I feel like I’m in a minority here, but I think the race director got most of the big calls right in the Australian Grand Prix, and that any criticism of Niels Wittich’s approach is coming from a place of unrealistic expectations.
Let’s start at the start. Alex Albon’s crash was pretty high-speed and damaged the barrier as well as throwing gravel across the track. Given the near-misses that have led the FIA to draw criticism when other vehicles are on track, I don’t think it was the worst decision to be cautious by stopping the race and allowing a full clean-up and barrier repair to take place.
The problem with that choice was simply the timing. If you throw the red flag quickly, everyone is in an equal situation even if it will impact some drivers differently to others. But by waiting a lap, some drivers made pit stops to take advantage of the Safety Car period, only to see that advantage completely reversed by the red flag call.
You can argue that two ways. One is that it’s a strategic decision as to whether you pit at a time when there’s a risk the race could get red-flagged, and therefore those who stay out are also gambling on getting such a stoppage to allow them to have a free pit stop. So there’s no real issue, as it’s still a tactical element and comes down to a team’s decision-making.
The other is that it unfairly benefits drivers who weren’t able to get into the pits in time or chose not to, as they then get a completely free stop. It’s varying degrees of a bonus, as a Safety Car pit stop is also preferred to a green flag one, but that could be avoided by stating teams can’t make changes to their cars under red flag conditions.
Freeze the race as it is at the point the red flag comes out, and everyone knows that they want to get into the pits before any stoppage – there’s no uncertainty. But none of that really impacts whether it was the right decision to throw a red flag or not in order to clean up the mess from Albon’s accident.
Now, when we get to the second red flag, it’s important to point out recent history and the impact it has had. While recording the latest F1 show I host on SiriusXM, my co-host Jon Massengale pointed out that fans want consistency and three relatively recent late-race incidents – Abu Dhabi 2021, Monza 2022 and now Melbourne 2023 – have been handled differently.
In Abu Dhabi it’s obvious the rules weren’t followed correctly, and the rules were changed moving forwards to make it clear what needed to happen when it comes to the Safety Car deployment and cars unlapping themselves in the future. But at that point, there was already talk about green flag finishes being what the teams were pushing for.
Then Monza happened, where Daniel Ricciardo stopped on track with eight laps remaining and the Safety Car was deployed, but the car couldn’t be moved quickly and the race never resumed. That’s the final 15% of the race lost, and it led to a number of team bosses – including Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, despite his driver benefiting on that occasion – saying the red flag should have been used.
So when Kevin Magnussen crashed and left debris all over the track with five laps to go on Sunday, it’s realistic to expect it would be tough to restart behind the Safety Car. Marshals don’t just go out and sweep up instantly; they have to wait for the field to be brought under the control of the Safety Car (which would have taken at least two laps – the first picking up the leaders, the second being when all cars would be behind it passing through Turn 2) and then they could get to work.
That would have left three laps remaining when they started work, so at best two laps when they finished it, and one lap to resume racing. In reality, you’re not getting restarted unless you rush the clear-up and risk debris still being on track.
With that in mind, the red flag was the right call. It guaranteed a racing finish – as the general consensus was the preference after Monza – plus ensured that a full clearing of the debris on track could take place without time pressures to ensure greater safety.
Where it then gets potentially unsafe as a knock-on impact is if the drivers take too many risks on such a high pressure late restart, where there is so much to gain but at the same time so much to lose. But no solution is perfect, and surely you’ve got to trust in the drivers – given the fact they’re supposed to be some of the best in the world – to deal with that situation. It’s one they’re in control in, unlike if debris is just left all over the circuit.
We even saw it in Baku where there was a two-lap shootout in 2021, so it’s not like this was unprecedented. In fact that was a successful example to take experience from.
To me, the fact that lessons were learned from Abu Dhabi and Monza is finally a sign of progress from the FIA. It listened to the feedback to previous incidents and what the majority of fans and team members wanted, and looked at how Baku worked two years ago and took the same approach.
Of course there will be winners and losers in such a scenario, and the Alpine drivers and Carlos Sainz certainly became the latter while Fernando Alonso so nearly saw a podium get away, but that will always be the case. If you always ended such a situation under Safety Car then there would be occasions a driver climbing through the field on a certain strategy would be left ruing their luck, and fans unhappy to lose the opportunity to see that play out.
‘The majority’ is a key phrase here, because you can’t please everyone all the time, and there’s always a risk that a consistent approach will be good for some situations and bad for others. And hindsight isn’t always helpful when judging calls.
Had there been a clean restart with two laps to go and drivers battled for position over the final two laps, race control would have been praised far more, even though the same decision was made and it was founded in safety and getting the race to finish as it is described: with racing.
Now, the final competitive order for the lap to the checkered flag could have been decided more quickly, but that’s a whole other column. The fact Nico Hulkenberg very nearly didn’t make it shows that it’s right to complete the race distance though, even if it’s just one lap to the flag to finalize it all.
There’s plenty I’ve criticized race control for in the past, but the red flag choices this weekend isn’t such a time.