The Belgian Grand Prix, that wasn’t a Grand Prix
- Non-stop rain denies any real racing at Spa-Francorchamps
- Just two laps behind the Safety Car is classified as an F1 race, with half points awarded
- Belgian Grand Prix earns place in record books as the shortest Grand Prix of all time
The Belgian Grand Prix, held at Spa-Francorchamps, is one of the most anticipated events on the motorsport calendar. It’s one of the last true ‘old school’ circuits on the F1 schedule; high speed, limited run-off areas, big gradient changes, and legendary corners that have stood the test of time.
But all that works against the venue when inclement weather dominates like it did last weekend. Spa and rain is no stranger to the F1 circus, with countless examples of wet races to reflect back upon over the last few decades.
It seemed though, that this was not going to be a normal weekend almost right from the off. Friday afternoon saw a horrific crash in the female-only W Series qualifying session, when a light rain shower hit the Eau Rouge part of the circuit, one of the most fearsome corners in world motorsport. With slick tyres, car after car spun off at full speed, into the barriers and then into each other as single-seaters bounced back into the path of oncoming traffic. Six cars were involved, and two drivers were sent to hospital.
The rain stuck around all weekend, and fell even harder in time for F1 qualifying, with the third segment on Saturday afternoon held in almost monsoon conditions. Just as Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel suggested over the team radio that the session should be red flagged, the slightest touch of the kerb through Eau Rouge sent McLaren’s Lando Norris spinning into the barriers at the same point as the W Series accident, but at much higher velocity. The orange McLaren spun wildly like a top as it disintegrated, again crossing the track and into the Raidillon run-off area, thankfully with no other cars around to collect the already wrecked machine.
Thankfully Norris was able to emerge unscathed from the biggest shunt of his F1 career so far, while Vettel stopped to check on his fellow driver, before radioing back to his team to vent his frustrations that it took a sizeable shunt for his calls for a red flag to be heeded by Race Control.
Then there was another accident at the same corner during the Formula Three race, which was almost a carbon copy of the W Series shunt, though thankfully with less repercussions.
This string of accidents added to concerns raised by a fatal Formula Two accident at the same corner in 2019, and another chain-reaction incident just a few weeks ago during the Spa 24 Hours, when Jack Aitken’s Lamborghini went off at the same spot as Norris, and was collected by numerous other cars, with Aitken hospitalised with fractured vertebrae among other injuries.
So when Sunday morning dawned wet, tensions were high. The third Formula Three race of the weekend passed largely without incident and a Porsche Supercup race followed, but then the rain picked up again in the build up to the Grand Prix.
As is customary, the cars headed to the grid in the half an hour before the race, but it only took five corners at low speed for Red Bull’s Sergio Perez to slither off the road into the barriers and seemingly wipe himself out of the race before it even started.
While the other 19 cars made it to the grid, the rain continued and it was no surprise that the start was delayed. An attempt to get things going came around 25 minutes late, as the Safety Car led the field away for a couple of low speed laps. Even at low speed it was abundantly clear that the race would not be allowed to start, and it was no surprise that the decision was made to abandon the start procedure due to the non-existent visibility.
The teams and drivers then waited for around three hours for any sign of improvement, and all sorts of rules were broken or bent as the organisers stopped the clock on the specified race duration time in the hope that the weather would improve before sunset, while Red Bull fought successfully for Perez to be allowed back into the race.
Talk then moved onto what would constitute a race, and it was confirmed that the event only needed to last for two laps for half points to be awarded (a race needs to go beyond 75% distance for full points to be handed out).
There then followed an almost farcical running of the ‘race’ which saw the 20 cars circulate for two laps behind the safety car in qualifying order, with Max Verstappen ahead of star qualifier George Russell, and Hamilton third. With two laps done, the red flags were flown, and the safety car pulled in the 20 F1 machines following.
It didn’t take much longer for Race Control to confirm that there would be no more attempts at starting the race, and that the result was valid, meaning Verstappen claimed the easiest win of his career, Russell secured his first ever F1 podium and Hamilton lost ground in the championship. All after just two laps of no actual racing, with the result based on the first lap due to the FIA’s countback regulations.
The 2021 Belgian Grand Prix therefore earns the record of being the shortest Grand Prix of all time and the only F1 race where the safety car completed as many laps as the race winner.
For what it’s worth, it was entirely the right call to not start the race; conditions were never suitable for racing to resume properly, with no break in the precipitation and visibility even behind the safety car being non-existent.
But questions now need to be asked on why a race result can be declared after just two laps, when no racing took place at all, and on whether the 70,000-plus fans trackside are entitled to a refund after braving the horrendous weather for no real contest. Sports like cricket offer spectators either a full or a partial refund if weather stops play, so hopefully common sense will happen here.
Ideally, any solution will also protect the interests of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, which is enduring a dreadful 100th anniversary year, after suffering extensive damage in two separate major flooding incidents earlier this summer, the recent murder of its CEO Nathalie Maillet and now a non-existent F1 race.
There’s less than a week to wait until the next Grand Prix; the first event in the Netherlands since the 1980s, where hopefully a race will actually happen, and questions will be answered.
Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.