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Opinion
Formula 1 British GP

The Silverstone test that could save driver lives and tracks from layout changes

OPINION: The Formula 1 grid were united in their response to Dilano van 't Hoff's tragic death at Spa last weekend, which remained in their minds throughout the Austrian Grand Prix weekend. They want action as a result and this chimes with a welcome new safety plan already in development that should make wet weather racing safer

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, in the pit lane

The accident that tragically claimed Dilano van 't Hoff's life happened nearly 600 miles from the Red Bull Ring. But the Formula 1 drivers were united in their reaction last weekend.

They spoke eloquently and thoughtfully in the hours after the news of the Dutchman’s death had reached Austria from Spa. And many did so again following the grand prix won by Max Verstappen – an event preceded by a minute’s silence for van 't Hoff, with the F1 drivers wearing black armbands.

Any motorsport fatality is terrible and requires proper investigation and assessment. But, with F1 heading back to Spa in three weeks and the memories of Anthoine Hubert’s death there in 2019 still so fresh, that track is under a specific focus right now.

Regarding the circumstances of van 't Hoff's death, the F1 drivers had three overarching reactions – all aimed at ensuring the same conversations aren’t required again, at least any time soon. Because motorsport always will be a risk. It’s about minimising that where possible. These suggestions cover three areas for further improvement that would benefit categories across motorsport: barrier placement, race control decision making in wet races and the visibility problem in those conditions.

“Consider for these tracks with very, very high speeds, to have the walls further away from the track,” suggested Charles Leclerc. “So, when they lose the car, they don't bounce on the wall and come back on the track. They probably stop more to the left or more to the right, but at least they don't bounce back on the track.”

Spa has taken steps to improve in this area with its run-off extension, barrier adjustments and gravel trap additions following Hubert’s 2019 death, which were also aimed at attracting additional motorcycling championships including MotoGP. But van 't Hoff's crash occurred further down the course on the Kemmel Straight from where Hubert was killed, which suggests there is still work to do – amongst the tricky, elevated forest location of that section of Spa.

Verstappen sagely pointed out – from alongside Leclerc in the post-GP press conference in Austria – that the barrier positioning issue isn’t unique to Spa and that it can cause problems for drivers in other ways.

F1 drivers spoke eloquently on the safety improvements that can and should be made after news of van 't Hoff's accident

F1 drivers spoke eloquently on the safety improvements that can and should be made after news of van 't Hoff's accident

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“[Eau Rouge and Raidillon are] for sure, quite dangerous corners, but we're also going to Jeddah in sector one [there] and that, for me, is probably more dangerous,” he explained. “I’m happy that nothing has happened yet in that sector because going through [Turns] 6, 7, 8 – if you have a shunt there that can be the same.

“It's all blind, you don't know what's coming.”

Verstappen also said it was “unfair to just blame it on the track” in the case of van 't Hoff's death, as he feels the Formula Regional Championship by Alpine race shouldn’t have been restarted in such heavily wet circumstances.

“I think in the first place you have to look into why they did restart,” he added. “It's a big championship, a lot of cars. They are up and coming talents, they probably risk a bit more, because they want to show every race that they are the best driver out there.

"Thirty years ago, the amount of spray there was, I'm pretty sure it was less. Because the downforce now is more and more. And with the spray it’s just going much higher up" Charles Leclerc

“And with that visibility, it was just impossible to see anything. I know, from your mind when you're going there, you don't see anything. You’re like: ‘well, I guess the guy in front of me is flat, so I just stay flat out’. And that's exactly probably what happened there. The drivers are just staying flat because they didn't know there was a car in the wall and then another car in the wall later on.”

Sergio Perez also suggested: “I think sometimes race directors are pushed, probably fans and social media, people sitting back at home, thinking that the circuit looks fine to race, but the visibility is just the most important [element to consider]”.

It’s not just a case of ensuring races are only held when track conditions dictate they can be – because the accident that claimed Hubert started with another driver going off through Eau Rouge in dry conditions. But the run-off changes to that area completed in time for 2022 were aimed at minimising the risk of that happening again.

There have been some massive crashes at the same spot in the years since 2019. And until last weekend none were fatal. But they have all involved cars racing in other categories – mainly sportscars.

Barriers have been moved further away from the track on the run to Eau Rouge and Raidillon, but more work can be done to improve safety

Barriers have been moved further away from the track on the run to Eau Rouge and Raidillon, but more work can be done to improve safety

Photo by: AG Photo

This has led to suggestions a more fundamental change is required – perhaps just for single seaters at Spa. Maybe a completely different homologated layout for these machines, where they cannot take Eau Rouge at full pelt and are slower either at the foot of the hill or somewhere on it.

Traditionalists might not agree, but such a change should, at the very least, now be considered. But there is a plan already in the works that would help with the spray issue on modern single seaters – an issue not just common at Spa.

“With cars in general, motorsport now, the same [visibility issues arise],” said Leclerc. “Formula 4, 30 years ago, the amount of spray there was, I'm pretty sure it was less. Because the downforce now is more and more. And with the spray it’s just going much higher up.

“As Max was explaining, you don't see. You are just hoping that the guy in front is flat out and that there are no cars in the middle of the road. But this is not enough.”

The FIA is already taking steps to try and fix this issue. And a post-British GP test will hopefully provide some more clues in how successful its plan will one day be.

This is that the wheel arch, mudguard-like, parts it is currently developing with the assistance of F1 teams will be trialled on a real car for the first time. The governing body doesn’t like that tag – it wouldn’t allow single-seater events to take place with mud on a circuit, which is correct – but it is the most simple way of conveying what it’s trying to do. And this effort should be applauded.

On 13 July, Mercedes and McLaren will take part in a test on the Silverstone National circuit, which will involve soaking the Wellington straight and then sending a W14 and a MCL60 around. Only the Mercedes will be fitted with the new arch devices, which will sit over both the front and rear axles. The McLaren is there to provide a back-to-back assessment of how the spray is distributed with nothing over its wheels. The test will be filmed and studied by the FIA’s researchers, who are also set to gather aerodynamic data on how the arches impact air to cars following behind.

Persistent bad weather turned the 2021 Belgian GP into a farce and prompted the FIA to explore special measures

Persistent bad weather turned the 2021 Belgian GP into a farce and prompted the FIA to explore special measures

Photo by: Erik Junius

These have been designed by the FIA and put into production by Mercedes – although if they are eventually allowed into F1 no aerodynamic development would be allowed. It is understood that there are plans to trial lights similar to the rain and energy harvesting warning variety added to modern rear wings on the arches, as well as headlight devices – although these would be more to aid drivers spotting other cars in their mirrors in the wet, rather than illuminating the track ahead.

The arches won’t be detachable in the in-race sense. If they are required, a race would either be delayed while they are fitted – in the case of extreme wet weather near the start time, such as in Singapore last year. Or if a downpour breaks out – as in Japan 2022 – the race would be stopped and the devices added as part of the red flag requirements to fit full wet tyres. If races then dry during green flag action, the arches would be left in place to the finish. And in quickly drying, or mixed, conditions such as the Austria sprint race, it is understood that they wouldn’t be fitted at all.

The test will be filmed and studied by the FIA’s researchers, who are also set to gather aerodynamic data on how the arches impact air to cars following behind

Eventually, if they prove to be safe, reliable and effective – it stands to reason they will become mandatory in other single seater categories as well, over the years ahead.

It was the 2021 Spa washout that spurred motorsport’s stakeholders into action on this plan, which was first announced following the F1 Commission meeting at the Abu Dhabi GP that concluded last season. For F1, reducing the possibility of races being cancelled in that manner and that impacting on commercial grounds is an added bonus to the improved safety factor.

Inevitably, there will be discussions about the aesthetic appeal of the new devices. But, just as that got tedious very fast with the cockpit halo device, any attempt to avoid such devastating news coming out from Spa once again at any track around the world should be welcomed.

F1's upcoming test into dispersing spray could prove important in preventing future disasters

F1's upcoming test into dispersing spray could prove important in preventing future disasters

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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