Wet and wild

In a world where a spot of rain brings tennis or the cricket to a halt, it is amazing that racing continues in all conditions. Today’s Belgian Grand Prix was a shining example of the perils of wet weather and changing track conditions as the drivers grappled with a slowly drying track.

From club racers to the world’s best the wet is something that few relish and others unashamedly hate. But why? After all, in a sport where success is often determined by the car, the wet is a great leveller allowing talent to shine through. Furthermore wet races are hugely entertaining for spectators (especially those sat in the warmth of their living rooms), a fact confirmed by the fact that ITV’s highest ever rating came in the accident strewn 2003 Brazilian GP held in near monsoon conditions.

Until you have actually done it, racing anything in the wet (be it a go-kart or title winning Ferrari) is almost impossible to describe. Almost invariably what were fantastic handling finely honed racing machines, became undriveable pieces of junk. Evil handling with grip levels that are hard to gauge and vary from lap to lap ensure that driving in the wet is a challenge even on a empty circuit.

That is before you take into account the white lines at the edge of the track and the kerbs which become lethal. It is therefore unsurprising that a wet session (especially early in the season) will see drivers of all levels spinning like tops as they discover they have no grip.

But these are not the greatest challenges and dangers facing drivers in the wet. The two main risks come from the lack of visibility and aquaplaning. Having competed in several wet races I can authoritatively say that in a wet race you can barely see anything, and practically nothing in front of you. Instead drivers must rely on their peripheral vision and trackside markers to get a feel for where they are on the circuit.

Having never raced anything with spoilers I can only guess at how little F1 and GP2 drivers can see in the wet. This is fine, until something goes wrong. Alain Prost hated the wet after being involved in Didier Pironi’s 1982 horror smash at the 1982 German Grand Prix. Pironi on a flying lap failed to see Prost’s Renault in the spray and was launched into a series of cartwheels. The accident would almost certainly have never happened in the dry.

In today’s F1 it is aquaplaning that is perhaps the greater risk, this being the condition where all four wheels are effectively floating on water giving zero grip. Aquaplane accidents are not common in wet F1 sessions, as demonstrated by Vitantonio Liuzzi on Friday at Spa.

Despite these risks wet races provide great entertainment. For the armchair fan they provide all the excitement they could ever want – increased overtaking, a few crashes and the chance to see the world’s best earning their money by hanging it all on the line. In today’s aero heavy, traction control-dominated F1, the wet presents a rare opportunity to see the world’s best working without a net.

Many drivers became legendary because of their ability in the wet. Jean Alesi and Ayrton Senna are perhaps the two best examples. Drivers whose ability to circulate in the wet as if the car were on rails had fans worldwide spellbound. Keke Rosberg’s Monaco 1983 win, where he started on slicks on a wet track, has become legendary. Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen tried the same trick in 1997 and got nowhere.

In contemporary F1 it is Michael Schumacher who has become the rain master, but I feel unable to place him in the same company as Senna or Alesi. Schumacher, despite having blistering wet weather pace, has always made too many mistakes to be ranked with the great rain drivers, although his drive to victory in Spain in 1996 is one of the great Grand Prix drives of all time. Unfortunately due to the lack of recent wet races it is hard to say who else on the 2005 grid is a rain specialist. However, Tiago Monteiro’s drive into the points today was clearly achieved on the merits of talent rather than machinery.

I would never like every race to be wet, but you have to appreciate the role the elements can play in spicing up F1. A mid-race shower can liven up even the dullest of Grands Prix. Hopefully the run in to the season may provide us with another couple of damp circuits adding another dimension to the championship showdown. Failing that, go and find some footage of F1 at Spa in 1989 or Barcelona in 1991 or 1996 to see wet weather racing at its best.

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