Wet, Do Not Touch

Wet, Do Not Touch
by Paul Rushworth
New Zealand

This year has seen an amazing run of wet races. Apart from the Australian and San Marino Grands Prix, we have witnessed a nearly continuous run of wet tracks and the associated increase in overtaking that occurs with them.

The 1996 Spanish Grand Prix may go down in history as perhaps Michael Schumacher's greatest race, then again, it may not. Certainly, I am in no doubt of mind that it was his greatest race to date. Schumacher's complete domination of the field, in a car which few would argue is on par with the Williams, will probably go down in the history of Formula one on a par with Donington 1993, or Nurburgring 1957. The (arguably) greatest drivers and their greatest races.

Further down the field, people were left trailing in Schumacher's wake. Alesi, who has often been acknowledged for his skill in the wet, had fallen somewhat short. There was a solid performance by Barrichello, which deserved more than a retirement... while Villeneuve's performance was improved, but still lacking. Being nearly 5 seconds down on your teammate in warm up is certainly nothing to be proud of. Hill's race is perhaps better left undescribed.

For those that missed the early build up to the race, there was aa brief suggestion that the grid would be formed behind the pace car, and a rolling start would be used. Not completely with out precedence of course, a rolling start was used in Suzuka 1994 after the race was stopped part way through the event.

Despite that effort to increase safety, I have some serious reservations about the way this race was generally run and the effect wet weather has overall on safety of competitors at any event. Article 99 of the sporting regulations provides that:

"Only in the most exceptional circumstances can a delay in free practice or other difficulty on race morning result in a change to the starting time of the race."
This rule is obviously intended to insure stability of the start of broadcast times. In this case, it lead to the cancellation of part of the morning session, after Sauber driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen had a huge shunt, which caused the session to be red flagged. The only session in which the drivers had experienced wet weather all weekend and been shortened, with no further track time to set up cars much the much more demanding conditions of a wet race.

David Coulthard best summed up what the drivers thought of the conditions, speaking of his first lap retirement: "I still don't know (what happened)... I couldn't see, obviously I hit the back of someone... I couldn't see anything... I don't know who it was. With this constant rain the decision (to race) has to be questionable." Brundle also added: "Every lap it was changing. If you were by yourself you can see... something... I had a great start, went flying... couldn't see who had an accident... I guess it was a couple of McLaren's or something."

What is more disturbing from a non-drivers point of view is just trying to realise what the visibility is really like. Coulthard also said "the visibility you see at home doesn't give justice to just how difficult it is for the drivers." Try to picture just how bad it is. Play any section of front facing view on your VCR, then pick up the TV and shake it round to simulate the bumps, and remember, while the lens has a wiping mechanism to remove water, the driver's helmet has to rely on airflow.

The terrible visibility is not the only problem however. What is the most dangerous feature of the circuits is not what happens on track, but what happens when you leave it. The Spanish Grand Prix was very noticeable not for the number of people who spun off, but the number that were not stopped outright by the gravel and were able to continue. The gravel traps have shown here, and in the past (Suzuka 1995 for example), that gravel in wet weather are not effective as a means of slowing the cars down.

While it is true that lap times, and therefore speeds, are reduced during rain or a wet track... is this any comfort at all? While the drivers may leave the track at less speed, the chance of a serious accident are increased by both the likelihood of spinning increasing, and the higher impact speed which could occur as a result of the gravel traps not during there job. In my opinion, it is not a risk worth taking.

Max Mosley in a recent interview on safety did confirm that the FIA is investigating various types of devices to slow the cars down upon leaving the track, including the usage of different types of gravel. This is indeed a step in the right direction, but the people who have to take all the risks are still the drivers. It is no consolation to a driver that the FIA solve the problem after his crash. The Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) needs immediate representation within the process that decides if it is safe or not to race given certain weather conditions.

Currently, the decisions are being made by people who, while have much experience within the governing body, generally have not had experience behind the wheel of a half ton, 700 Horsepower monster. While the current drivers would probably not be directly involved in the process, experienced ex-drivers would have an important part in the determination of whether or not a race should or should not be run.

Paul Rushworth
Send comments to:paul-r@ihug.co.nz