SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Formula One drivers have called on the sport’s governing body, the FIA, to be brave enough to call off this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix if conditions become too dangerous.
Dutch teenager Dilano van ‘t Hoff died in an accident at Spa-Francorchamps earlier this month while racing in heavy rain at a Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine (FRECA).
The accident, which occurred on the Kemmel straight after Spa-Francorchamps’ famous Eau Rouge and Raidillon corners, sent shockwaves through the sport and resulted in Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll calling for changes to the layout of the circuit.
Van ‘t Hoff’s fatal accident was the second in four years at the circuit, following Anthoine Hubert’s death at Spa-Francorchamps during a Formula 2 race in 2019.
Ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, which is being run to F1’s new sprint format and is forecast to be wet throughout, safety concerns were raised by Mercedes driver George Russell, who is also a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association.
“The two questions are whether Spa is safe enough and then it’s the question of the conditions,” Russell said. “The fact is motorsport will always be dangerous when you’re travelling at these speeds.
“If you were to put a ranking of risk of all of the circuits, for sure Spa is one of the riskier circuits, along with Jeddah, along with Monaco, for example. Suzuka to a degree.
“Then when you’ve got a combination of the weather, it’s very challenging. It’s the visibility, we just have no visibility whatsoever. The way I describe it to try and give some perspective is driving down the motorway in pouring rain and turning your windscreen wipers off.
“That’s genuinely how it feels in the cockpit. There’s not really any short-term solutions, I personally think Spa is safe enough. We just need to find a solution for visibility.”
In 2021, the Belgian Grand Prix lasted just two laps behind the safety car before it was called off because of the conditions. The decision attracted criticism at the time, but Russell believes the FIA should always put safety first.
“I think two years ago, that was the correct decision to call the race off,” Russell said. “For one single Formula One car to drive around, the conditions are safe enough and suitable enough to drive. But it’s when you’ve got 20 cars on track at once, and anybody from third position backwards literally cannot see from here to this wall, so you’re talking 20, 30, 40 metres.
“I felt like the incident that happened in FRECA, it was only really a matter of time before something like that happened. Drivers aren’t going flat out in the straight because they can’t see, then somebody gets rear-ended and then there’s a car in the middle of the track.
“Obviously, to have a race cancelled is not perfect for anybody. But we don’t want to see a huge incident as we’ve just seen.”
The sprint race format this weekend will result in qualifying on Friday evening, sprint shootout qualifying on Saturday afternoon, the 100 km sprint race on Saturday evening and the full grand prix on Sunday. Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc said the FIA should not feel pressured into running sessions if the conditions are too wet.
“This is another topic for the FIA to look closely, especially on a weekend like this where it seems we will have quite a lot of rain throughout the weekend, to not feel the pressure of starting a race just because we didn’t have any running,” he said.
“We could be in that situation this weekend. It’s obvious to say, but safety should come first and this needs to be the priority. People, and first of all us drivers, shouldn’t complain if we don’t have any laps because it is not safe to do so, with everything that has happened.”
Last year, changes were made to the run-off areas and crash barriers at Eau Rouge and Raidillon, partly as a reaction to Hubert’s crash in 2019. However, Leclerc still feels like further changes could be made to improve safety at Spa-Francorchamps.
“I think there are some changes that could make a difference,” he added. “First of all, the walls on the straight after Eau Rouge, we should have a bit more space on the left and right.
“If you lose control of the car, the way it is done at the moment you are bouncing on the walls and you have a very high chance of finding yourself in the way. Again, and I think this is probably a change we should consider in the future.”
Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso believes the latest set of F1 regulations, which include wider cars and an emphasis on underfloor aerodynamics, have worsened visibility issues caused by spray.
“Obviously, we will keep an eye on visibility, that’s the biggest factor for us,” Alonso said. “Grip is normally fine, aquaplaning should be under control as we don’t expect huge level of rain or standing water, it’s just visibility, the biggest question mark.
“In Budapest FP1 visibility was borderline, it’s not a track-specific thing, not that Spa visibility is lower, just the nature of the cars now with the ground effect and big tyres, the spray is bigger than the past. So yeah, we need to check obviously. It is a sprint weekend so there is not a risk only of delayed or cancel one qualifying or race, now we have two qualifying and two races, so the risk is a little bit higher than a normal weekend.”
Asked about safety this weekend, reigning champion Max Verstappen said he did not view Spa-Francorchamps as the most dangerous circuit in F1.
“There’s always things that can be done better, but we’re also racing in Monaco which I think is way more dangerous than here,” he said. “But we race there because it’s deemed safe enough.
“Accidents happen unfortunately, and when you look back at the accident that happened it was just extremely unfortunate the way that it happened.
“I don’t think there’s a lot you can do or change for it to be a lot safer because there are also other tracks out there where if you have a crash then you are back onto the track and there is very low visibility then it can happen again.
“It’s a bit unlucky as well in a way that it happens at Spa two times quite closely to each other.”