Do Safety Car restarts need to be changed after the Mugello incident?
Does the FIA need to make a change to the Safety Car restarts after Sunday's unholy pile-up?
As the grid lined up for the restart after the opening Safety Car on lap six of Sunday's Tuscan Grand Prix, I am confident in saying no driver was ready for what happened next. As they had done so many times before, the cars lined up behind the race leader, in this case, Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas, as they waited for him to gun it and resume the race.
However, confusion somewhere in the midfield saw a gap form, to which some drivers sped up to close the gap before being left behind by the frontrunners. The drivers towards the back noticed the cars ahead speeding up and mistakenly took it as the race restart. It did not end well and that's for certain.
Suddenly, as the race eventually did get underway, a four-car pile-up of massive proportions took place in the back of the field, leaving bits of broken Formula 1 cars and shards of carbon fibre everywhere and the first of two red flags we would see in the inaugural Tuscan Grand Prix. Kevin Magnussen, Carlos Sainz, Nicholas Latifi and Antionio Giovinazzi were all out in spectacular fashion and while race stewards could not pin the blame on a single person, a total of twelve drivers were warned after the race over their actions upon the race restart.
This has sparked a lot of debate. We have seen recently the restart procedure for red flags changed in F1, where now a standing start on the grid takes place (leading to a total of three standing starts during the race on Sunday. Three!), is it time to look at changing the safety car restart procedures as well?
Mercedes AMG GT R F1 Safety Car lapping Mugello (FIA)
The answer is quite frank. No. Let's see why. Firstly, let's look at where the timing line is at Mugello. It is quite far up the main one kilometre straight, quite close to the pole position grid slot. Now, on a lot of Formula 1 circuits, this timing line (the line where laps are counted and the driver takes the chequered flag upon the end of the race), is usually quite close to the end of the final corner, (think Silverstone, Sochi or Monza), so upon a restart, the driver in front is forced to go before crossing that line, therefore reducing the risk of a traffic jam so to speak, on the straight. There's one thing that could be sorted for next year should Mugello make a return to the F1 calendar in the future.
Given the short amount of time from the circuit being confirmed on the calendar to the race being held, it was always going to be a given that the circuit would not be fully prepared for F1 and it's many procedures, another example being the length of time it took to recover Lance Stroll's Racing Point after the Canadian went off hard at turn nine on lap forty-three but these minor points are something that can always be quickly resolved. Simply moving the timing line to behind the final grid slot would prevent this from happening again. It would definitely be a disadvantage to the leader, but it would be a lot safer and as a plus, would make for an exciting first corner upon a restart too.
However, this rare occurrence is simply not an excuse for the incident. It's worth noting also that in the F3 race earlier that morning, a safety car and subsequent restart was present and on a grid with thirty cars full of young, sometimes over-enthusiastic drivers as opposed to twenty of the world's best pilots in F1, no such incident happened, an incident that would have been severely punished I'm sure had it happened in F3.
It's also worth noting that on circuits such as Albert Park, Abu Dhabi and Brazil where the timing line is further up the main straight, this type of incident has never really happened before. Sure, it's a given that these circuits have much shorter straights than the superfast straight in Mugello, but I can't comprehend that to be an excuse either.
If you look at the restart right before the incident, the thing that occurs is there were gaps in the midfield area everywhere. As they come off the final corner, there was quite the gap between fourth-placed Lance Stroll and fifth-placed Daniel Ricciardo and then again behind sixth-placed Lando Norris and seventh-placed Daniil Kvyat. As the pack descended down the straight, Esteban Ocon and Geroge Russell left a major gap back to Kevin Magnussen, to which then the bizarre incident kicked off.
Now, I am by no means an F1 driver and I am sure there is a viable explanation to these gaps but is it not in the driver's interests to stick as close to the car ahead in order to get the best slipstream upon a restart? Why were those gaps present? If this was Baku for example, drivers would be practically on top of each other for the restart to the point that they're almost side-by-side. This to me does not make any sense, and of course, as those drivers sped up slightly to close the gap, the cars behind saw the green light and presumed racing was underway again. The rest is history, chaotic history.
To prevent this, The FIA could introduce a simple rule for drivers, that when the pack is bunched up like this waiting for the leader to restart the race, they cannot be any more than three or four car lengths away from another driver on the straight. This would stop any major collisions like what we saw and again, as a plus, give all the drivers a fair shot at a slipstream on the restart.
For me, Valtteri Bottas was definitely not at fault. He was doing just as any driver would do, controlling the pace and looking for the right moment to go for it, which again, a driver is entitled to do so before the timing line. It was a crazy incident that we never have quite seen before and one we probably won't see to this extreme again.
Honestly, the Safety Car restart procedure is definitely not something that needs to be changed. As mentioned above, simple tweaks would stop something like this happening but as a whole, it was just a one-in-a-million incident. Maybe I should become an FIA steward? Oi, Michael! I'm damn good at this. Not.