The 2021 Belgian Grand Prix in Spa was red flagged and did not resume after two laps behind the safety car, becoming the first race in seven years to suffer this fate.
When it comes to rain and the Spa Francorchamps circuit, they are a match made in heaven. Situated in the picturesque Ardenne mountains, the circuit has been frequented by rain for many years in the F1 calendar. The 1998 Belgian Grand Prix saw torrential rain which saw a 13-car pileup at the start of the race. 23 years later, torrential rain at Spa saw the race red-flagged and despite a wait of three hours, two laps were completed behind the safety car. The race could not be resumed and Max Verstappen was declared the winner with half the points.
There have been 20 instances in the history of F1 where the races have been red-flagged due to rain. The first instance in racing was in the 1950 Indianapolis 500 race. But, when one talks about F1, the first instance of race being red-flagged due to mist and rain was the 1971 Canadian Grand Prix. Since then, rain has played a part in red-flagging the race. The 2021 red flag of the Belgian Grand Prix was the first instance since the 2014 Grand Prix in Japan. It was the race that also involved a tragedy.
The 2014 Japanese Grand Prix was held in the pouring rain. Typhoon Phanfone had battered Japan, not even sparing the Suzuka circuit. The surface was totally wet and visibility was poor. The qualifying and practice sessions were held on drier and in better conditions. But, on race day, Phanfone lashed down with fury. The temperature had fallen to 20 degrees and the track temperature was 24 degrees. This meant that teams and drivers would struggle for grip.
There was no formation lap and the race continued. Marcus Ericsson lost control of his car and spun into the gravel. The poor visibility resulted in world champion Lewis Hamilton complaining to the authorities about the safety of the race. Following on Hamilton’s complaint, the race was suspended after two laps.
After 20 minutes, the race began behind the safety car. The rain had eased and driving became much easier. The 53-lap race was delayed twice now and it was now a matter of strategy. Hamilton was battling it out with Nico Rosberg for the lead. The British driver got the lead after Rosberg lost control of the car heading into the pitlane.
However, the normal conditions in the race did not last. Heavy rain lashed Suzuka on lap 36. Many of the drivers, who were on intermediate tyres, switched to full wets following the rain. The weather continued to deteriorate, thus the DRS, the device that provided an extra boost of speed was disabled. Low cloud cover meant that visibility was poor.
On lap 43, disaster struck. Jules Bianchi lost control of his Marussia at 213 km/h, veering right towards the run-off area outside the Dunlop Curv. He crashed hard into the tyre wall. Although he applied his throttle and brake pedals simultaneously, his fail-safe system did not work because the settings of his brake-by-wire system were incompatible. Bianchi collided with the left-rear wheel of the tractor crane. This caused extensive damage to his car; its roll bar was destroyed as it slid underneath.
The force of Bianchi’s impact was calculated at having a g-force of 254. Bianchi was reported unconscious after not responding to a team radio call or marshals. Marshals reported the accident, and safety and medical cars were dispatched. Bianchi was extricated from his car and treated at the crash site before being taken by ambulance to the circuit’s medical centre. Transport by helicopter was impossible due to the weather, so Bianchi was taken by ambulance with a police escort to Mie Prefectural General Medical Center in Yokkaichi, about 15 km from the circuit.
The race was red-flagged on lap 46 and the winners were announced in the running order at lap 44. Hamilton won the race but all eyes were on Bianchi. He was in critical condition with a head injury and was undergoing an operation to reduce severe cranial bleeding. Doctors tried hard to save his life. But, on October 25, 20 days after the end of the Grand Prix, Bianchi died from the injuries that he sustained. This was the first driver death in F1 since Aryton Senna in Imola in 1994.
20 years before the disaster at Suzuka, the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix was also held in torrential rain. The race was suspended for 45 minutes. With conditions deteriorating, the race was red-flagged. Had the race been allowed to continue until 75 percent of the laps, full points would have been awarded. Prost could have had six points from a second-place (or nine for a win) instead of 4.5 points from the half-race win. Prost eventually lost the championship to Niki Lauda by only half a point.
The abandonment at Spa was years of lessons learned from previous disasters, including 2014 and 1984. There were instances when there were multiple car pile-ups, notably Brazil 2012, the 2007 European Grand Prix and the 1998 race at Spa. The decision to not race in treacherous conditions is praiseworthy. Afterall, safety first should be the main priority.