Remember Ayrton Senna‘s maiden podium at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher‘s first Ferrari win at the 1996 Spanish GP or Lewis Hamilton‘s dominant 2008 British GP performance? Three classic races all ran in torrential rain. That just doesn’t happen anymore.
Formula 1 has erred on the side of caution for several years when it rains hard. Rightly so, as safety is paramount – there’s not question about that. However, the sport also thrives on putting on a show and we have missed that in wet races for a long time now.
It used to be, when it rained, the excitement levels would instantly rise. But, it almost feels the opposite now when there is wet weather because delays are inevitable and there actually isn’t that much overtaking. How has this happened? What has changed in F1? Why can’t they race in proper wet conditions?
F1’s rain problem
Remarkably, only three events prior to the Italian Grand Prix have taken place in F1 2023 with no wet weather intervening during the race weekend.
So many times, conditions appear to be dry enough in qualifying or the race, yet there is a long delay and a lack of urgency to get going.
Take the 2023 Belgian GP weekend for example. In both qualifying and the sprint shootout, there were lengthy delays and the track was closer to being dry than soaking wet by the time the sessions started.
Then, there is the race where visibility is a massive problem and has been since 2017 when F1 moved to wider cars that simply kick up more spray.
“It’s a huge safety issue at the moment and it needs to be addressed,” explained Lance Stroll. “We can’t see anything in heavy wet weather. I can remember Japan last year, I can recall many races over the past few years in F1 where you just cannot see anything when you’re behind a car.
“It’s extremely dangerous if someone has an incident in front of you and is sideways in the middle of the track. You can’t see where you’re going. We shouldn’t be racing in those conditions.”
Wet tyres part of the problem
Along with wider cars in 2017, F1 introduced bigger tyres – 25 percent wider than its predecessor, which also didn’t help wet weather racing. While more water is dispersed with bigger tyres, more spray is also kicked up.
Max Verstappen is one of the best drivers in the wet as he showed with superb drives at the 2016 Brazilian GP and the 2022 Japanese GP, and thinks the drivers want to avoid the full wet tyre, which doesn’t help.
“At the moment, want to go from an extreme to an inter, even when there is a bit of standing water around,” said Verstappen. “I think also the shift between the tyres, the extreme needs to work at a better window as well so we don’t need to always go straight to an inter.
“But that’s again a different problem because of course visibility is probably the most important because if you don’t see where you’re going that’s not what you want.”
George Russell agrees with Verstappen‘s comments and added: “The extreme [wet] tyre is a pretty pointless tyre. It’s really, really bad. It’s probably six, seven seconds a lap slower than the intermediate.
“The only reason you’d ever want the extreme wet is because you’re going to aquaplane on an intermediate, so that needs to be substantially improved.
“The aquaplaning with fairly little water is really substantial. I remember watching the old onboard videos of 2007 with [Felipe] Massa and [Robert] Kubica at Fuji. There was so much water but they were still pushing flat out.
“I remember doing test days in Formula 3 and Formula Renault on Michelin, Hankook and aquaplaning wasn’t really a thing.
“I appreciate we’re doing well over 200mph and it’s not straightforward. But there needs to be some significant improvements.”
Pirelli concede wet tyre is useless
If F1 essentially only have one compound for wet conditions, the intermediates, that’s a big problem because the best tyre in the wet can’t deal with heavy rain.
Nearly all other motorsport championships have one wet tyre and it can generally deal with torrential rain, so perhaps F1 should consider having one excellent wet tyre compound.
For Pirelli boss Mario Isola to admit their wet tyre is pointless, is a big statement because companies almost never criticise their own product.
“I believe that we have to, first of all, divide two problems: one is the performance of the wet, one is the visibility,” said Isola.
“Performance-wise, when we were developing the tyres, we found a result in terms of performance that was much, much better than the old wet tyre.
“Are they safety car tyres? We discuss many times about visibility. It is an issue, and clearly, the FIA, together with the teams, are working around some devices that can improve visibility in order to reduce the spray that is coming from the tyres and the diffuser.
“But if the full wet tyre is used only behind the safety car, I agree with drivers that, at the moment, it is a useless tyre. So we have to decide which is the direction new want to take for the future in order to develop the product that is needed for F1.”
F1 attempt to solve spray issues
The other major problem is visibility, as Stroll alluded to further up. If you compare what a driver in sixth place, for example, can see nowadays in heavy rain versus what the same position driver could see in the 1990s or 2000s, there will be a stark difference.
McLaren and Mercedes tested guards, which were like wheel arches, in wet conditions at Silverstone in July to see if it would help.
But, Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin has revealed it didn’t make much difference because the problem is the diffuser, in the middle of the rear part of the car.
“There’s more work to do on them, but it’s a problem that it would be useful to have a solution for, because I think the teams, and certainly the fans, hate it if a race can’t go ahead because the conditions are too difficult,” explained Shovlin.
“They are not ready to be moved into production and regulation at the moment. So there’s definitely work to do. They do improve the spray that you get from the tyres, but you still get a lot coming from the diffuser, in the way that the rear wing’s pulling it up.
“That’s all very powerful. Interesting first steps and we’re providing the car and some bits to do that development. It’s the FIA’s project to decide where that goes next and what happens in the future.
“You obviously need it to make a tangible difference. There’s also difficult… you’ve got to stop the race to fit these things, or the race has to have not started to fit them.
“But as I said, it’s not our project. We were just contracted to do some work, to run a car and the FIA will steer it and decide where the future goes.
“The goal of making sure we can give the fans, who’ve paid to come to the track on Sunday, a race to watch is definitely a worthwhile one to do. And I think it’s good that the sport has these initiatives where it’s trying to find solutions to the bigger problems.”
No changes expected in short-term
F1‘s problem of racing in the rain is likely to stay until at least the start of 2026, when the next big technical regulation change is introduced.
At the 2023 Dutch GP, race control were spot on with their decision to red flag the race when Zhou Guanyu crashed because the weather was extreme, even for Grand Prix in yesteryear.
Yes, they could have got the race restarted a bit quicker and the 10 minute warning rule could be looked at, in case F1 misses the window to restart a race, which has happened before.
Big changes need to be made to the cars in order for F1 to have more proper wet races and Pirelli must make a better wet tyre. Those are priorities, or else this piece will be relevant for many years.