The Korean Grand Prix was a difficult race to control, with the delays at the start due to the rain, incidents throughout and then bad light at the end. And it didn’t help that the drivers were using the modern phenomenon of radio transmissions being played out on the TV to try to influence things.
Because the race finished three hours after it was supposed to start, the light was fading fast. It goes dark very quickly in this part of the world and in another two laps it would have been dark. Race Control judged it just right and got the full race distance in. Some drivers complained about the light in the last few laps, but everyone got through.
Being English, I’m conscious that bad light stops play in our national game, cricket. There is actually an official minimum light level, which the referees (known as umpires) monitor using a photographer’s light meter. Once the light goes below it, then they stop playing.
Because the game involves a small hard ball being thrown at a batsman at over 160 km/h its important that the batsman can see it coming.
Driving racing cars at 320km/h might be considered even more risky in bad light. I checked after the race and there is no agreed minimum light level in F1. The reason given is that the levels are so different around the circuit and vary from circuit to circuit. Parts of Spa, for example, are in the trees, while Sepang Malaysia, is wide open on raised ground. Where would you measure the light? Not outside race control on the pit straight because the grandstands overshadow it.
So, like everything else, it’s up to the judgement of the Race Director, listening to drivers’ comments. They drive the cars and know when a situation is unsafe.
There was a huge amount of self interest going on yesterday in the radio messages, with drivers knowing that their radio transmissions would be played out to the watching world and to their rivals’ teams. The Red Bull drivers, particularly Webber had the most to lose from a lottery in poor conditions, so he was saying that it was too wet to start. Lewis Hamilton in contrast was keen to get on with it, because he sensed an opportunity to make up ground. Button was having a difficult time getting his tyres to work and so was complaining about the conditions.
And you can be sure that once the race reached the milestone of 43 laps, at which full points would be awarded, that the leaders would be calling for the race to be stopped 12 laps early for bad light! Vettel must wish he’d got his way as his engine blew not long after, hurting his title challenge.
Whiting had his BS filter on yesterday and steered his own course through a minefield of decisions and did it well. I noted that when Lucas Di Grassi pitted for new wet tyres on lap 13, for example, as he chased the pack he set a middle sector time 10 seconds faster than them. That will have given Whiting a better read on the conditions and a few laps later he let them race.
Some driver influenced decisions are legendary in F1. Remember how Alain Prost managed to get the Monaco GP stopped in 1984, when Ayrton Senna in the Toleman was catching him at multiple seconds per lap?
Nowadays the scrutiny of decisions is much more intense and self-interested drivers are just sounding boards, rather than the ultimate arbiters of when a race should be stopped or started.