What’s the point in wets if we can’t race in the rain?
The crowd in the Luffield Grandstand had been wowed by the Red Arrows. The stunningly choreographed air display hinting at a level of brain-mangling danger right before their very eyes.
The jet engines of the Hawks didn’t require full throttle to drown out the V6 turbos of the F1 cars as the drivers took to the track for the installation laps, but the roar of the crowd as Lewis Hamilton drove by was louder than them all. The sense of tension and excitement was clear.
Then, in almost clichéd English summer fashion, a brief rainstorm blew in. It was hard, but fast, and passed almost as quickly as it arrived, soaking the track in its passage. But the rain had stopped well before the confirmation came that there would be a Safety Car Start. Surely the three least exciting words in motorsport now that Fuel Corrected Qualifying is a dim and distant memory.
The groan from the fans was audible, but their enthusiasm was not dampened as 22 of the best drivers in the world, in the fastest and most expensive racing cars in the world, took to the track behind a Mercedes road car and drove around for 10 minutes, trying not to run into the back of each other as their brakes and tyres lost critical temperature.
Then, finally, the decision was taken that it was safe enough for the finest drivers of their generation to drive on a track with a bit of standing water. No sooner had the race started in anger than half the field dived into the pits to switch from full wet tyres to intermediates, making a mockery of the whole protracted start process.
While I fully understand that global TV coverage means that races have to start on time, and that with the drivers not having experienced the conditions it was probably unwise to set them out racing without a decent opportunity at a sighting lap, I’m also left utterly bemused by what are considered to be safe conditions to race in these days.
If the track was too unsafe to race on one lap, it simply cannot be the case that on the very next lap it’s dry enough for intermediates. Something has gone very wrong here. Traditionally wet races have been opportunities for career defining drives, a chance for great drivers in average cars to redress the balance – Senna in Portugal in 85, Schumacher in Spain in 96, Vettel at Monza in 2008. In fact, just a month or so before that unexpected win for Toro Rosso, Hamilton had produced one of his finest-ever drives at a sodden Silverstone. These days it feels that he’d have driven around behind Bernd Maylander for a couple of hours before being carried onto the podium just in case he might slip on a treacherous damp step.
Now I know that I am out of step with the prevailing wisdom in the world now. When I go down to the park with my two-and-a-half year-old twin girls and their scooters, I am always amazed at the safety gear some of the other toddlers are kitted out in. They are scooters for goodness sake, at best they are going to hit 5mph. Sure, we’ve had a few moments, a couple of cut knees and tears, but they aren’t exactly descending the Pyrenees with Chris Froome are they?
But there are again I come from an era when kids were allowed to play outside, when I knocked myself out pulling some stupid stunt on my Chipper on more than one occasion and was encouraged to learn by trial and error, rather than sitting in my room watching YouTube clips of someone else playing computer games…
The fans at Luffield, and the other 100,000 or so that had flocked to Silverstone to watch the pinnacle of motorsport, deserved much better than the staggeringly underwhelming sight of a safety car start. In fact, by the time the field got around to us, Hamilton was already two seconds up the road and most of the pack was thoroughly spaced out.
While the race itself wasn’t too bad once it finally got going, with Max Verstappen endearing himself massively to the crowd with his gutsy drive, I can’t help feeling it would have been even better if it had started properly ie with all the cars lined up two by two on the grid.
The Merc getaways haven’t been great this year, and a proper start would have provided an opportunity for Verstappen or someone else to really get amongst them. I suspect that the pace of the Merc means that even if he had lost out at the start, Hamilton would have fought his way through to win. It would have just been a much more exhilarating spectacle.
If in the post-Bianchi world of over-cautiousness and safety paranoia, F1 is no longer prepared to race in the wet, let’s at least acknowledge it. Let’s dispense with the illusion and get rid of the wet tyres all together. It would save a lot of money after all.
I once did a karting event at night in conditions as bad (or worse) than those at the start of the British GP, only it never let up. And the whole field managed to safely complete the 90-minute race without injury… on slicks. While there were a couple of handy drivers there that night, most people out there wouldn’t have been able to heel and toe if their life depended on it. But what they did do was drive to the limit of their abilities in those conditions. And if a bunch of corporate karters can get their head around that, why the hell can’t the best drivers and teams in the world?
Photo: Getty Images