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Opinion
Formula E Rome ePrix I

The safety considerations prompted by Formula E's Rome pile-up

OPINION: The multi-car crash during Saturday’s Formula E race in Rome spotlights the need to constantly reassess safety-impacting issues as the series cranks up the power levels

Marshals remove the car of Sam Bird, Jaguar Racing, Jaguar I-TYPE 6, with a crane after a big crash on the 9th lap

The temperature went up drastically last weekend in Rome, both on and off the track. The Formula E title battle reached fever pitch when championship rivals and childhood friends Mitch Evans and Nick Cassidy collided, paving the way for Jake Dennis to put one hand on the title. A 24-point lead ahead of the London E-Prix double-header at the end of the month places Dennis firmly in the pound seats.

PLUS: How Dennis conquered Rome to lay siege to the Formula E title

The events of Sunday and their title ramifications somewhat overshadowed what had happened the day before when, for a few seconds, everyone held a collective breath following the biggest crash in Formula E history.

The wide eyes and heavy breathing captured by the onboard camera on Edoardo Mortara’s car, just seconds after his huge head-on impact with the stricken machine of Sam Bird, made it clear for everyone to see what immense forces the Maserati MSG driver and others had endured. Over the following minutes the full scale of the crash soon began to emerge with six cars eliminated – four of which were essentially put in the bin – while a further four machines were repaired under the red flag and able to form up for the subsequent restart.

Thankfully, and almost incredibly, all drivers were able to walk away unharmed, but it had been a close call. Mortara’s big impact with Bird took place just slightly behind the Jaguar’s safety cell and not quite at a 90-degree angle, although the incident instantly brought flashbacks to the crash that claimed the life of Dilano van’t Hoff recently, albeit in somewhat different circumstances.

And there was no doubt that the halo protected Antonio Felix da Costa from serious injury after the Porsche driver went underneath Sebastien Buemi’s car. The Envision Racing driver was the first on the scene and hit Bird after the Briton had lost control on the high-speed, left sweep of Turn 6 and finished broadside across the track. The incident was not the first to take place along that part of the track, which is a blind, uphill section that is notoriously bumpy, after it had already claimed Andre Lotterer earlier in the race and Jake Hughes in qualifying.

With emotions understandably high after the pile-up, there were calls for changes to be made to the circuit. Bird described the bumps and raised drain covers as “too much” and called for modifications to be made ahead of next year.

But do the drivers have a point? The current configuration of the Circuito Cittadino dell’EUR street circuit in Rome has been used since 2021 and, while bumps along that section have always been noticeable, they’ve never posed a significant problem until now.

The increased speeds of the Gen3 cars mean sections of track, like Rome's Turn 6, are now a considerably greater challenge

The increased speeds of the Gen3 cars mean sections of track, like Rome's Turn 6, are now a considerably greater challenge

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

While the circuit has remained unchanged over the last three years, what has altered are the cars, with the new-for-2023 Gen3 machine being quicker than its predecessor. It means certain corners once taken flat-out now pose a greater challenge, as was the case with Turn 6 in Rome where drivers needed to blend off the throttle heading into the bend before getting back to full power. Bird also pointed out that the Hankook tyres, which are new for this season, have a harder sidewall structure, meaning “every time you hit a bump it sort of pings the car up in the air a little bit more”.

There are certainly no plans to slow the cars down, with the tender for the Gen4 machines that was opened last month indicating that power levels are set to almost double from 350kW to a maximum of 600kW when implemented for 2026. With cars only set to get quicker, it means a greater focus is needed on evaluating whether specific corners on the calendar remain suitable given the higher speeds.

Armchair critics were quick to criticise drivers on social media for not slowing down, but replays showed that most cars were already into the unsighted accident zone before any yellow flags were deployed

Although all the tracks are subject to rigorous tests and evaluations before being approved by the FIA, it’s certainly not to say improvements can’t be made to ensure accidents like this do not become more frequent.

The most obvious solution for the Rome circuit is to at least smooth out some of the bumps along the track’s fastest section. The corner will remain a challenge, but less of a lottery with regards to how the cars react over the bumps. The FIA already stated in the aftermath of the crash that it would “review the track layout ahead of next year’s event based on potential new learnings and feedback from drivers”.

The incident also highlighted growing calls to introduce either spotters or a GPS livetracking system to alert drivers of dangers ahead. Armchair critics were quick to criticise drivers on social media for not slowing down, but replays showed that most cars were already into the unsighted accident zone before any yellow flags were deployed. As Buemi stated, “when something like that happens it’s difficult to avoid”.

The incident left many mechanics with the task of rebuilding new cars overnight. That’s a job that would normally take more than a day to complete, but all 22 drivers were able to start on Sunday. They, like many, will be hoping such multi-car crashes do not become a more regular occurrence.

Would introducing spotters, as is commonplace in oval racing, help drivers in scenarios where visibility is limited on fast, narrow street circuits?

Would introducing spotters, as is commonplace in oval racing, help drivers in scenarios where visibility is limited on fast, narrow street circuits?

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

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