Formula 1’s inaugural Tuscan Grand Prix was a wild encounter which reached a chaotic nadir when four drivers were eliminated in a frightening accident. But what were the catalysts, and can anything be done?
The alleged late restart signal
The Safety Car was deployed following the first-lap incidents that left Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly out of the race. Mugello’s landscape meant getting cranes and tractors to some corners was more challenging than at some other venues, and the clear-up took a relatively long time. The signal was given to restart the race but – in the opinion of the drivers – the lights on the Safety Car went out late.
“The difference this year has been the Safety Car, they are putting the lights off quite late, so you can only build the gap pretty late on,” said Valtteri Bottas, who was race leader at the time.
“They have been moving switching off the Safety Car lights later and later and later and we’re out there fighting for a position,” added Lewis Hamilton.
Renault’s Esteban Ocon commented: “I got told that the Safety Car is in this lap, but the guys [were] still driving like there would be another lap, so I thought that there was maybe a misunderstanding with me and the team, maybe we are going for another lap.”
However Formula 1 Race Director Michael Masi countered that viewpoint.
“They can criticise all they want, if we have a look at a distance perspective from where the lights were extinguished to the control line, it’s probably not dissimilar, if not longer, than a number of other venues,” he said. “The Safety Car lights go out where they do, the Safety Car [goes into] the pit lane.”
The track layout
It was the first time that Formula 1 visited Mugello in its 70-year history and it was, naturally, the first time a restart had ever happened at the venue in the championship.
It has a lengthy pit straight, around a kilometre in length, prior to the main overtaking spot at San Donato.
The restart line is the control line, at the start/finish line, and thus drivers must not overtake before that spot.
There is a similar scenario at some other venues, most notably Baku and Interlagos, where the control line is in the middle of, or substantially far down, a full throttle section.
It means the leader is more likely to wait than risk going, giving his opponents the slipstream, and thus potentially relinquishing the position.
This was later noted by stewards when they explained their analysis of the crash.
Another factor is the undulation at Mugello, with the slight uphill crest after the plunge from Bucine also affecting visibility.
To be absolutely clear – Bottas did nothing wrong. In fact, from his perspective, he did everything correctly, by the rule book, and preserved his lead into San Donato.
Bottas, rightly, defended his approach, and team-mate Hamilton quickly backed the Finn’s tactics, as did third-placed Alexander Albon.
“I think when you put the control lines so far in front and then also leave the lights so late it’s pretty obvious where Valtteri’s going to take off,” said Albon. “He’s going to take off as late as he can and I imagine the midfield know when Valtteri’s going to go and they are also trying to get a slingshot and then when Valtteri doesn’t go when they think he’s going to go, that’s when the concertina happens and it’s dangerous but it’s predictable as well in that sense because the closer you leave it or the less time you leave, let Valtteri decide when to take off, the more obvious… the shorter time he has to go so it’s quite easy to read.”
Therefore everyone behind is playing a game of cat and mouse – trying to judge when the restart will happen, accelerate, lift off, accelerate, desperate for the slingshot.
Up front that was no problem – but then the concertina effect unfolded.
Midfielders moving up
Several midfield drivers – such as Daniel Ricciardo, Daniil Kvyat and George Russell – were leaving gaps, as is their right so long as they remain within 10 car lengths, as they tried to judge the restart. It meant each reacted to the driver one or two in front, as per the visibility from the cockpit, and their closing speeds exacerbated the accordion effect. No single driver was to blame from this group but their actions facilitated the pile-up.
“There is a short acceleration that increases from the back, because the guys at the back are catching up more of a gap,” explained Ocon. “So it is a bit like motorway traffic. It caught everyone by surprise, just behind me. I got lucky to not get hit in the back, but some did not unfortunately.”
Russell voiced a similar opinion, commenting: “It was sort of inevitable, I saw people going quick around the last corner, slowing down again, I was very lucky to miss the incident. As soon as everyone braked I looked in my mirrors, saw a bit of chaos, put my foot down to avoid it. It’s like on a motorway when you pull up to a traffic jam, you look in your mirrors to check that the car behind has noticed, in case he hasn’t, you’re ready to put your foot down and avoid if he’s going to hit you.”
Enter the backmarkers
Kevin Magnussen was running 12th of the remaining 18 drivers at the time but as drivers in front checked up, he slowed.
Nicholas Latifi, in 13th, was another to think the restart was underway and upon the realisation that the pack was still forming jinked out to the left, almost passing both Magnussen and Russell. Such was the spread out nature of the group at Bucine that Latifi had almost wiped out Magnussen at that stage.
Antonio Giovinazzi, behind Latifi, also thought the restart was underway – having left a gap to the Williams – and when Latifi jinked left was met with a slow Haas. He tried to avoid an impact but cannoned between Latifi and Magnussen, scattering the three cars.
Carlos Sainz, in 15th, tried to stick with Giovinazzi and was thus a passenger when the accident unfolded right in front of him.
Grosjean, in 16th, ducked out of Sainz’s slipstream just as the accident unfolded – ensuring he was not caught up in it – while Kimi Raikkonen backed off just as the others accelerated and lagged behind – leaving the pursuing Vettel adrift too – and ironically it turned out to be positive for the pair.
What did those involved say?
No-one pointed any fingers at any particular drivers and all concurred that the midfield contingent creating a gap and then trying to judge the restart moment had been a crucial catalyst.
“Everyone around me was already up at full speed, but suddenly there was Magnussen almost stopped in the middle of the track,” said Giovinazzi. “Latifi avoided him but I just didn’t have the time – I tried to, but clipped his rear left. Thankfully, nobody got injured but it was a very dangerous crash.”
Latifi commented that “when I exited Turn 14 it seemed like people were already racing, I was flat-out for a few seconds, as was everyone else. When you’re in these positions you can’t see what the leaders are doing, you only see the cars directly in front of you. So, when a few of these guys accelerated, we all reacted to that. When I saw trouble, I tried not to jam on the brakes and veered to the left to slow more smoothly. But the guys behind were travelling even faster, which was the worst-case scenario for all of us. At that point all of us were just passengers.”
“Somewhere in the middle – between me and the front, somebody decided to go,” said Magnussen. “I guess somebody maybe tried to open a gap to get some momentum, but they went too early and tried to stop again. The guy in front of me started to go, we were flat out for a few seconds, then suddenly they all braked. I braked, I saw people coming past, then I was hit by Giovinazzi – who had nowhere to go.”
Vettel, at the back, described the whole restart as “erratic” due to drivers “speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, and then finally speeding up, and everyone was jumping on the brakes.”
Was anyone to blame?
With 20 per cent of the field wiped out in one incident it was an expensive day for several teams.
Stewards summoned Magnussen and Latifi, and also Kvyat, but it was eventually deemed that no-one was wholly to blame for the pile-up.
Stewards looked at Article 39.13 of the Sporting Regulations, which covers conduct and etiquette behind the Safety Car, and determined that 12 drivers warranted a warning.
That encompassed everyone running fourth through 15th at the time – clearing the Mercedes duo, Charles Leclerc, and the tail-enders Grosjean, Raikkonen and Vettel.
The root cause was deemed to be the “inconsistent application of throttle and brake, from the final corner along the pit straight, by the listed drivers.
“This incident demonstrates the need for caution to be exercised in the restart situation and note that there was an extreme concertina effect which dramatically increased as it moved down the field.
“We also note that some drivers might have avoided being involved in the incident had they not followed directly behind the car in front. By doing so they effectively blocked off all visibility of what was happening immediately in front of the preceding car.”
No one driver was picked out from the crowd as stewards deemed that nobody was wholly to blame.
Can anything be done?
This is the tricky aspect – different series have different regulations and there is no one clear solution. Changing the rules may also result in the law of unintended consequences.
It was also noted by Masi that youngsters in Formula 2 and Formula 3 pulled off similar restarts at Mugello without piling into each other.
“I don’t think there’s any need to review the Safety Car restart rule,” confirmed Masi, who angrily countered suggestions that the FIA wanted to spice up the restarts by leaving them late.
Perhaps given the nature of some circuits, particularly those such as Baku and Interlagos where the layout promotes a last-gasp restart, Formula 1 has been fortunate to avoid an incident until this point.
“They definitely need to take into account the safety aspect because it wasn’t particularly safe with the restart,” said Hamilton. “I could almost see that coming. I’m sure they will learn from it and we will move together, the sport together.”
But unless the rules change, or harsher sanctions are given out, there’s every chance a similar situation could unfold in the future.