In The Driver's Seat

Excessive caution often wet blanket for drivers, fans

Cast your mind back to, say, 1968 at the daunting Nurburgring, where Jackie Stewart won by four minutes after dominating a German Grand Prix run in rain and fog, and you might be tempted to ask what's changed so much in Formula One that these days wet races need to be started behind a safety car.

Such a race would not be started at all today, where the slightest hint of precipitation seems to invoke near hysteria among officials.

When races feature standing starts from a grid determined by speed in qualifying, there is always the chance that somebody might make a poor getaway - look what's happened several times with the Mercedes drivers and their tricky clutches this year. That means a potential change of order, which can often be a crucial factor and a matter of excitement to spectators.

Then look at the farce that was the Brazilian GP, where there were two safety car starts and three deployments because of accidents. And two red flag stoppages.

So what has changed?

So what has changed? The cars are so much safer these days... The circuits are way safer too. The answer is liability. We live in the age where everybody seems to be liable if things go wrong.

On the positive side, the cars are so much safer these days that they bear zero resemblance to their 60s counterparts. A Matra MS10 compares to a 2016 Mercedes F1 W07 Hybrid the way that, back in 1968, a 1903 Mors compared to the French blue missile that the Scot piloted.

The circuits are way safer too.

The answer is liability. We live in the age where everybody seems to be liable if things go wrong. Where the FIA, the sport's governing body, is terrified that the family of Jules Bianchi, who died after an accident in the wet at Suzuka in 2014, are going to sue. Better to be safe than sorry, even if that means riling spectators who have spent a fortune to be there in person.

For 2017 we are promised that grid starts will return even if the track is wet. I hope fervently that they do, but I'm certainly not going to hold my breath on that score.

But why is there such a problem? Why were the safety car interventions so long, when drivers of the calibre of race winner Lewis Hamilton kept reporting that the track was good to go. If you can't trust a man who has won 52 grands prix and three world championships, who can a race director trust?

The big problem in such conditions is aquaplaning, the phenomenon where a car's tyres ride up on top of standing water, and cause the driver to lose control. And it's well past time that something better was done by Pirelli to counter that.

"It's down to the tyres, not coping well with the aquaplaning," says 2016 points leader Nico Rosberg, second on Sunday afternoon and the favourite to win this year's title in Abu Dhabi on Sunday week. "We know that and we've been working on that now for next year and so we're hopeful to make progress."

Hamilton, who dominated the race for his first victory at the home of his late idol Ayrton Senna, said what so many fans longed to hear. It's not meant to be easy.

He said: "This is Formula One and the rain conditions are the trickiest conditions. If everyone just went round and didn't make mistakes, it would be too easy and then everyone could do it.

"We are going at some serious speeds and there is a lot of water to disperse by the tyres and the (current) tyre just struggles; the faster we go, the harder it is for the tyres.

"This wasn't a particularly difficult race in terms of being wet, there's been much, much worse races in terms of aquaplaning."

So, far from just falling back on a safety car start - which the fans hate - it's about time that F1 and Pirelli got their heads together and did something to alleviate the aquaplaning problem.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Excessive caution often wet blanket for drivers, fans'. Print Edition | Subscribe