THE Belgian Grand Prix gets started – but certainly not finished – despite a young driver’s brush with disaster, writes PETER COSTER:
AS THE rain poured down at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, the little gladiator was peacefully asleep between two mechanics.
No nervous twitches, no troubled dreams following a crash the day before that saw his McLaren spinning between the barriers as it destroyed itself in the weekend downpour.
“Gladiators” was a term frequently used by emotional commentators as the F1 field tried to set grid positions for a race that never eventuated the following day.
On Sunday, when 21-year-old Lando Norris slept while waiting for the clouds to part over the Ardennes, the pools of water were even deeper as the torrent gushed down into Eau Rouge and the climb up to the blind crest at Raidillon.
This is where the little gladiator came suddenly unstuck. Driven by the unquenchable self-confidence of youth and his talent, Norris never lifted as he plunged into the most intimidating of all corners on the world’s F1 circuits.Embed from Getty Images
He did say over team radio that the McLaren was “aquaplaning,” which meant that it was on top of the water covering the track, its tyres no longer in contact with the tarmac as the tail of the car started swinging to the left then snapping to the right as the front tyres suddenly found grip.
In the seconds that followed (and it must have seemed like minutes to Norris) the McLaren spun into the barriers the other side of the track like a children’s top, pieces off it littering the track.
There was, for some of those watching, the stomach-dropping feeling that this was a bad one, the same feeling as when Ayrton Senna ran into the wall at Imola all those years ago.
“My bad,” said Norris over the radio.
“What did I say, what did I say,” shouted an angry Sebastian Vettel as the four-times world champion stopped beside the wreckage as the session.
He wasn’t talking to Norris. Only seconds before the crash the vastly experienced Vettel had called for a red flag to stop a race for pole position that had become too dangerous.
At that point, Norris was on provisional pole.
Remarkably, the track was cleared with nine minutes remaining and even more remarkably, with seconds left, George Russell held pole for a heartbeat.
That was before Max Verstappen found a few fractions of a second from somewhere to take it from the Williams driver.
The next day, after a trip to hospital to see if he had broken his elbow (he was seen rubbing it as he climbed from the wreck) the starting order was Verstappen in the Red Bull with Russell beside him ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes and Daniel Ricciardo in the second McLaren.
It was the best grid position this season for the Australian driver in his 200th Grand Prix. Whether it is a real turning point for Danny Ricc in the most disappointing season of his career remains to be seen.
He scraped through the first two qualifying sessions and he still lags significantly behind Norris who has 50 GP starts and has lapped him in races where Ricciardo has been told to pull aside to let him through.
The monsoonal downpour that saw Norris’s McLaren spin like a maddened children’s toy on Saturday continued unabated.
After a delay of three and a half hours, no one was sure of how the race on Sunday might play out.
The race had already been delayed when the field formed behind the safety car and then continued for a second lap before it was red flagged as it had been in qually three.
Had the race officially started? No, it was announced that the start “procedure” had been stopped.
When it did start was it to be cut short because the time limit for the race to finish had been cut short?
No one seemed to know. Pit crews pored over the regulations. There were three sets of regulations, at least one set comprising 99 pages.
It was decided that the stewards, themselves under the control of race director Michael Masi, had the power to overturn the time limit on the race finishing, if it had ever officially started.
Team principals, such as Red Bull’s Christian Horner and Mercedes’ Toto Wolff, said they didn’t know and they usually agree to disagree.
So, it was up to the stewards, or Masi or even the FIA, which like the Pope is supposedly omnipotent.
Someone should have called the Vatican. No one knew and eventually the field went out again behind the safety car and tip-toed around the for the two laps that allowed it to be declared a race with half points awarded.
That meant the field finished in the same order as on the qually three starting grid. This meant Max Verstappen has come within three points of Lewis Hamilton in the race for the world championship and Daniel Ricciardo keeps his fourth placing.
The commentators and team bosses spoke emotionally of the “bravery” of the “gladiators” who risk their lives on the track.
They might have read the book by Ronnie Mutch, Niki Lauda and the Grand Prix Gladiators, published in 1977.
It was an era in which drivers died. Lauda, a three-times world champion died two years ago, but likely from the complications of the crash that saw him trapped in the fiery wreckage of his Ferrari at the Nurburgring in 1976 before other drivers pulled him out.
Norris, a gladiator in an era when only the improved safety measures saved his life, is most surely a future world champion, as is his mate George Russell whose promotion to a seat with Mercedes is surely certain.
This at the expense of Valtteri Bottas who has been content to race in support of Lewis Hamilton rather than challenge him as likely with Russell in the second Mercedes.
Lando Norris (who slips easily into the cockpit of the McLaren at 170cm) will be expected to drive as if his life depended upon it at Zandvoort, where heavy rain is forecast next Sunday.
Norris and the New Grand Prix Gladiators accept the risk when they sign a contract.
But a contract should not become a death warrant.