to give the opportunity to go with a lower pressure.”
During the stoppage following Verstappen’s crash, Mick Schumacher was advised that Pirelli had told teams to increase their rear tyre pressures by a further 2psi. However this message, which was relayed to all teams via race control, was in fact a miscommunication, and Haas corrected their advice to Schumacher five minutes later:
|Gannon||So Pirelli have just raised the pressure minimum for everyone on the rear by 2psi. So everyone has 2psi higher rear pressure, now. We will, too. But this is a six-lap used set of C5s, still in good condition, because it only has like laps-to-grid sets a half-lap of pushing. So I’m raising the rear pressures 2psi and the front only one so we’ll have less stagger and you won’t lose too much front grip, you’ll lose a little rear grip but just drive with what you get, it’ll be okay.|
|Schumacher||What happened in the incident with Max?|
|Gannon||He crashed alone, by himself. Ah, okay, now I understand, maybe it was an issue. That’s why we have this tyre pressure change. They’re just being very cautious, they don’t know the exact detail.|
|Gannon||Okay Mick Pirelli have changed the rules again, so we’re back to the original rear pressures, and I’m just taking out a little front pressure, just to give us a little more front on the one lap, two laps.|
Nonetheless it remains to be seen whether Pirelli can continue with its preference for using lower pressures.
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Should the race have been neutralised immediately after both crashes?
Several drivers queried why Formula 1 race director Michael Masi took as long as he did to send the Safety Car out in response to Stroll and Verstappen’s crashes. There was a delay of 43 seconds between Stroll’s crash and the Safety Car being deployed, and over 80 seconds in the case of Verstappen’s.
“I was wondering a little bit why it took so long, the second time when Max had the shunt, for the Safety Car to come out,” said Sebastian Vettel after the race. “Because it was quite clear that he was standing in the middle of the track and it took a little bit long. But we will see, we will find out why.”
Charles Leclerc described the decision not to send the Safety Car out immediately as a “fucking joke” on this radio at the time. “I was just surprised that there was not the Safety Car earlier,” he explained afterwards.
“That’s why I raised my concern on the on the radio, because for me it was clear that I would stop pushing with a crash like this, it was in the middle of the straight, which was quite dangerous. It just took longer than what I expected. That’s it. But I think all the drivers have been surprised the same the same way.”
Leclerc’s radio underlined the potential dangers of covering the crash scene with yellow flags instead of a Safety Car. As he passed Verstappen’s crashed car on the right-hand side of the track, Leclerc was given conflicting instructions about where he needed to go to avoid the stationary Red Bull:
|Marcos Padros||Go to the left, left on the main straight. Right, to the right. Er, crash in the main straight, on the left, stay to the left.|
Did all drivers respond correctly to the yellow flags?
Having chosen to initially cover both crashes using double waved yellow flags, Masi was unhappy with how many of the drivers responded to them. During the race broadcast McLaren were heard complaining Yuki Tsunoda had failed to slow sufficiently for either crash.
|Joseph||Just to confirm, we’ve informed race direction about Tsunoda not slowing down in front.|
|Norris||Yeah it was double waved yellows and he didn’t even slow down.|
But in his reply, played over the world television feed, Masi made it clear he wasn’t satisfied with how any of the drivers reacted. “Quite simply, for me, the entire field should be penalised for not slowing for double yellows in accordance with the regulations.”
“For me, all of them are obvious,” he added. “Lifting a little bit is not enough and I’m going to tell all drivers accordingly at the next meeting.”
Masi’s response is surprising for several reasons. First, some drivers clearly slowed far more than others. Schumacher, for one, backed off considerably as he passed the Stroll crash scene.
Others further ahead did not slow down as much for the same incident, but it’s debateable how much they should have done. This is a flat-out section of track with blind corners – should it really be left to the drivers’ discretion how far they should slow down to be safe?
Moreover, if the drivers were in breach, they should have been penalised, even if it meant issuing sanctions to all or most of the entire field. This is not without precedent – 12 drivers were formally warned over last year’s restart crash at Mugello.
Why were drivers given incorrect information about the Safety Car?
Following Stroll’s crash, several drivers were shown Safety Car boards by trackside marshals well before the Safety Car was deployed. This caused further confusion. Eventual race winner Sergio Perez was among those who saw them, and slowed down approaching turn five as a result, in the mistaken belief the Safety Car had been deployed long before it was:
|Rennie||Not Safety Car yet. There is no Safety Car.|
|Perez||What the fuck? I saw the…|
|Rennie||Safety Car, Safety Car now.|
|Perez||I saw the board a lot earlier.|
|Rennie||Recharge on, recharge on. At the moment, pit entry is closed so we are staying out.|
Perez was far from the only driver to be confused. There is an obvious potential risk of some drivers slowing because they believe the Safety Car has been deployed, while others continue flat-out.
Why was the red flag used inconsistently?
The decision to red-flag the race in response to Verstappen’s crash made sense. It allowed marshals to clean the area with no pressure of time and without cars repeatedly passing the scene.
It begged the question why wasn’t the same done for Stroll’s crash. Of course, that’s easy to say with hindsight, especially if it ultimately transpires that Verstappen’s tyre failed due to debris from that crash.
But some drivers called for a red flag at the time, notably George Russell:
|Russell||They’ve got to red flag this, surely, we’ve been driving through a load of debris.|
Masi said the red flag was used during the second crash in order to give the drivers the chance to race to the finish, instead of taking the chequered flag behind the Safety Car.
Will Mazepin face a sanction for his last-lap swerve?
The final drama of the day was overlooked by the stewards, but may yet result in action. Nikita Mazepin swerved alarmingly towards Mick Schumacher as his team mate overtook him at the same point on the track where Stroll’s tyre had failed. The consequences of a crash at that section of the track could have been dire.
Drivers have been sanctioned for similar moves in recent races. Lando Norris was shown the black-and-white ‘unsporting conduct’ flag at the Spanish Grand Prix for a late defensive move on Carlos Sainz Jnr.
Mazepin’s move would appear to deserve at least as much. He clearly anticipated Schumacher’s attempt to pass him, as his eyes were fixed on his right-hand mirror as the other Haas drew within range. The stewards may not have seen the move at the time, but it deserves investigating, to avoid sending the impression that driving standards only apply to those racing at the front of the field.
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