No Track, Not Even Spa, Should Ever Be Above Safety

No Track, Not Even Spa, Should Ever Be Above Safety

The motorsport world held its collective breath over the weekend when Jack Aitken, a Williams reserve driver competing for Emil Frey Racing in last Saturday’s Spa 24 Hours, suffered a heavy crash exiting the ascending right-hander Raidillon.

Aitken’s Lamborghini struck the inside tire barrier to the left of Raidillon, was spit out stranded in the middle of the track and then hit at speed by two other cars. He was lucky to emerge from the incident with fractures in his collarbone and one of his vertebra, as well as a contused lung. Aitken was hospitalized, as was Davide Rigon, another driver involved. They are both recovering and seemingly in good health, all things considered.

It was a horrifying episode, as accidents at Eau Rouge and Raidillon tend to be. Anyone watching would’ve immediately thought back to Anthoine Hubert’s fatal crash in 2019 that also left Juan Manuel Correa with leg fractures and a spinal injury. Kevin Magnussen was fortunate to walk away from a big one in 2016. Alex Zanardi was hurt so badly in his crash at Eau Rouge in 1993 that he missed the remainder of that F1 season, and eight years prior to that, rising star Stefan Bellof was killed in the same place during the 1985 Spa 1000km.

These turns are among if not the most hallowed in racing, because of the same daring, stomach-churning nature that makes them so dangerous when things go wrong. After last weekend’s incident, Alfa Romeo F1 reserve driver Callum Ilott tweeted “enough is enough,” and that changes needed to be made to prevent more life-threatening wrecks.

He also fired back at a rando who, as far as I can tell, has absolutely no skin in the game:

And lest anyone criticise Ilott for not outlining exactly the changes he’d prefer, he proposed rational, measured potential solutions in response to Porsche factory driver Kevin Estre’s thoughts on the matter:

Now, Formula 1 is due to return to Spa following the three-week summer break in progress right now. F1 race director Michael Masi was asked to reflect on Ilott’s comments by Masi responded, among other things, that the track “is safe from an FIA perspective:”

“There has been some works that have been undertaken at Spa in a number of areas,” said Masi. “But the Spa circuit holds a current Grade 1 [the FIA licence required for F1 use.]

“There are a few changes and improvements that made year-on-year, but I think the way that it is, it is safe from an FIA perspective.

“None of us like to see big incidents, and I’m just glad that the drivers are relatively ok. I’ve seen a couple of the media reports today and they are good and healthy which is the important part. They’ve got a recovery ahead of them, but that is the overall aspect there.”

The problem with this answer is that Masi wasn’t asked if Spa as a whole complies with the FIA’s Grade 1 safety protocol, because of course it does. Otherwise, the track wouldn’t be on the calendar. That answer dodges the question. Not that I have any idea how Masi and his colleagues actually feel about safety at Eau Rouge and Raidillon, but I’d imagine part of the issue is that even if the FIA reckoned changes should be made, it may not have time to implement and certify them before F1 visits at the end of August.

And so, the diplomatic, non-answer answer is what we’re treated to here. Which is even more worrying than the musings of armchair pundits like that dude Ilott responded to in that second tweet above. You know — the kinds of arguments that are the verbal equivalent of a shrug, like “the drivers know what they signed up for” or “if that’s how they feel, maybe they should stick to sim racing.” The dudes who think that because there will always be some inherent risk to motorsport, it’s pointless to strive for safety improvements. If a driver dies doing what they loved, it just couldn’t be helped.

Ironically, it’s not like Ilott has proposed bulldozing the corner, or adding a chicane, or replacing it with a straightaway; he simply wants to see the barriers surrounding it skewed, adjusted or pushed. After the death and injuries we’ve seen, those are extremely reasonable requests, if they indeed could help mitigate the problem. And hell, if they do, everyone wins — fewer drivers may die, and boomers on Twitter don’t have to whine about changes to a few corners they’ll never actually drive in real life. Except they still will, because they always do.

This whole thing reminds me of the “controversy” around the introduction of the halo a few years back. It’s astonishing to think that a device that is now universally celebrated for likely having prevented a handful of serious head injuries was decried by some for ruining the classic lines of an open-wheel racer, as if aesthetics are more sacred than human life. Likewise, no corner anywhere in the world should ever be beyond being improved in the interest of safety. Perhaps Eau Rouge and Raidillon will remain as they are for this month’s F1 race, but I hope Ilott’s comments are taken with serious consideration over the racing offseason.