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Sitting here writing this in my hotel room in Austin, with the sun beaming through the windows, it’s hard to believe what a washout we experienced during practice and qualifying for the US GP at the Circuit of the Americas. It’s as if that happened somewhere else.
In the aftermath of what turned out to be a crazy, incident-filled race that cemented Lewis Hamilton’s third World Championship and had all of America talking about the sport for all the right reasons, it’s hard to believe how dire the situation had been.
I can understand why there were concerns about the proximity of lightning during the second free practice session on Friday, silly though it sounded at first. Most American entertainment venues work on the eight-mile, 30-minute rule of thumb in such circumstances. So if there is a flash of lightning detected within eight miles, and it recurs within 30 minutes, then the risk is too high. If later than 30 minutes, that’s okay. In Austin, where Texas was taking the collateral damage brunt of what Hurricane Patricia was doing further south to Mexico around the Guadalajara area, the risk at that time was deemed too high. That led to the withdrawal of the marshals from their posts around the track and, amid the gathering gloom, the eventual cancellation of the session. In a country as litigious as the USA, the organizers probably had as much choice with that course of action as did the Michelin runners when they had to withdraw at the end of the grid formation lap in Indianapolis back in 2005.
And I loved the antics in the pits as the great ‘will-it, won’t-it happen’ saga of qualifying dragged interminably on. And on. Red Bull’s two dancing Dans; Jos Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Senior preparing down at Toro Rosso to dress up and step in for their sons, who later indulged in a game of Red Bull bowling; Lewis Hamilton going onto the pitwall to wave to the fans; the Sauber crew making a towing as opposed to a rowing boat; Williams’ rowing team; and Niki Lauda and Nico Rosberg staging an impromptu soccer game. More importantly, the fans loved at all too, and appreciated the effort being made by people who were as frustrated as they were not to be able to go out and run. This was F1 spirit at its greatest, on both sides of the pitwall, which is why I thought it sad more than anything else that Ferrari chose not to participate and made sniffy statements about how this was F1 and not a circus.
So many others did their best to keep the disappointed and bedraggled people who had paid to watch entertained as much as they could be in such cold and foul conditions – and that’s how it should be. And I was massively impressed that Bernie Ecclestone made the decision to have the pitlane opened so that fans could be welcomed down to get closer to the inaction. That was a savvy bit of public relations that the sport needed at that dark moment.
But the fact remained that the fans had an awful experience on Friday and Saturday. On the first day they got only one session before being told to go home. On the second they were told the gates wouldn’t open until noon, so many of them missed what action there was, which took place in the final practice session that morning. By the time the majority trekked in after noon, all they got to see was sheets of rain and the pitlane slapstick, though to be fair nobody who had arrived earlier was turned away.
No doubt there are rules that govern the procedures and protocols in such instances, and safety must always be the primary consideration these days. But the fact remains that the US GP was a bust on those first two days and the spectators suffered even more than the sport’s image. It was as if the rationale was: we don’t know whether it will be safe, so let’s keep delaying it until it isn’t, then the decision will make itself.
I’d like to see smart brains within the F1 community tasked with formulating some sort of emergency plan that would minimize such problems in these, admittedly rare, moments, rather than just relying on ‘hurry up and wait’ tactics.
F1 dodged a bullet over the US GP weekend, as the race was brilliant. Next time it might not be so lucky.
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