This year’s Belgian Grand Prix will live long in the memory of F1 fans for all the wrong reasons. As much as I’m an advocate for going to see F1 live at the track, no one would envy the poor souls who endured Sunday’s weather affected Belgian Grand Prix.
Now the brollies have been folded up, wellys have finished drying out and the inquest has begun. Did race control make the right calls, was there really a race, and will fans get a refund on their tickets?
Scenes of spectators seemed to make up the majority of the 4+ hours of television coverage between the scheduled start time and the trophy presentation. They told a story of fans – wet, cold but generally in good spirits, excited for what would surely be a classic Spa race if the rain would only ease.
Sadly that wasn’t to be and the brave crowd shivered their way through a trying day of relentless rain for nothing more than a 2 lap safety car-lead procession. Something that the FIA has laughably determined was a race.
Not long after a subdued podium, outrage on social media shifted the narrative of stoic and cheerful fans to reveal a justifiable sense anger. While most were understanding of the dangerous track conditions that made having a race all but impossible, many understandably called for a refund. After all, they had paid to see a race, and this was certainly not that.
Despite the FIA’s insistence that there was a genuine attempt to have proper a race, there is a more cynical take on it. Namely that the two lap phony race which gave us a classified result also conveniently ticked a lot of contractual boxes. This was no doubt pleasing to the sport’s commercial rights holders but it leaves spectators without a right to a refund.
I’m not usually sympathetic to the conspiracy theorist wing of F1 fandom but it’s hard to write this off so easily. After all, if the rain was heavier at the time of the second start attempt than it was the first time around, why go ahead with it? As Lewis Hamilton said, “money talks”.
Having technically had a race meant Formula One had honoured it’s agreements with broadcasters, advertisers and promoters. However that has knock on effects for ticket holders. When a Grand Prix gets cancelled and F1 doesn’t race – as has been the case at the plethora of scheduled events since March 2020 – the venue doesn’t owe Formula One it’s hosting fee and can therefore refund ticket holders. The two lap ‘race’ effectively means fans have no legal right to a refund.
The glib response from F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali that it is what it is and the matter of refunds is between fans and promoters didn’t help calm angry fans. Besides rare cases where big government financial backing exists, circuits are already feeling the squeeze from Formula One’s exorbitant fees. Refunding all ticket holders out of pocket would quite literally bankrupt most circuits – a fact Domenicali knows full well.
Whatever the legal position, it’s clear to all that ethically those fans deserve to be compensated and many in the paddock have been very vocal on this subject. Thankfully F1 seems to be listening and it’s position has softened, since issuing a statement that together with the promoters they are “working through various options for ticket holders”
Clearly there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from this whole debacle and Formula One is (usually) good at learning from it’s mistakes. And it needs to. At a time when F1 is struggling in the face of a global pandemic to hold races with spectators, encouraging fans to book race tickets and make travel arrangements in uncertain times, mishandling a situation like this not only hurts fans but could hurt the sport too.
Parallels can be drawn between this and the farcical US GP in 2005. When all Michelin-shod competitors pulled out and only 6 cars took the start at Indianapolis, the damage it did to the sport’s image had long-lasting repercussions for F1 in America.
Whatever comes of it one thing is certain. Everyone in F1, myself included, has not only sincere sympathy for the fans who stuck it out at Spa but also great respect for their patience and decorum. As miserable as the situation was, the scenes of smiling fans, dancing, cheering and making the best of a bad situation says a lot about F1 spectators and the special, festival-like atmosphere they create at a Grand Prix.
Moreover, there is a long history of effort, innovation and sacrifice to improve safety in Formula 1. Drivers, marshals and even spectators have given their lives along the way. The fans at Spa can take some comfort that their suffering was a sacrifice for the safety of all involved. F1 can still be a dangerous sport and sometimes not racing is the right thing to do.