“Money talks,” said Lewis Hamilton after Formula 1’s non-race debacle at Spa.
“Two laps behind the safety car to start the race was just so everyone gets their money. So I think the fans should get theirs back. I think the sport made a bad choice. There’s only one reason they sent us out…”
The two laps qualified the event as having happened, in terms of F1 getting paid by the organisers, tv and sponsors.
Hamilton is suggesting that those two safety car laps, which obviously were not actual racing, projected a cynical attitude from the sport’s top category. That doing the two payment-triggering laps without compensating the fans who’d stood for hours in the rain is not right. F1 gets its money, but the fans didn’t see a race.
Obviously, it was unfeasible for the race to go ahead. It was way too dangerous. No one is arguing otherwise.
“Beyond 200km/h,” reported George Russell, “you may as well have been driving up the straight with your eyes closed. You could see nothing.”
Even Max Verstappen, who on the initial laps behind the safety car 25 minutes after the originally scheduled start was saying he was ready to race could appreciate that he was in the privileged position, as the leader, of being able to see where he was going. “Yes, as the leading car the visibility’s a bit better,” he said.
“At 3.30pm I felt it was OK from my side but visibility behind me was obviously very bad. With recent events, we don’t want to risk a big shunt. it didn’t feel right. Grip was low, we know that. But when you don’t know where the car ahead of you is, you cannot properly race like that.”
Visibility, together with the high-speed nature of Spa, its blind crests, the 2019 F2 fatality of Anthoine Hubert, the recent hospitalisations in the Spa 24 hours, the six-car W-series accident on Friday, the enormous qualifying crash of Lando Norris on Saturday: they could not have provided a starker warning of the very obvious irresponsibility of letting the F1 pack loose in conditions of near-zero visibility. Someone was sure to get hurt, or worse – and it would have been entirely predictable in advance.
Hamilton was not arguing that the race should have happened. He was just as adamant as anyone else that it couldn’t/shouldn’t. His grievance was the message sent out by F1 of doing the payment-triggering safety car laps but not compensating the fans for not seeing an actual race, regardless of what the contracts say constitutes a race.
“There was no point at which we could race,” he said, “but there’s a rule for it to be a race: it has to be a minimum of two laps behind the safety car. That activates a bunch of things. But I think the fans should get their money back – I don’t think doing these two laps should count for the fans [as having seen a race]. We have better values than that as a sport.”
Do we? These are tough economic times for F1 and it has done a miraculous job in sustaining itself during the pandemic. Everyone involved – participants, media, fans – is fully appreciative and conversant with that.
But that should surely not extend to anything which shows anything other than enormous appreciation to its fan base – and not compensating those cheerful souls who stood there all day for nothing does not send that message of appreciation.
F1’s boss Stefano Domenicali is doing a great job in navigating F1 through the trickiest of waters in this pandemic era. But he needs to send a far stronger message out than suggesting it’s all down to the organisers rather than F1.
“It’s something that together with the organisers – we are not the ones putting out the tickets – as a sign of [paying the fans] attention, it could be done. It’s something that [could be] a gesture of attention in terms of what would be the right reward in these conditions.
“Unfortunately, the race is not there. You can pay the ticket and that’s what it is. For sure the organisers together with us will consider the maximum attention to the fans.”
That isn’t a strong enough message.
Hamilton: “They stood out there for hours in the rain, cold and wet, some of them with kids, spending money on travelling and accommodation… It’s a bit like Melbourne  when we there when we shouldn’t have been. There were some similarities to today.”
On that occasion, it was all about who got paid and the fans were casualties.
F1 is getting a lot right. But this undercurrent of cynicism towards its fanbase is not a good look.