When bad weather caused F1 chaos
Extreme weather conditions in the Emilia-Romagna region left Formula 1 no option other than to cancel the sixth round of the 2023 season at Imola. Autosport looks at previous examples of weather-blighted events
Events in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region this week have rightly resulted in the cancellation of the Grand Prix at Imola. At the point the decision was taken, it was entirely feasible that the race could have taken place, but the importance of saving lives – and livelihoods – in the area was paramount.
Here’s our selection of some of the Formula 1 events of the past that have been badly affected by adverse weather conditions…
1966 Belgian Grand Prix
Brabham was among the survivors at Spa in 1966 as Stewart was caught out in the treacherous conditions
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Spa is notorious for its changeable weather, and just three years earlier the 1963 Belgian GP had been desperately wet, dominated by Lotus maestro Jim Clark.
In 1966, it was the sudden deluge that enveloped the field halfway around the opening lap that resulted in chaos, and provided a trigger to Jackie Stewart kicking off his safety campaign. Just seven of the 15 starters filed through at the end of lap one, and among those missing was the Scot, who was being extracted from the wreckage of his BRM by team-mate Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant. They laid him in a barn, while removing his fuel-soaked overalls.
Remarkably, those who completed the first lap all finished, with John Surtees taking victory in his Ferrari after passing the Cooper-Maserati of Jochen Rindt at three-quarters distance.
Stewart was on his way to hospital in Liege, but only after being left on the floor on his stretcher in the ‘medical centre’, and via a detour after the ambulance driver got lost.
Typically for Spa, the weather had been fine in the build-up to the race, with Saturday qualifying even delayed while the local pompiers put out a fire that had broken out in the woods at Burnenville.
1975 British Grand Prix
An expensive car park forming at Club, including early leader Hunt, caused the 1975 British GP to be stopped
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Few would attempt to compare a flat former airfield on the Northamptonshire/Buckinghamshire border with the rolling Ardennes hills, but there can be similarities…
There have been plenty of wet grands prix at Silverstone over the years, but this one is infamous because, much like the 1966 Belgian GP at Spa, it was a wet-dry track that caused chaos.
The race had begun in the dry, with Carlos Pace leading in his Brabham before Clay Regazzoni took over for Ferrari. But a sudden rain shower just after one-quarter distance resulted in most of the field heading for the pits to switch to wet-weather tyres. One of those who stayed out on slicks was James Hunt and, when the circuit dried out and those on wets returned to the pits for dry rubber, his Hesketh moved into a comfortable lead.
A failing exhaust began to hamper Hunt, and at two-thirds distance he was overhauled by the McLaren of Emerson Fittipaldi, with Pace and Jody Scheckter’s Tyrrell also moving in front. And then back came the rain…
It arrived from the south of the circuit, meaning it hit Stowe and Club corners first. Tony Brise, Scheckter, Pace, Hunt, Dave Morgan, Wilson Fittipaldi, Brian Henton and John Nicholson were involved in a pile-up at Club; Stowe claimed John Watson, Patrick Depailler, Mark Donohue and Jochen Mass.
Six cars remained on track, Emerson Fittipaldi headed for the pits for rain tyres, returned to the circuit and encountered red flags. He was the winner, but it took three days for the result to be confirmed.
1975 Austrian Grand Prix
Brambilla famously crashed shortly after taking the chequered flag for what was his only F1 win
Photo by: Motorsport Images
With its stunning location in the Styrian mountains of central Europe, the Osterreichring – these days known in its truncated form as the Red Bull Ring – was prone in mid-August to scorching heat or torrential thunderstorms.
Quite often race weekends in the summer at the venue have featured both, but only in 1975 did adverse weather result in such a severe impact upon the Austrian GP. Conditions had been dry in the build-up to the race, and continued to be so during the race morning warm-up when Mark Donohue crashed his Penske-run March at the ultra-fast first turn of Hella Licht, sustaining fatal injuries.
Rain swept in during the day, and it was home hero Niki Lauda, in the process of cruising to the world title with Ferrari, who led early on from pole. Then James Hunt moved in front with his Hesketh, only to be baulked by new team-mate Brett Lunger, allowing Vittorio Brambilla to move in front with his March.
At 29 laps – a tad over half-distance – the decision was made to wave the chequered flag. Brambilla flung an arm aloft after crossing the finish line to claim his first – and only – GP victory, and clonked into the barriers. Hunt, who was about to take his ailing Hesketh into the pits to retire, spotted the flag, changed his mind, crossed the line to take second place, and then pulled over in the pitlane exit.
As team personnel stood around wondering what to do next, there was a break in the weather and discussions began about restarting the race. But the ever-sharp March team principal Max Mosley pointed out that the waving of the chequered flag without a black flag for accompaniment meant that the race was definitively over. Only half-points were awarded, but Brambilla’s win was confirmed.
1979 Race of Champions
The non-championship Race of Champions in 1979 was belatedly held a month later than planned after snow caused the event to be postponed
Photo by: David Phipps
The British climate is temperamental at the best of times, and through the 1970s the wisdom of hosting non-championship F1 races, which traditionally acted as curtain raisers to the European leg of the grand prix season, so early in the year could be called into question.
Yes, it was a gloriously sunny Silverstone where James Hunt took victory for Hesketh in the International Trophy of 1974, but just a year earlier Jackie Stewart had triumphed at the same venue after navigating his Tyrrell through snow flurries. In 1978, again at Silverstone, Keke Rosberg scored a shock win for Theodore after nearly all the fancied runners – and some decidedly unfancied – skated off the road early in the race due to heavy rain on a newly laid, and gripless, track surface.
Things were even more slippery at Brands Hatch in the middle of March 1979, where some teams – including Ferrari all the way from Maranello – had already assembled for the Race of Champions. With six inches of snow covering the rolling Kent hills, and little chance of it melting, circuit impresario John Webb had no option but to make the decision on the Thursday afternoon to call off the event.
A new date was confirmed for the Easter weekend a month later. Brands was already slated to host a round of the Aurora British F1 Championship on that date, so paradoxically the Race of Champions was a non-championship race that awarded points – at least to some!
Ferrari hero Gilles Villeneuve took victory after passing the ailing of Lotus of reigning world champion Mario Andretti, with up-and-coming Brabham starlet Nelson Piquet also overtaking the American to claim second place. A lap down, Guy Edwards won the Aurora ‘class’ in his Fittipaldi.
1984 Monaco Grand Prix
Could Senna have taken the Toleman to victory at Monaco in 1984? It remains one of motorsport's great unanswered what-ifs
Photo by: Motorsport Images
What happened in Monte Carlo in 1984 has gone down in motorsport folklore because it cemented a win for Alain Prost and denied chasing rookies Ayrton Senna and Stefan Bellof of what could have been their maiden F1 victories.
Prost was leading in his McLaren from the fast-closing Toleman-Hart of Senna and the even-faster-gaining Tyrrell-Cosworth of Bellof when the Frenchman began gesticulating for the race to be stopped amid the worsening conditions. Senna was in the process of passing Prost for the lead along the pit straight at the end of the 32nd lap when clerk of the course Jacky Ickx brandished the red flag.
On results countback to the end of lap 31, Prost was given the verdict by 7.4s from Senna, who had carved 10.7s from the Frenchman’s advantage over the preceding three laps. Bellof, in turn, was 13.7s behind Senna and had sliced 12.7s out of the Brazilian in the same period…
Ickx, as a factory Porsche driver in the World Endurance Championship, was condemned by some for his decision, which had resulted in a victory for a car powered by a Porsche-built engine. But there’s no question that conditions were appalling.
1985 Belgian Grand Prix
Farcical scenes at Spa in 1985 caused the race to be abandoned when the track broke up in the heat
Photo by: Motorsport Images
This particular episode at Spa goes down in infamy because it was a race that was called off due to sunshine…
The circuit organisers had planned resurfacing for the winter, but bad weather – quelle surprise – meant this was delayed until the run-up to the Belgian GP, due to be run on the first weekend of June. The new surface, known as Stress Absorbing Membrane Interlayer (which sounds like the kind of title The Fall would have chosen for one of their LPs of the time) hadn’t set properly, and chunks were torn out in practice by the powerful turbo machinery. The infuriated drivers refused to race.
Retrospective: When F1 previously aborted a race at Spa
Further emergency resurfacing took place on the Saturday night and this at least allowed the Formula 3000 race to be run on Sunday, and won by the Ralt of Mike Thackwell. But even these Cosworth DFV-powered machines wrecked the track.
The Belgian GP was rescheduled for September. Naturally it was rain-affected, and Ayrton Senna took victory in his Lotus-Renault.
1991 Australian Grand Prix
The terrible conditions at Adelaide in 1991 meant the race was quickly curtailed
Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images
Everyone enjoyed the Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide. Coming as it did at the end of the season, it was either a dramatic title decider (most memorably in 1986) or a pleasant end-of-season blast around the South Australian streets.
The 1991 running should have belonged in the latter category, with Ayrton Senna already confirmed as world champion, and it was the Brazilian who headed a 1-2 on the grid from the sister McLaren-Honda of Gerhard Berger.
But rain hit the city on Sunday. This was nothing new – two years earlier, Thierry Boutsen had splashed to victory in his Williams-Renault in the 1989 finale. The field set off, but it was clear that this time the conditions were on a different level.
Nigel Mansell had just crashed his Williams out of second place, amid increasing intensity of the downpour and several other incidents, when the race was halted. Senna claimed victory, with just 14 laps of racing in the books, with Mansell reinstated in second on countback.
Half-points were awarded, meaning that sixth-placed Gianni Morbidelli, subbing at Ferrari for the sacked Alain Prost, goes down in history as scoring half a point during what amounted to a 24-minute career at the Prancing Horse!
2007 Japanese Grand Prix
Vettel famously clouted Webber under the safety car at Fuji in 2007
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
Last autumn, the wisdom of holding the Japanese GP in October was called into question because of that month’s perilous proximity to the country’s rainy season, coming as it did just three years after qualifying had been shifted to race morning due to typhoon warnings. Indeed, the 2022 race resulted in utter confusion before confirmation arrived that race winner Max Verstappen was world champion. But such criticism isn’t really fair, because Japan is always liable to be hit by sudden, heavy rain, whatever time of year it is.
The country’s maiden F1 GP in 1976, of course, resulted in that famous wet race at Fuji won by Mario Andretti for Lotus, and where James Hunt snatched the title from the grasp of the heroic Niki Lauda. In 2005 at Suzuka, wet weather played havoc with the one-at-a-time qualifying system in place at the time, resulting in most of the leading contenders starting towards the back of the grid and one of the greatest grands prix of the 21st century.
Few could claim that of the 2007 running at Fuji. First, the circuit, back on the F1 schedule for the first time since 1977, was a shadow of its former self following a massive revamp. And then, for 42 minutes, the field droned around behind the safety car while officials worked out whether it was dry – and safe – enough to let the racers loose.
Finally they did after 19 laps, and poleman Lewis Hamilton went on to take honours in his McLaren-Mercedes from the Renault of Heikki Kovalainen, and apparently take a big step towards winning the world title as a rookie, since just two rounds remained…
2009 Malaysian Grand Prix
Button was the leader when the 2009 Malaysian GP was stopped, and never restarted
Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images
For the first time since the 1991 Australian GP, half-points were awarded for a race, which in this case ran to just past half-distance before being abandoned due to heavy rain that had hit the Sepang circuit.
Jenson Button had won the season-opening race in Melbourne at the wheel of his Mercedes-powered Brawn, and claimed pole in Malaysia. He ran third early on after a poor start, but leapfrogged early leader Nico Rosberg’s Williams and second-placed Jarno Trulli’s Toyota during the first round of pitstops to move in front.
When the rain arrived, the majority of runners headed to the pits for wet-weather tyres. But the water soon dispersed, and intermediates became the rubber of choice. A subsequent sudden downpour resulted in Sebastien Buemi and Sebastian Vettel – both on wets – spinning out and conditions declared too dangerous to continue. Button was declared the winner from the BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld.
2021 Belgian Grand Prix
The shambolic 2021 Belgian GP never truly got going
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
The visit to Spa two years ago is a black mark in F1 history, not necessarily because of the torrentially wet conditions, but because of its abandonment after just two laps behind the safety car – ostensibly in order to fulfil obligations to ticket holders for some sort of ‘race’ to have taken place.
That was a shame, because Saturday’s wet qualifying had featured some intriguing and exciting elements, none more so than George Russell stunning everyone by wrestling his Williams-Mercedes onto the front row of the grid alongside the Red Bull-Honda of poleman Max Verstappen.
That, of course, is how they finished after 3m27.071s of ‘racing’ behind Bernd Maylander in the safety car.
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