George Russell urges FIA to call off wet races at Spa as another big accident 'only matter of time'

George Russell - George Russell urges FIA to call off wet races at Spa as another big accident 'only matter of time'

George Russell is worried about the poor visibility at the old circuit in Belgium – Shutterstock/Christian Bruna

George Russell says it was “only a matter of time” before a serious incident took place at Spa-Francorchamps similar to the one that cost the life of Dutch junior driver Dilano van’t Hoff earlier this month but that the Belgian circuit itself was not the issue, so much as the weather.

The British driver has urged the FIA to “be bold with their decisions this weekend when it comes to safety and visibility”, and not to succumb to fan pressure if a decision has to be made to call off any race because of conditions, be it Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix or one of the support races.

With torrential rain falling on Thursday, further downpours forecast for Friday and Saturday, and only slightly better conditions expected on Sunday, safety was easily the biggest talking point in the Spa paddock as Formula One convened for its final race before the summer break.

The death of Van’t Hoff earlier this month in an accident in FRECA (Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine) has focused minds.

The 18-year-old died after his car was tagged in wet conditions at the start of the Kemmel Straight, bouncing off a wall and out into the centre of the track whereupon it was hit by another car.

Dilano van't Hoff

Dilano van’t Hoff was killed at Spa earlier this month

That fatality occurred fewer than four years after the death of French Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert who was also hit by an unsighted driver following a multi-car collision in a similar part of the track.

Changes were made to the circuit following Hubert’s death with more run-off added at Eau Rouge and Raidillon.

Russell, who is a director of the Grand Prix Drivers Association, said it was important not to conflate two different issues.

“The two questions are 1. Is Spa safe enough? And then 2. It is a question of the conditions,” said the Mercedes driver who urged the FIA to “be bold” if the rain pours this weekend and cancel the race as they did in 2021 if the conditions demand it. Formula One was heavily criticised after deliberating at length before eventually calling off the race after two laps behind a safety car.

“We have spoken about Eau Rouge and we concluded that it doesn’t need changes,” Russell said of the circuit itself. “They have made progress with the run-off and that is the most important thing.

“Motorsport will always be dangerous when you are travelling at these speeds. If we had a ranking of risk of the circuits Spa is one of the riskier circuits, along with Jeddah and Monaco. [But] when you have the combination of the weather it is challenging.”

“We have no visibility whatsoever. To give it some perspective, it is like driving down the motorway in pouring rain and turning your windscreen wipers off. Spa is safe enough but we need to find a solution for the visibility.”

The Belgium Grand Prix had to be cut short two years ago due to horrendous conditions causing poor visibility

The Belgium Grand Prix had to be cut short two years ago due to horrendous conditions causing poor visibility – Getty Images/Lars Baron

Russell said he “feared” for the junior categories in the wet, particularly F3. “I truly think F3 should not have 30 cars on track at one time at any point, even in dry conditions. I feel like it is a matter of time before a big incident happens there, too,” he said.

But he added that Formula One was also far too dangerous if the visibility was poor. “We know the situation two years ago and we don’t want it to be as strung out as perhaps it was then,” he said. “We will need bold decisions.

“Two years ago it was the correct decision to call off the race. For one single Formula One car to drive around the conditions are safe enough and suitable enough to drive but it is when you have got 20 cars on track at once, anybody from third place backwards literally cannot see 20, 30, 40 metres ahead of them. I felt the incident that happened in Freca, that it was only a matter of time before that happened.”

Russell said Spa was particularly tricky because the circuits’ tarmac holds a lot of water, which is then “sucked up” by a F1 car and thrown into the air. Also, because of the density of the surrounding forest which does not allow the water to evaporate.

Other drivers were asked about possible modifications to the circuit to improve safety, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc suggesting the barriers at Raidillion/Kemmel Straight could potentially be moved back a bit to try to mitigate against cars bouncing back onto the circuit. But they generally agreed with Russell that the issue was more one of visibility.

“I love the track the way it is,” said seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. “I trust what the FIA are doing. We wouldn’t be here if they didn’t think we’d be safe.”

Formula 1 is a dangerous sport — losing Spa is unthinkable

The famous, old track winds its way through the Ardennes forest

The famous, old track winds its way through the Ardennes Forest – Reuters/Stephane Mahe

By Tom Cary

Lando Norris’ response said it all. Asked whether he felt Spa should be guaranteed its spot on the F1 calendar given its questionable safety record, he looked at his interlocutor as if he had two heads. “Spa for me is incredible in qualifying and incredible in racing,” said the McLaren driver, firmly. “The circuit is one of the best of the season and if you asked any driver they would say it’s one that has to stay on.”

He was not wrong. Ask any driver for their top motor-racing circuits, and Spa will certainly be on it, if not top at the very top. It may not present quite the same challenge as it did back in the 1950s, when it was the fastest road circuit in Europe — a lethal 14km gallop through the Ardennes taken at average speeds of nearly 150mph — but it is still a white-knuckle ride; the unique topography, the changeable weather, the speed of the corners making it by all accounts one of the most thrilling.

Yes, it is probably one of the more dangerous circuits on the calendar. It cannot be entirely coincidental that it has suffered two fatalities in a matter of years. Both in junior formulae and both at similar points on the circuit. One death is one too many. And the sport must always be mindful of ways to increase safety.

Eau Rouge is one of the most famous corners in F1

Eau Rouge is one of the most famous corners in F1 – Getty Images/Vladimir Rys

But risk is also a vital element of Formula One. It is partly what makes the sport so thrilling; watching a driver keeping it flat through 130R at Suzuka, or a qualifying lap like Max Verstappen’s in Jeddah (arguably the most dangerous circuit of them all) two years ago.

Crucially, the level of risk is one the drivers are prepared to take on, particularly after further modifications were made to the circuit in recent years to increase the run-off at Eau Rouge and Raidillon.

“Many sports are not safe,” pointed out George Russell when asked about safety. “If you look at cyclists going down a hill at 100mmh, they are on the edge of life and death every time they go out. Rugby players, a bad tackle can be career ending or life threatening.”

If the conditions this weekend are such that drivers cannot see anything, then of course race control must act. Until then, they should steer well clear. Spa is one of the greatest race circuits in the world, a perennial crowd pleaser (even allowing for the fact that campers invariably get drenched) and a vital link to Formula One’s past. It must be protected at all costs.

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