Esteban Ocon, Alpine, Spa-Francorchamps, 2021

Spa’s latest tragedy puts safety in the spotlight: Five Belgian GP talking points

2023 Belgian Grand Prix

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Formula 1 heads to the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium for one of the most popular rounds of the season – and the last before the summer break.

But this weekend will have a different feel for several reasons. Tragedy struck at the circuit less than a month ago, as a crash claimed the life of young single-seater racer Dilano van ‘t Hoff, posing fresh questions over the dangers involved in racing at the historic track, especially in poor weather conditions.

This round was always going to be a departure from the norm. Belgium’s race nearly dropped off the schedule this year, and its reprieve led to an earlier date on the calendar.

Spa will also play host to a sprint round for the first time. But how will the reduced practice time affect the performance of the teams on the grid? Here are the talking points for the Belgian Grand Prix.

Safety concerns over Spa and rain visibility

Start, Eau Rouge, Raidillon, Spa-Francorchamps, 2022
Radillon has been a dangerous section in recent years
Usually, the Belgian Grand Prix is one of the handful of the most anticipated rounds of the season. A fast, flowing circuit that plunges around the Ardennes mountains, thrilling drivers and fans alike with its quick corners and spectacular scenery.

However, Formula 1 heads to Spa-Francorchamps this year with the mood likely to be much more serious and sombre than usual. Earlier this month a crash claimed the life of Formula Regional European Championship racer Dilano van ‘t Hoff, just a few hundred metres beyond the section of track where F2 driver Anthoine Hubert suffered a fatal crash four years earlier.

While the iconic Eau Rouge and Radillon sequence is perhaps the single most famous pair of corners on the Formula 1 calendar, it has been under increased scrutiny in recent seasons following a spate of crashes in the wake of the Hubert tragedy. That resulted in major renovations to the Belgian circuit ahead of last year’s grand prix, including the extension of run-off areas on both the inside and outside of the hill. A new grandstand was built overlooking the rise along and many other corners around the seven-kilometre track also had safety enhancements.

Nonetheless some drivers have pushed for further changes to the track, even including the reintroduction of the chicane which was installed at Eau Rouge for the 1994 race.

FIA 'spray guard' design for wet F1 races - rear
Report: First look at FIA’s ‘spray guard’ design to improve wet weather visibility
But the key factor in the most recent fatality was perhaps not the track layout itself but the lack of visibility in heavily wet conditions. As a circuit lined by trees and natural banks allowing spectators to watch the action trackside, spray kicked up by wet tyres can often hang in the air over the circuit more than flatter, more open tracks like Silverstone.

With early forecasts suggesting rain could fall on all three days of the grand prix weekend, safety will be uppermost in the minds of all involved, and not just in the F1 sessions.

The FIA has begun efforts to improve visibility for single seaters in wet weather by testing ‘spray guards’ which could be fitted to cars in rain-hit races. However the first test of the device at Silverstone following the British Grand Prix indicated more work is needed on the design.

First Spa sprint race

The test of the Alternative Tyre Allocation last weekend in Hungary produced the closest and most competitive qualifying session of the season so far. One of the major contributing factors to this was the relative lack of practice time as teams missed out on dry running during one practice session due to rain and then saved many of their limited tyre sets for qualifying and the race.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Spa-Francorchamps, 2022
Drivers will have a sprint race on Saturday to face
This weekend in Spa, teams will get even less time to prepare their cars. For the third time in the opening 12 rounds of the season, teams will face a sprint weekend – the first to be held at the iconic Spa circuit.

With its long straights and high speed corners placing a premium on finding a balanced car under sustained cornering loads, nailing a car’s set-up is especially important. With only one hour of practice, that will severely limit team’s abilities to prepare before they are thrust into qualifying. And with the longest lap of the season, that will mean fewer total laps over the hour, giving teams and drivers a greater challenge for this weekend.

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Will Ferrari find form?

Ferrari were the second-fastest team and the closest to Red Bull back at the Austrian Grand Prix just three rounds ago, with Charles Leclerc taking second place behind Max Verstappen. However, since then, they appear to have been overtaken in the development race by both Mercedes and McLaren, who have shot up to become the closest challengers to Red Bull at each of the last two rounds in Britain and Hungary.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Red Bull Ring, 2023
Leclerc has been strong at sprint rounds
But like this weekend in Belgium, Austria was also a sprint weekend. Ferrari also enjoyed their only pole of the season in Baku earlier in the season, which was also the first sprint round of the year. Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur recognises a pattern for his team.

“So far I think that we’ve done pretty well on the sprint race [weekends], when you have just one free practice before the two qualifying,” he said. “Baku and Spielberg [Red Bull Ring] went pretty well and I hope that will be the same in Spa.”

After underperforming in Hungary relative to their expectations, Ferrari will be eager to bounce back in Spa.

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Alpine decline

After they beat McLaren to a strong fourth place finish in last year’s constructors’ championship, Alpine were full of optimism heading into 2023. However, at the mid-point of the season, the team have faced a reality check as while their rivals are now competing for podiums, Alpine appear to have fallen into a mid-season slump.

Alpine head to Spa after two luckless races
Neither Esteban Ocon nor team mate Pierre Gasly were running at the end of the last two rounds at Silverstone and the Hungaroring. Ocon suffered hydraulics failure early in the British Grand Prix before Gasly retired after contact with Lance Stroll. While their race in Hungary was destroyed at the first corner after former Renault junior driver Zhou Guanyu caused a chain reaction that took both Gasly and Ocon out of the race, they were also struggling for performance in Hungary as both drivers were eliminated in Q2.

Team principal Otmar Szafnauer says he does not want his team to dwell on its misfortune.

“I went around the garage today and told all the boys and girls here, ‘look, just keep doing what we’re doing’,” Szafnauer told media including RaceFans in Hungary. “Focus on the things that we have control over and the other things will eventually come. We couldn’t have control over the two DNFs. Focus on what we can control and do a good job there.”

One thing Alpine can control is its qualifying performance. Finding a way to avoid falling yet further out of reach of McLaren in fifth has to be a paramount concern for Alpine going into the summer break.

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Sargeant seeking first point

With Nyck de Vries being jettisoned from his AlphaTauri in favour of Daniel Ricciardo, Logan Sargeant remains the last rookie on the grid yet to score a championship point.

While Williams have enjoyed success this season, with Alexander Albon bringing them up to seventh place in the constructors’ championship with multiple points finishes, Sargeant has so far been unable to do the same. Last weekend in Hungary, Sargeant retired after a late spin on old tyres, but his team mate was close to getting even more points with an 11th place finish at a high-downforce circuit that should not have suited their car.

“I think we had decent pace and on a track that doesn’t suit us, it’s pretty promising,” Sargeant said after the race. “Heading to Spa, which should be a great track for us – it’s appetising. I’m excited to get there.”

Williams are always at their best at tracks with long straights and high average speed – just like Spa. This could be Sargeant’s best opportunity yet to finally secure that first point.

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Video: How Spa’s track layout has changed

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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15 comments on “Spa’s latest tragedy puts safety in the spotlight: Five Belgian GP talking points”

  1. I love Spa and I hope it will always be on the calendar it’s a true classic. However with the recent tragedies in mind the last thing F1 and Spa need right now is a weekend cramped with action. I feel the FIA should be wiser and first find a solution for the visibility during wet weather races before planning a sprint weekend at a venue where the possibility of rain is so high especially bearing in mind recent events. If rain does fall this weekend and races get delayed or canceled – fingers will point at the Spa track as the problem – while it’s a mess the FIA has created.

  2. Safety concerns over Spa and rain visibility – The most recent fatal accident wasn’t track-related per se, but weather, so people should be worried only regarding the latter factor.
    First Spa sprint race – Hopefully, good, but I’m reserved because the most recent Sprint (bar Red Bull Ring with changeable track conditions) have been relatively straightforward.
    Will Ferrari find form? – I doubt.
    Alpine decline – I doubt they can retake P4 on merit.
    Sargeant seeking first point – Yes, but not the world’s end if he still doesn’t achieve that as long as he performs decently well.

    1. A sensible comment regarding Sargent. He’s made less and less mistakes recently, so a flawless week-end is his target, points should be considered a bonus.

  3. The solution to visibility issues is as basic as it can be – and it’s the polar opposite of what most F1 fans want.
    Reducing downforce, especially from under the cars, and simply going slower are the only ways to not disturb and lift so much water in the first place.
    There is no other solution. All the wheel arches and aerodynamic vanes in the world won’t prevent the water coming up off the tarmac – at best, they’ll just throw it somewhere else which is equally as bad.

    1. at best, they’ll just throw it somewhere else which is equally as bad.

      …or worse. Been there seen the result yonks ago. Something a young fella or anyone should never see.

  4. Drivers complain about limited visibility due to seating position even in fine conditions. Can’t see white line etc.
    Yet cars design is sanctioned to travel at 350k.
    Following drivers say they can’t see anything in wet conditions, yet race is allowed to commence and/or continue.
    Will the new guards be permanent fixtures in case of sudden unexpected downpour or fitted during stop. Even better each team can have four cars (two dry and two wet cars) already shod ,and two reserve drivers on hand having them started and ready for a quick driver change.

    If a driver can’t see properly then the car shouldn’t be “certified”.
    If conditions are so poor that visibility is almost zero then sorry don’t race. No shame in that even if a driver has to make that call themselves.

  5. Jimmy Cliff
    26th July 2023, 11:33

    We should add a talking point: “Which team will score the 2nd most points in Spa”.

    So far in all 11 weekends Red Bull has been the top scorer (gap ranging from 2 to 24 and average of 14.2 points than 2nd best team) but 4 different teams have been 2nd best.
    * Mercedes 4 times (Saudi Arabia, Miami, Monaco & Spain)
    * Ferrari 3 times (Baku, Austria & Canada)
    * Aston Martin 2 times (Australia & Bahrain)
    * McLaren 2 times (UK & Hungary)

    Alpine nearly was 2nd best team in Monaco with 21 points, Mercedes had 23 points. Monaco was the closest – just 7 points difference between Red Bull 25 points and 4th best team Aston Martin with 18 points.

    1. Interesting point for sure, I tend to think mclaren will continue their strong form here, I really doubt alpine or aston martin by now, vasseur made a good point ferrari tend to do well in sprint races, BUT their strategies are consistently terrible, so if it rains I’d write them off (and I hope it rains a lot, and I’m not anti-ferrari), and mercedes perhaps could be strong as well, but right now without seeing anything yet I’d trust mclaren to do better.

    2. Also a thing we shouldn’t forget is that out of the contenders for 2nd place, we have 3 teams with mercedes engine, a massive amount, so they’re really competing aerodynamics-wise, and my impression is aston started with the better car of the 3, mercedes 2nd, mclaren 3rd; mercedes has been consistent, mclaren improved and overtook them and aston fell back, and you can only blame their car development, and maybe the tyre change for this, not the engine.

  6. Perhaps a part of the solution to the visibility issues is to have the ability to postpone a race and race the next day, then they won’t be so desperate to get a result in the books. Things can happen during the race weekend to cause a race to be delayed to the point where it can’t be run on the scheduled date, so contingency plans to run on an alternate day should/must be a part of a race weekend.

  7. Coventry Climax
    26th July 2023, 16:20

    Maybe they should start with race control taking sensible decisions, based on safety instead of money, to then find out that Spa is not inherently more dangerous than any other track.

    The last fatal incident could have been prevented with a decent decision, not with spray guards.

    As usual, the FIA seeks solutions for problems they themselves first create. The real solution is therefor: Ditch the entire corrupt incest crowd that the FIA currently consists of, in favor of people that do take the right, consistent, and safety based decisions.

    1. I mean, heavily wet races are part of the f1 history, who didn’t like spain 1996, monaco 1997, spa 1998, suzuka 1994, just to name a few? The decent decision there I presume would’ve been to not race, and that’s not a solution that goes hand in hand with historic wet races.

      Spray guards at least have the potential to solve both problems, if they manage to reduce the spray considerably, since visibility is the biggest problem with those accidents.

      1. Coventry Climax
        27th July 2023, 15:04

        Racing without halo was also the norm, couple years back. I still don’t like the looks of it, and it isn’t perfect, but it does add safety. A couple of deaths per season also used to be the norm.
        So, being the norm in the past says nothing about how things could or should change and improve for the future.

        I love rain races too, let me make that clear. It separates the grown ups from the kids (being gender neutral here), and the capable from the medoicre.
        With the heavily wet races we’ve seen in the past maybe the conditions, car type, tyre type, etc were all different and such that at that time, the decision to race was OK. Or maybe we’ve just been lucky, who knows?

        The fact that we’ve seen fantastic rain races in the past does not therefor logically mean that we should always be racing in the rain.
        So what I say about that last fatal accident at Spa, and that it coud have been prevented, still stands. At that moment, there were no spray guards and no ‘improved’ visibility, and given the conditions, the decision to go racing again was dead wrong. Literally, alas.

        Then even if, in some future, there’s spray guards that work, they will never restore visibility to the level at dry conditions. So at certain rain conditions, it still takes a sensible race control to make the decision to not race. Some would even call that a brave decision, but the word brave has nothing to do with it. Not make that decision however, is plain stupid.

  8. When there is no proper visibility, the race must be neutralized and/or suspended as per the Sporting Regulations:

    57.1 If Competitors or officials are placed in immediate physical danger by cars running on the track, and the clerk of the course deems circumstances are such that the track cannot be negotiated safely, even behind the safety car, the sprint session or the race will be suspended.

    1. Coventry Climax
      27th July 2023, 15:13

      Great. Now if only the FIA would have come up with a system to actually measure the visibility, and the rule would have said no race beyond a certain value, then that rule would actually have been useful.

      As it stands now, this rule is open to interpretation. By the clerk of the course, specifically. Just another example of how silly the rule book is worded and policed. Pinnacle of motorsports should apply to these things as well, and not be confined to the cars only.

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