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F1: When is a race not a race? When it's at Spa in 2021

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

We're used to weather at the mighty Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes forest. Like many racing circuits, it has a micro-climate and, because of its trees, it is usual for moisture to hang around instead of burning off or blowing away.

But the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix was something else entirely.

Friday: it's wet.It stays wet. McLaren's Norris demonstrates a masterclass of how to drive a long and winding road in the wet.

Saturday: Qualifying. It's a bit of lottery but nothing to write home about until Q3. Russell, for only the second time, has dragged his Williams into the top ten. But in the lull between Q2 and Q3, it rained. Hard.

First out were Vettel and Norris, Norris looking for all the world as if he was going to take his maiden pole. Vettel said it was too red "Red Flag,Red Flag." Norris said there was some aquaplaning and then gave it welly.

That's when it all went wrong. In the compression, there was standing water and a bump. As the car unweighted over the bump, Norris was already correcting an earlier connection so when the car came back to full weight, the wheels weren't pointing in the right direction. That meant that the front wheels dug in and moved more slowly than the back wheels and that meant a spin. But with no friction due to the water, that spin went on, and on, and on.. round and round and round with forward motion of at least 100 metres, the car shedding chunks of itself with every rotation.

After an extended red flag to clean up the mess, a period in which Norris was taken first to the medical centre and then to hospital, Q3 resumed in less awful conditions. Spending most of the ten minutes in the garage, it seemed as if Russel was going to settle for 10th rather than risk damaging the car. But no, he came out with no time to spare, wound it up and put it on pole, losing out only when Verstappen managed a mighty last sector, pushing the Williams down to P2.

And so to Sunday. Torrential rain turned the track into a series of rivers. On the way to the grid, Perez had a minor off that had enormous consequences. A formation lap behind the safety car turned into two, causing confusion, and then everything stopped and the cars waited. And waited. And waited.

Red Bull asked for permission to reinstate Perez and were told "no" because he had had outside assistance to get his damaged car back to the pits. Red Bull said that can't be right: outside assistance rule only applies during the race and he crashed on his way to the grid so that race hadn't started. The Stewards said Red Bull were right. The car, miraculously, was rebuilt.

Confusion reigned: had the race started behind the safety car ? The number of laps remaining had been ticking down. The F1 start procedure is that the cars do a formation lap, go to the grid, watch the red lights over head and when they go out the race starts. The lights show green for the rest of the race.

In the normal course of events, all the cars line up on the grid and the race starts when the red lights go out.

But because the lights were showing yellow, to signify a full-course caution and the special rules that apply to the lights when the safety car is out, the lights on the gantry didn't show red. So the red light could not go out. So the visible trigger to say the race had started did not happen.

Everyone sat around for more than three hours. The stewards suspended the clock which says that a race must finish within three hours of it starting - which means that, for this purpose, the stewards took the view that the race had, in fact started. In this case, they seem to find that the "event" but not necessarily the "race" began when the green light was turned on at the end of the pit lane and the cars were permitted to enter the track.

The weather radar showed that the storm had settled in and was going nowhere. Accuweather showed that there might be some respite in the late evening when it was too dark to race. The race director decided: go out behind the safety car, see what happens, do two laps that count as a race and if it's not too dangerous, do some more laps and the be released for what would be, basically, a sprint race lasting, perhaps, 40 minutes. The alternative was that at any time after two laps, under F1's rules, if a race is stopped, a result is declared. If less than three quarters of the scheduled laps have been run, half-points are awarded.

The conditions being worse than before - not in terms of grip which was acceptable but because of spray - two laps was enough. The red flag was flown, the cars trickled into the pits and then another thing happened.

Announcing that the podium celebrations would take place, Race Director Michael Massey found himself with another problem that, had anyone noticed, should have gone to the Stewards but by that time, no one cared. Yes, he said, the post race procedure would be followed: weigh-in and then the podium.

A racing driver's weigh-in takes place immediately he gets out of the car and he, plus the car in the condition it finishes the race must fall within certain parameters.

For three hours, the drivers had been eating, drinking, not losing ten kg in sweat during racing. No one paid attention to the weighing-in rules when the cars came in. Hot drinks flowed all around. Then someone said the drivers should go to be weighed.

The result of the race was, except for Perez, determined by the grid which was not entirely what Qualifying had set out. Bottas and Norris both had penalties that put them out of the points although the qualifying position had them both in the top ten.

The winner? Actually it was third place Hamilton who still looks unwell, apparently the effects of his covid-19 infection in December still knocking him about. His driving remains epic but out of the car, he is far from his usual self.

Another winner was Russell - his p2 on the grid was entirely by merit. For fans of the sport, the appearance of Williams is an emotional moment. We hope Sir Frank and Claire are proud of what they built and brought so close to this Spa result.

From outside, it looks as if Russell and Bottas have swapped places but have not (yet?) swapped cars.

And then there is Verstappen. If Russell's qualifying lap was almost dignified, a master-class in smooth driving, Verstappen's was an act of brutality. It was dancing on the edge of disaster and it produced a result three tenths clear of Russell. That level of commitment, having seen the severity of Norris' crash, was outstanding.

The fair result would have seen all three standing on the top step spraying whatever it is that gets sprayed these days.

The result saw three of the top contenders out of the points: Norris, Perez and Bottas. It saw a grumpy Verstappen close up on Hamilton but by less than he had hoped. It's seen Williams move so far above Haas and Alpha Romeo that with half a season to go, those two teams are doomed to be at the bottom and unlikely to get points other than by fluke.

Then again, a month ago, we'd have said the same about Williams. Except that it is quite clear that their improvement is not a fluke.

The race that wasn't a race was, bizarrely, a fascinating race.

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