As a full field of Formula 1 cars lined up on the grid at the hallowed Spa-Francorchamps circuit, the excited chattering of the tens of thousands in attendance on the grass banks could be heard over the idling engines sat purring before them.
The start of the formation lap was met with a fanfare of blaring airhorns. Thick flare smoke mixed with the thick spray of the passing cars slowly touring through the fabled forest course.
Eventually, the train wound through the Bus Stop chicane and onto the pit straight, lining up one-by-one on the grid, preparing themselves for the start.
As the crowd lining the circuit rose in anticipation, the famous five red lights cycled on in order before disappearing in an instant. Within seconds, hundreds of litres of water were thrown into the air as a stampede of cars charged down to La Source.
The 1998 Belgian Grand Prix had begun.
What took place in the 32 seconds that followed would become of the most infamous sequences in the more than 70 year history of this sport. David Coulthard lost control of his McLaren and driver after driver ploughed into him. It was a visceral exhibition of just how catastrophic the combination of a full grid, a lack of visibility and a lack of adhesion can be.
Over 20 years later, while the cars and the circuit itself may be much more advanced in safety standards than their late 1990s counterparts, the dangers of piloting a Formula One car while barely able to see beyond the confines of the cockpit remain just as real as they ever have.
And this, ultimately, the reason why the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix was the first in history to conclude without a single legitimate racing lap being completed.
Even before the teams’ trucks had arrived in the Spa paddock to signal the official end of the summer break, the disturbing recent spate of dangerous and even deadly accidents at the fabled Eau Rouge – Raidillon sequence had been the subject of intense debate over what constitutes an acceptable risk in modern motorsport.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
The loss of Anthoine Hubert and the life-changing injuries to Juan-Manuel Correa in 2019. Jack Aitken hospitalised after a vicious multi-car crash within the opening hour of the Spa 24 Hours earlier this year. With countless other heavy shunts spanning categories from club racing to the World Endurance Championship over recent seasons serving to mark Spa’s iconic corner as an accident blackspot.
Those concerns were only heightened on the very first day of the race weekend on Friday. The frightening accident during qualifying for the W Series race that saw six drivers involved – with Ayla Agren and Beitske Visser hospitalised – immediately made the suitability of the barrier position and runoff heading up the hill the main talking point of the meeting.
“Let’s just be bloody thankful that all the girls seem to have gotten away under their own steam,” a still-recovering Aitken offered on Twitter. “I’m pretty sure everyone has gotten the picture of what needs changing.”
As Saturday arrived bringing the rain with it, the Formula 1 drivers knew that with the inclement conditions unlikely to subside over the remaining two days, they would likely be tested to the limits of their abilities over the rest of the event.
As Lewis Hamilton and George Russell both came close to losing control of their cars on their first out-laps in Q3, aquaplaning along the Kemmel Straight in the pouring rain, Lando Norris was preparing to attack Eau Rouge for his first flying lap of the session.
The sight of Norris’s spinning McLaren jettisoning debris across the track may have been shocking in its sheer violence, but also had a strangely inevitable feeling to it. That he was able to climb from his car unaided – nursing slight pain from his elbow – was relief to all, but it was difficult not to consider how disastrous an accident it would have been had it occurred in the early phase of a race, with several cars following immediately behind in thick spray.
“We are very concerned about the corner,” said Sergio Perez after qualifying. “Basically, when you hit it, it sends you back to the track and it’s a blind spot.”
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
When the teams and fans returned to the circuit for the final day, they were greeted by a more than 80% chance of heavy rain in the hour before, during and after the scheduled 3pm local start time. It wasn’t a matter of if it would rain – only how badly would it affect the race.
But the challenge of Spa goes far beyond just a single uphill kink. When the rain does come – as it so often does – every corner along the seven kilometre circuit becomes a potential race-ender.
Perez was barely going fast enough on his reconnaissance lap to catch the attention of the local speed cameras when he ran wide at Les Combes. With the track almost as wet as it had been when Norris had lost control the prior afternoon, Perez slid awkwardly into the barriers, seemingly out of the race before it had even begun.
Having demonstrated how easy it was to fall off the circuit in these full wet conditions, Perez quickly arrived back in the pit lane and considered making an early exit from the circuit before Red Bull team principal Christian Horner ordered him to stick around in case a delay to the start may offer a window for him to participate.
With so much standing water and the rain actively falling around the track, the initial start was delayed. Eventually, when a small window appeared to open almost half an hour later, the field were escorted off the grid by the Mercedes Safety Car for some speculative laps around the circuit in hope to clear some of the water off the track as modern F1 cars are so efficient at doing.
The dissent from the drivers was immediate.
Norris was unimpressed by the pitifully low visibility. “It’s pretty awful,” he said. “I can barely see the car in front at the minute.” Antonio Giovinazzi called conditions “undriveable”. Russell, in second place following yet another giant-killing performance on Saturday for Williams, complained he could not even see the red rain light of Verstappen’s Red Bull in front.
“I can’t see anything up to Eau Rouge,” the Williams driver reported. “Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing into turn five, can’t even see Verstappen’s red light.”
With rain still falling and no chance of getting the race going any time soon, race director Michael Masi aborted the start procedure, and drivers were brought back into the pit lane to wait for better weather.
As the drivers climbed out of their cars and overalls and into their rain jackets, a peculiar situation was developing. As the race had not formally started, Red Bull had been granted an unexpected opportunity to repair Perez’s damaged car to a raceable state in time for the eventual start of the race.
The team lobbied Masi to ask the stewards to confirm that there would be nothing preventing Perez from taking the start, should they repair the car by the time conditions had improved. Eventually, Masi reported to the team’s sporting director, Jonathan Wheatley, that Perez would indeed be permitted to join the start of the race from the pit lane – a remarkable turnaround by the Red Bull mechanics and one of the most striking reversals in fortune any driver has enjoyed in recent memory.
There was one snag, of course: The Red Bull mechanics’ efforts would only be rewarded if the race indeed got underway to begin with.
As the wait became half an hour, then an hour, then a 90-minute delay with no let up in the punishingly consistent rain, there was no obvious opportunity to attempt another start that would likely prove any more viable than the initial one.
The thousands of dedicated fans around the circuit shivered under their umbrellas as they patiently waited for the racing they had travelled far and wide to witness. But with no let up in the conditions, Toto Wolff voiced his agreement that these were not viable circumstances.
“As much as I love racing and I love also the risk of racing, this is maybe a step too far,” Wolff said.
Eventually, the rain had persisted to such an extent that the race was coming under threat from the three-hour operational time limit imposed under the regulations (this was introduced as a four-hour limit after 2011, then later shortened). Any attempt to restart the race would almost certainly be compromised by this restriction.
If there was any desire from the FIA and race control to simply give up on going racing that afternoon, then the stewards’ eventual decision to suspend the three-hour limit would never have been considered. The fact the stewards overrode the restriction the first time it ever became a genuine factor during a grand prix may prompt question whether the rule is needed in the first place, but it also suggests the intention was always to find a window in which a race could go ahead.
But with no let up in the relentless rainfall, even artificially extending the window in which the race could be run looked like a futile endeavour.
With Formula 1 staring at the increasingly real possibility of a race being abandoned without a single racing lap having been completed for the very first time, the question of how points could – and if they should – be awarded for a race weekend with no race became the critical one.
All that was needed to satisfy the most basic requirements for drivers to be deemed classified and half points awarded was just two ‘racing’ laps being completed. But with the race having never started, this would have to change in order for any kind of result to stand.
Finally, over three hours after the race was scheduled to start, race control gave the teams their ten minute notice that a new start would indeed be attempted. With the rain decreasing ever so slightly, it appeared to be the first opportunity all afternoon to at least try to see if the track would be viable for racing.
Verstappen was led out of the pit lane by the Safety Car for a second tour of the circuit. Crucially, this time, the remaining hour on the race clock began to tick down – the Belgian Grand Prix had officially started.
Whatever hope there may have been to actually consider a racing start, any realistic chance of racing dissipated into the air along with the water being kicked up by the blue-walled Pirelli tyres on the cars. It was quickly apparent that conditions were no better than they had been during the first attempt three hours earlier.
With the rain beginning to fall once more, making a start even less viable, there was no option but to red flag the ‘race’ and call the cars into the pit lane once more. As time ticked down and with no obvious way things would get any better any time soon, it seemed that reality was dawning on Formula 1 that this really wasn’t going to happen.
Eventually, the inevitable announcement: The Belgian Grand Prix was officially abandoned and would not be restarted.
Although the disappointment was shared among the fans, teams, drivers and organisers alike, the field had been able to complete two full laps under the Safety Car. Whether this had been bona fide attempt to salvage a race of some kind from the circumstances, it seemed the race was now official under the terms of the regulations
Verstappen was therefore proclaimed as the winner of this exhibition, with George Russell and Williams bestowed with an official podium appearance by taking second place and Lewis Hamilton in third. Half points would be awarded to all drivers in the top 10.
As what will likely be a week’s worth of heated debate over the merits of this showing by the sport began, the drivers themselves appeared to be in agreement that race control had made the right decision in prioritising safety – even if that resulted in no racing being possible.
“You couldn’t really see,” said Hamilton. “Five metres in front of you, the car disappears so it was very difficult down the straights to even know where that flashing light was. You couldn’t even go flat out because you didn’t know at what point of the track they’d be on.”
Russell concurred. “Anything over 200kph, I could not see a single thing,” he said. “ I may as well have been closing my eyes down the straight and was having to lift off the throttle. So, it wasn’t safe at all to race. I think the FIA made the right decision.”
But while the drivers seemed satisfied that safety had indeed been at the forefront of the decisions made over the course of the afternoon, the idea that even half points could be awarded for a race conducted entirely under safety car conditions left a sour taste in the mouths of many.
“The only shocking thing is that they gave points and we did these two laps with the Safety Car,” said Fernando Alonso.
“So there are many people like me just P11 that we didn’t have any chance to be in the points and they decide to give the points anyway, with a non-race. It is weird.”
Even points finisher Carlos Sainz Jnr shared Alonso’s sentiment. “How far into the race you call it a race and how, if there was actually no race laps, no competition, should points be given or any result be given? Because there was no race. Basically, I didn’t race, so I didn’t deserve to have points.”
The consequences of this non-race will still have an impact on this year’s championship. Verstappen’s ‘victory’ follows two disappointing race weekends brings him within three points of Hamilton, while Russell and Williams’ nine points for a shock podium will almost certainly cement eighth place for the team in the constructors’ championship.
It’s undeniable that the Belgian Grand Prix weekend of 2021 was a low point in the sport’s history. Rarely have fans, teams and drivers alike all been so disappointed, frustrated and the winners left unable to take full satisfaction from their victory.
Masi insisted the second attempt at a race start was a sincere attempt to achieve some green flag running. Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali rejected claims it was only cynical attempt to ensure the sport protected itself from legalities by satisfying its most basic obligations. To F1’s credit, the safety of the 20 drivers, the marshals and fans around Spa-Francorchamps was never gambled with simply for the sake of trying to provide a show.
After a weekend of questions over just how much risk is acceptable in modern Formula 1, there was, thankfully, no further accidents to add to the concerning list of dangerous incidents around Spa in its current configuration. And with significant development for Raidillon planned to help address many of the concerns before the sport next visits the adored Belgian circuit, it may well turn out that drivers will never be asked to face those same risks ever again.
That is cause at least for relief, if not celebration.