It was the moment that defined the Tuscan Grand Prix. Four cars were taken out on the spot, the race was suspended for over 20 minutes as a result of it, and when it restarted, Lewis Hamilton took the lead back from Valtteri Bottas, which he held until the chequered flag.
A stewards inquiry followed, resulting in 12 drivers being issued warnings but no single driver taking the full blame for the accident or being penalised with anything more than a slap on the wrist. So was it simply a racing incident or was there more that could have been done to avoid the carnage at the start of lap seven of the Tuscan Grand Prix?
Absolute. Carnage. pic.twitter.com/icGLWjEA4d
— ESPN F1 (@ESPNF1) September 13, 2020
What do the rules say?
A Safety Car restart is a fairly common occurrence in F1, so it was strange that this one caused such a big accident.
The rules around the restart are well tested and relatively simple.
When it’s safe to resume racing, Race Control will notify the teams that the Safety Car will return to the pits on that lap. The Safety Car continues to lead the pack on its in-lap but at a pre-designated point towards the end of the lap, the orange lights on its roof are turned off.
This is the signal to the lead car that it is now in control of the pace of the field. Prior to that moment the lead car must stay within 10 car-lengths of the Safety Car, but from that point onwards it « may dictate the pace and, if necessary, fall more than ten car lengths behind it ».
The rules add that all drivers must « proceed at a pace which involves no erratic acceleration or braking nor any other manoeuvre which is likely to endanger other drivers or impede the restart ».
In controlling the pace of the pack, the lead car must not repass the Safety Car while it is still on track — a moment that is helpfully defined by a white line next to the pit entry. Cross that before the Safety Car does and you’re in trouble.
Finally, no overtaking is permitted until the cars cross the start/finish line (sometimes referred to as the control line).
So what went wrong?
There are three variables in that procedure that change from track to track. One is the positioning of the start/finish line relative to the Safety Car line at pit entry, another is the Safety Car line relative to the point at which the lights go out on the Safety Car, and the final one is the sequence of corners or straights around those various different points. They may seem like minor details, but they inevitably dictate the race leader’s tactics when restarting the race.
The long pit straight at Mugello and the positioning of the Safety Car line and start/finish line meant Bottas could easily come under threat from the cars behind if they gained a slipstream at the restart. Naturally he was keen to minimise that advantage, and drivers have two main tactics for doing that.
One, which often results in relatively dull restarts, is to create a big gap to the Safety Car in which to accelerate. That tactic is aided if there is a corner in the mix as a driver can rely on the turbulent air coming off his car to make it more difficult for the car behind.
Mugello’s layout would allow for such a tactic, but the timing of when the Safety Car turns off its lights is crucial and on Sunday it came just as the Safety Car entered the final corner. That meant Bottas did not have the time to create a gap to drive into as he had to remain within ten car lengths of the Safety Car until that moment. Had he accelerated immediately, he would have caught the Safety Car before it re-entered the pits and so he was left with no choice but to continue slowly around the final corner.
From that point it was all about minimising the slipstream the cars behind would gain. The only way to do that was to leave his point of acceleration to the last possible moment, which is exactly what he did.
Some teams have noted that the moment at which the Safety Car turns off its lights, which is decided prior to the race, has got later and later in recent races. There is a theory that that has been done on purpose in an attempt to recreate the dramatic Safety Car restarts we often see at Baku and Interlagos, where the long straight and positioning of the start/finish line means drivers do not have a corner to pull a gap on the rest of the field.
After the race, Bottas revealed that Mercedes had raised the issue with the FIA ahead of the race, but Race Control decided not to alter the point at which the Safety Car lights would go out. While it is undoubtedly more exciting to bunch the pack ahead of the restart by minimising the distance with which the lead car can control the pace of the pack, there is a fine line between excitement and a big accident. In Mugello we ended up with the latter.
By leaving Bottas without the option to use the final corner to pull a gap on Hamilton, if he wanted to maintain his lead he had no option but to leave his restart late as possible.
Switch the attention to the rear of the field and the drivers there are also looking to gain an advantage at the restart. Assuming the cars all accelerate out of the final corner, the best way to do that is to leave a bigger than normal gap to the car in front but second guess the timing of the restart and get on the throttle before anyone else. That’s exactly what George Russell tried to do in 11th place, prompting the cars behind to do the same in the belief the race was back underway. The only problem with that tactic was that Russell soon had to back out when he realised Bottas was still backing the field up.
Russell had plenty of time to slow his car, but much like a pile-up on the motorway, it was the cars behind that got caught out. The driver of an F1 car is buried deep inside the cockpit and visibility beyond the two-metre wide car in front is not good. There are no brake lights and the acceleration and deceleration forces are several times greater than those of a road car. What’s more, to get the best slipstream advantage from the car in front, drivers try to stay as close as possible and directly behind to the car in front.
So while Russell had time to realise what was going on and slow down, behind him the pack concertinaed. Kevin Magnussen in 12th hit the brakes hard to avoid Russell, forcing Nicholas Latifi, who had run out of braking distance, to swerve to the left of Magnussen. But while Latifi just had enough time to turn to avoid a collision, the next car in line, Antonio Giovinazzi, was left with zero options and ploughed into Magnussen. Carlos Sainz joined the accident in the same fashion and, such was the force of the cars hitting from behind, Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo was pushed up on its side and the three-car accident enveloped Latifi’s slowing Williams to the left.
The result was four cars out of the race and a lengthy stoppage. Fortunately, none of the drivers were harmed.
That moment is pre-agreed as just as the Safety Car is turning into the final corner, meaning Bottas did not have enough time to back off to create the gap he needed to the Safety Car (while sticking to the ten car lengths rule) and try to gain an advantage over Hamilton behind him through the final corner.
The blame game
Initially, the blame was directed at Bottas as the driver who had backed up the pack in the first place. Romain Grosjean, who narrowly avoided the collision, opened his team radio and pointed the finger firmly at the front of the pack.
« That was f—ing stupid from whoever was at the front, » Grosjean said as he narrowly avoided the collision between teammate Kevin Magnussen, Antonio Giovinazzi, Nicholas Latifi and Carlos Sainz. « They want to kill us or what? This is the worst thing I have seen ever. »
But a quick glance at the Safety Car rules mentioned above tells you that Bottas did nothing wrong. Instead, those at the front of the field redirected the blame at the timing of the Safety Car’s lights going out.
« The difference this year has been the Safety Car; they are putting the lights off quite late, so you can only build the gap pretty late on, » Bottas explained. « So, of course when you’re in the lead you try to maximise your chances and I’m not at all to blame for that.
« Everyone can look at everything they want for it. I was doing consistent speed until I went. Yes, I went late but we start racing from the control line, not before that. So the guys behind who crashed because of that, they can look in the mirror.
« There’s no point whining about it. It’s just… the FIA or FOM, I don’t know who’s deciding what’s happening with the Safety Cars, but they’re trying to make the show better by turning the lights off later, so we can’t build a gap early and then go like the corner before the race start. They do it in the main straight, so maybe it’s time to think if that’s right and safe to do so. »
Red Bull’s Alex Albon, who stood to gain from the lights going off later on the Safety Car, agreed with Bottas.
« I think when you put the control lines so far in front and then also leave the lights so late it’s pretty obvious where Valtteri’s going to take off, » he said. « He’s going to take off as late as he can and I imagine the midfield know when Valtteri’s going to go and they are also trying to get a slingshot, and then when Valtteri doesn’t go when they think he’s going to go, that’s when the concertina happens and it’s dangerous but it’s predictable as well in that sense because the closer you leave it or the less time you leave, the shorter time Valtteri has to go so it’s quite easy to read.
« I don’t know if you saw but the top five were all almost doing a double formation start because we were all just waiting for the take-off. It’s dangerous. I think tracks like this are always going to be difficult as well, with long straights but definitely something could have been done better. »
Lewis Hamilton agreed and questioned the safety of the current system.
« Ultimately, these races can get boring when everyone streams out and there’s such big gaps between everyone and so this does bring it back it in. They do it in NASCAR; they put out the yellow flag all the time and safety cars, whatever, all the time to keep the race exciting.
« But they definitely need to take into account the safety aspect because today wasn’t particularly safe with the restart. I could almost see that coming. I’m sure they will learn from it and we will move together, the sport together. »
The fact that Mercedes raised the issue with the FIA prior to the race raises some questions around the handling of the restart. But when those questions were put to race director Michael Masi after the race, he defended the timing of the lights going out on the Safety Car.
« Simply put, [the drivers] can criticise all they want, if we have a look at a distance perspective from where the lights were extinguished to the control line, it was probably not dissimilar, if not longer, than a number of other venues, » he said. « The Safety Car lights go out where they do, the Safety Car is in pit lane, we have the 20 best drivers in the world, and as we saw earlier in the Formula 3 race, those drivers in the junior category had a very, very similar restart to what was occurring in the F1 race and navigated it quite well, without incident. »
He added: « I don’t think there’s any need to review the Safety Car restart rule. »
On the subject of whether recent calls from Race Control, including three red flag periods in the last three races, were aimed at injecting excitement into races perhaps at the expense of safety, Masi added: « Absolutely not.
« From an FIA perspective, safety is paramount full stop. End of story. In my capacity as race director and safety delegate, point blank that’s where my role is as sporting integrity and safety. And anyone who says otherwise is quite offensive personally. »
Asked who was to blame, he added: « I’m not going to go into a blame part. But at the end of the day the key part is the drivers were all advised, very clearly at the drivers meeting on Friday night, that there was two key parts to remind them, one was to ensure they don’t overtake the Safety Car before the Safety Car line at pit entry, the second part was, which is unusual for this circuit, is the control line where they can overtake is located close to the pit lane exit.
« It’s not a surprise, and we’ve seen similar matters in Baku with such a long run to the control line, where the leader — who has every right to dictate the pace — has kept it quite slow to try and avoid a slipstream from the cars behind. Regarding who was to blame in which area I’ll let the stewards decide. »
If F1 returns to Mugello, the drivers would almost certainly be more aware of the dangers posed by a restart at that particular circuit. It’s hard to blame anyone other than the drivers themselves when the rules are set out in black and white and they are ultimately in control of when they accelerate.
But given the potential for the accident to be nastier than it was, it is surprising that the FIA has no plans to review the procedure at future races.