Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix was a pretty miserable one for everyone except Williams employees. The event will go down as the shortest in Formula 1 history, due to a deluge of rain that intensified after qualifying and made safe racing impossible. The spray from leading cars was so severe, drivers would’ve been running blind out there. FIA Race Director Michael Masi and his team were right not to run the race, lest the sport risk another terrible accident in the wet at Spa-Francorchamps.
No rational person could resent that decision. The call to determine the race complete and award half points after a bit more than two laps behind the safety car, however, deserves scrutiny. Fans stood in the pouring rain for upwards of three hours, only to be repaid for their loyalty with a podium celebration for a race that never happened. And yet, the record books will count this as a Grand Prix like all the others — just one that gave out fewer points.
After the event, Masi was adamant while speaking to media that the idea to bring the cars out for those several minutes wasn’t motivated by a desire to cross that two-lap minimum that would’ve made the race official. From Racer:
We were all aiming for a window we thought was there — and the teams saw it — there was a weather band where we thought we could get some racing in and as all of you know, being fans of the sport, you know how rapidly weather changes at this venue. We thought we could get something in but the weather deteriorated rapidly so we couldn’t.
There was 50 minutes remaining on the race clock after the final red flag; 17 minutes later, the race was called for good. With room for only about a half hour of potential racing action at that point, it seemed highly unlikely that things were going to resume. Nevertheless, it must have seemed awfully shrewd to fans watching from grandstands that the cars were monetarily paraded around the circuit just long enough for F1 to conclude, technically, that a race had been run.
During the post-race interviews, first-place finisher Max Verstappen credited spectators for sticking it out; he also called them the “bigger winners” of the afternoon which, to give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d chalk up to poor word choice. George Russell was — I imagine — too busy being amazed over the events of the previous 24 hours to wipe the smile off his face, and who could blame him for that? That left Lewis Hamilton as the only podium sitter who reflected on how shitty everything was, while offering a fair solution to the problem. Here’s how he put it on Instagram:
Today was a farce and the only people to lose out are the fans who have paid good money to watch us race. Of course you can’t do anything about the weather but we have sophisticated equipment to tell us what’s going on and it was clear the weather wasn’t going to let up. We were sent out for one reason and one reason only. Two laps behind a safety car where there is no possibility to gain or lose a place or provide entertainment for fans isn’t racing. We should have just called it quits, not risked the drivers and more importantly refunded the fans who are the heart of our sport.
It really is that simple: Run a legitimate race, or refund the fans.
Say what you will about NASCAR, but it would’ve pushed the event to Monday. In fact, NASCAR did exactly that earlier this year for the Bristol dirt race. A cursory search shows IndyCar had to do the same for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2010, which was postponed a day to March 29.
Masi said rescheduling to Monday wouldn’t have been a feasible course of action in Spa’s case, because it would’ve necessitated an agreement between F1, its teams, the FIA and race organizer, according to The Guardian. Fair enough, though that doesn’t really excuse why F1 never had a contingency plan in the rulebook for such an eventuality in its 70-year history. Or, rather, it did and we’ve now seen it — and we all know it sucks. Perhaps that defense will fly this time, but it won’t fly again.
As such, the question now turns to if and how F1 will address such a situation going forward. McLaren chief Zak Brown was outspoken on Sunday about his disapproval — again, not of the weather but the regulations. F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and Masi both agreed that a discussion should be had, according to Motorsport.com. Domenicali also said F1 and the Belgian Grand Prix organizers will be able to talk about possibly recompensing fans, while simultaneously absolving the sport of responsibility because “[F1] are not the ones that are putting [out] the tickets.”
All the while, Domenicali pushed back hard against Hamilton’s insinuation that the call was financially motivated. If that’s true, the best way to prove it would be to give fans their money back — maybe a prorated amount for people who purchased weekend tickets, or the full cost for Sunday. If that doesn’t happen, there’s no need to take Domenicali’s comments — or those from any of the F1 brass — at face value.