In April 2009 I received a call from then-Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone after I published the suggestion that he committed an error of judgement by starting the Malaysian Grand Prix at 4pm local time, which backed the race into poor light once an hour-long deluge, which arrived mid-race, stopped at 6pm.
I agreed with him but pointed out that an earlier race start not only reduced audiences in eastern zones but would have increased the chances of resuming racing before darkness fell. As it was the race was aborted and audiences were sliced by 50%.
“Do you think we should start at 3pm?” he asked.
“Yes, or earlier,” I replied.
Without as much as a farewell he cut the line, but a year later the race started at 3pm and did so until the demise of the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2017, (coincidentally?) the same year Liberty Media acquired F1’s commercial rights.
That 2009 race was the last grand prix for which half points were awarded until last Sunday. The discussion I had with Ecclestone echoed in my ears at Spa as I watched the race clock count down. Crucially, since assuming control of F1 Liberty has progressively moved start times later, primarily to grow US audiences, which are among the smallest on a population basis regardless of how numbers are massaged.
To cater for the subsequently reduced daylight time, F1’s sporting regulations were amended for this year to reduce the maximum event ‘window’ from four hours to three. Thus a conscious sporting decision was taken in this regard, a decision that had involved all teams, Liberty and the FIA.
There are, of course, powerful commercial arguments in support of later starts but, as Sunday proved, there are considerable commercial risks. Significantly, this risk is primarily carried by an unrepresented group, not the race promoters, the commercial rights holder or even F1’s global TV audiences. That group is the spectators who, having shelled out eye-watering sums for tickets, made the race possible in the first place.
F1’s business model is that gate income (and associated spending) provides promoters (and local authorities) with vital funding to cover F1’s fees – average $35m per race – which in turn enables promoter to stage the event that TV broadcasters subsequently transmit. With no live audiences there would, in ‘normal times’ be no F1 world championship – yet decisions taken revolve mostly around their impact on TV broadcasters.
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Consider: last year F1 staged 17 races, only a handful of which were permitted to host spectators; the result was a swing from a budgeted profit to a $400m loss – primarily as race promoters could not shell out fees without spectator income. Prize payments to teams were on average $30m down on 2019. The bottom line – in every sense – is F1 needs fans more than the fans need F1, yet are the last to be considered, as Sunday proved.
In early 2017, shortly after taking over as Liberty’s choice of managing director of F1 Ross Brawn – he of serial successes as Ferrari technical director and whose eponymous team walked both 2009 titles – said that F1 would in the future be putting its fans first.
“We know what fans want: They want entertainment, they want close racing, they want to be able to understand what’s going on,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live. “I think everyone agrees on that… I think simplicity is a key objective for the future.”
Brawn added that, “F1 tends to be reactive. It has a problem, it reacts and tries to find a solution. But (it) very rarely has the vision of looking forward three to five years and deciding where it wants to be. [The fans] want racing, and we haven’t seen too much of that…”
“Three to five years” later very little seems to have changed if this Sunday past provides any guide. Matters are also highly unlikely to change unless F1 identifies the core issues that caused what many consider to have been one of the most farcical events in its history – and these factors were not the incessant rain, but the sport’s cack-handed reactions to the poor weather that had been predicted for at last two weeks.
Chances of rain at Spa can never be eradicated but shifting dates would reduce risk without affecting commercial rewards. Statistics show that since 2007 the 29th day of August has been hit by heavy rain no fewer than nine times, with three days being overcast and one being hot (27C) and sunny. Statistically a late August grand prix in the Ardennes was sure to be rain-affected; it was only a matter of time – that time was Sunday.
Forget not that in mid-July the circuit was affected by regional flooding that claimed over 200 lives, yet F1 sailed glibly on. No sport is as statistically driven as F1, yet its calendar masters ignore Spa’s historic rainfall records, which show that August ranks amongst the highest of the region’s precipitous months, while during the month of April – traditionally F1’s European season opener – average rainfall is lower by almost 50%.
Despite these arguments (and statistics) F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali after the race asserted: “You could have said in these conditions, is it like to throw the balls in the air [as to when the rain would fall heaviest]. It could have been pouring from 11am or whatever it is. It’s really something that you cannot predict.”
Modern weather models can predict to the minute let alone the hour, while statistics predict weather patterns. Thus F1 steers well clear of, for example, Middle Eastern events in August, when temperatures exceed 50C, and does not schedule a German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in December when snow is sure to fall.
I admire Domenicali and was delighted when he was appointed to the role late last year, but his arguments gloss over that racing was possible on Sunday, as various support events proved. With a bit of programme flexibility, F1 could have raced on Sunday, but such changes would potentially disrupt broadcast schedules, so the sport winged it in the hopes that things would get better – at the expense of fans.
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F1 mandates various safety measures such as halo and HANS devices to minimise risk when accidents occur. So it should be with F1 calendars – particularly given the critical importance of live fan experiences to the overall show.
There are no doubts the decision to not go ahead and race was the right one given treacherous conditions, not least due to aquaplaning and lack of visibility. One wonders, though, whether these elements are largely self-inflicted; for example, whether Pirelli’s wet weather tyres are fit for purpose given comparisons with other brands are not possible. A team engineer pointed out that intermediate tyres are the default option when going gets wet.
Under F1’s (pre-2007) open tyre regulations there was an imperative for Bridgestone, Goodyear and Michelin to develop wet ranges or risk getting beaten; Pirelli has no such incentive – it holds the sole supplier contract until the end of 2024. Said engineer, who has with experience of various wet weather tread patterns remarked on Sunday that Bridgestone’s 2009 ‘Monsoon’ tyre was the best he’d ever worked with.
“It was developed during the ‘tyre war’ with Michelin,” he explained, adding that his conviction that aquaplaning would have been reduced – and that racing would have been possible – with improved water ‘dispersement’, to apply his uniquely F1 term. Possibly it is time for the FIA to investigate this angle in conjunction with Pirelli given the potential safety angle.
However, in the engineer’s opinion the biggest contributor to racing not being possible on Sunday was the spray thrown up by cars, causing drivers to drive ‘blind’ at 300kph. He believes 60% of spray is created by underbody ‘suction’ which in turn gets widely dispersed by rear diffusers, and 40% by tyres. The bad news is that the situation is unlikely to improve for next year; if anything, the opposite.
Current cars generate 25% of their downforce via the front and rear wings respectively, he explained, with underbodies responsible for around 50%. With F1’s 2022 regulations designed to reduce ‘dirty air’ created by front and rear wings there is greater reliance on underbody ground effects for downforce and thus the floor figure is likely to rise to 60% (or even more), intensifying spray and further reducing visibility.
F1’s regulations do not anticipate extraordinary scenarios. Thus, there are numerous ‘grey areas’, with Sergio Perez’s car damage providing an example: was the team permitted to repair the car after his heavy shunt on the ‘warm-up’ lap or not given it returned to the garage on a flatbed, in contravention of Article 38.1, which requires a car to reach the grid under its own power after a reconnaissance lap.?
No one knew – we asked a Red Bull team contact, who said, “Checo confirmed not in this race” after his car returned to the garage on a flatbed. Visuals later showed the Mexican’s mechanics slaving away while sporting director Jonathan Wheatley – usually the widest awake of his ilk – tapped race director Michael Masi for advice.
Masi referred the matter to the stewards, who eventually decreed the car could start from the pit lane. Masi explained that, if two laps were completed behind the safety car, then half points could be awarded if under 75% of the race distance was completed. This was said over an hour before the eventual (re)start.
Clearly, then, what had looked like a reconnaissance lap wasn’t a reconnaissance lap. Similarly, if (half) points were to be awarded for a few laps behind the Safety Car on the basis that these were official laps, why were no points awarded for fastest lap? The reason is simple: regulations don’t specify either way because no one anticipated a grand prix being run solely behind a Safety Car, so scrapping the point was the only option.
Those Safety Car ‘alibi’ laps rank amongst the most cynical ever seen in F1, a situation compounded by Masi’s “two lap” comments and subsequent on-screen graphics which repeated the information, which is how it panned out. The logical conclusion is that was the intention all along – in turn ticking all sporting and commercial boxes – and if not, F1 was badly served by pure coincidence. Once again…
It is urgently clear F1 needs to urgently review and amend its regulations, which FIA president Jean Todt yesterday acknowledged. Even more so, it also needs to frame suitable anticipatory clauses. Such race weekends are unlikely to remain the exception for as long as F1 refuses to learn from Sunday, with Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff’s comments ranking amongst the most short-sighted of Sunday, even dafter than suggestions that the race should or could to be delayed to Monday.
“I think this has never happened before, so you need to take it as a freak day where we would have all hoped to have a spectacular race [but] that didn’t happen,” the man who was once tipped to run F1 said post-race.
“[Are] there any learnings? I’m not sure because we are dependent on the weather. Everybody tried hard to get a race underway and because of the rain it didn’t happen.”
Imagine paying €500 for a ticket, shelling out double that for accommodation for the weekend and huddling in pouring rain all Sunday to see two alibi laps run behind a safety car, then reading such nonsense. The fact is that thorough analysis proves that Sunday was far from ‘freakish’; that the sport has plenty to learn from the entire weekend – and if it fails to convert hindsight to foresight F1 does not deserve to have a single fan.
In the final analysis the promoter Spa Grand Prix, working in conjunction with Liberty should compensate fans in full – both gambled on Spa’s August weather and lost, but not as heavily as fans and F1 as a whole. The problem is Article 13 (sic) of Spa’s general ticket sales conditions states in bold letters: “NO REFUND AND NO CHANGE ON TICKETS WILL BE GIVEN UNLESS THE EVENT IS CANCELLED!”
Which, thanks to those crafty alibi laps, it wasn’t.
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