FIA Japanese Grand Prix investigation a welcome admission of errors made

Thomas Maher
The FIA Mercedes Safety Car leads Max Verstappen, a lot of spray. Japan October 2022

The FIA Mercedes Safety Car leads Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, a lot of spray. Japan October 2022

The FIA’s extensive report into the recovery tractor incident at the Japanese Grand Prix shows the governing body is willing to admit when errors have been made.

Just two weeks on from the dramatic events of the Japanese Grand Prix, the FIA have revealed their findings into the sequence of events that resulted in Pierre Gasly driving at speed past a recovery vehicle on track after Carlos Sainz’s first lap crash.

The review was carried out on the back of the outcry about the situation from many of the F1 drivers on the day, as well as the FIA themselves acknowledging the scenario was serious enough to warrant further investigation. Based on the FIA’s ‘critical reflection process’, the matter was prioritised on the back of a letter from the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, and conversations between FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and GPDA Director George Russell as well as Gasly.

The review began under the supervision of the FIA’s Remote Operations Centre in Geneva – the ROC being a new introduction to F1 this year, implemented to help Race Control as part of the FIA’s revamp of processes after the furore of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

FIA Deputy President Robert Reid, who was on the ground in Suzuka, oversaw the investigation which carried out a review with Race Control, the ROC, as well as the FIA’s Safety, Operations, and Technical Departments.

The report includes a detailed breakdown, second by second, of how the initial laps of the race at Suzuka played out, and is replicated in part below. It can be read in full here.

  • -14:04:46: Sainz crashes his Ferrari at Turn 12.
  • -14:04:47: Yellow flags are waved at Turn 12.
  • -14:04:56: Yellow flags are waved at Turn 11 (the hairpin).
  • -14:04:57: Double waved yellow flags are waved at Turn 11.
  • -14:05:04: Turn 11 is signalled as clear.
  • -14:05:05 – Gasly hits dislodged advertising hoarding, continues with hoarding hanging from the front of his car.
  • -14:05:09 – Safety Car is deployed.
  • -14:05:28 – Alex Albon breaks down on track at Turn 12.
  • -14:05:59 – Marshals attend Albon’s broken down Williams.
  • -14:06:24 – Sainz runs across the track at Turn 12, having been given permission by a marshal.
  • -14:06:25 – Gasly enters the pitlane for repairs and change of tyres.
  • -14:06:32 – Marshals enter the track at Turn 12, under instruction from the Race Director and the Clerk of the Course.
  • -14:06:44 – Marshals attend Sainz’s stricken Ferrari.
  • -14:06:52 – Crane 1 enters the track at Turn 12.
  • -14:07:06 – Gasly exits the pitlane.
  • -14:07:06 – Crane 2 enters the track at Turn 12 exit to collect Albon’s Williams.
  • -14:07:11 – Crane 1 attends to Sainz’s Ferrari.
  • -14:08:13 – Red flag is shown.
  • -14:08:14 – Gasly passes Sainz’s Ferrari (at 189 km/h).
  • -14:08:20 – Gasly passes Albon’s Williams (at 163 km/h, before resuming speed at 250 km/h).
  • -14:09:24 – All F1 cars enter the pitlane under red flag.

Carlos Sainz's Ferrari on a recovery truck. Suzuka October 2022.
Carlos Sainz's Ferrari on a recovery truck after Japanese Grand Prix crash. Suzuka October 2022.

FIA point out Pierre Gasly’s “recklessness”

The report went on to detail that the exact procedure for the recovery of cars from the track was followed. However, a key weakness was uncovered – namely that Gasly was able to go back out on track and, while staying within his Safety Car delta time, catch up with the rest of the field.

Under wet conditions, the Safety Car and Virtual Safety Car delta time, which dictates a minimum time in which drivers can drive through a sector, is 50% slower than a ‘typical’ race dry lap time.

The drivers are shown whether they are respecting this delta via steering wheel lights – each team may have this set up differently according to preference, but the lighting, together with audio beeps (if desired) allow the drivers to regulate their speed to ensure they are staying within this delta.

Gasly, driving back to the pits after hitting the hoarding, was driving slower than the required delta time. In fact, he was going so slowly that he began to build a delta time allowance – he was 18 seconds slower than the minimum delta by the time he hit the pit lane. However, in the pits, this delta is not reset. As a result, this 18 seconds allowance carried over when he rejoined the track miles behind the rest – meaning he was able to go much faster than the rest of the field, while still remaining ‘in the green’.

The FIA report admitted that Gasly was still ‘in conformity’ with the rules of the Safety Car delta as a result.

AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly at the Japanese Grand Prix. Suzuka, October 2022.
AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly at the Japanese Grand Prix. Suzuka, October 2022.

However, this doesn’t mean Gasly wasn’t criticised in the report. In fact, the report said that Gasly ‘ignored basic safety rules’ and ‘drove recklessly’, given that the French driver had already passed both the Sainz and Albon incidents already and ‘was aware’ a car had crashed and that marshals could be on track.

The report shows that the flags turned red just one second before Gasly reached Sainz’s car, and seven seconds before reaching Albon – his speeds were still in excess of 160 km/h passing the further incident. Unsurprisingly, Gasly’s speeds were pointed out as being ‘incompatible’ with the obligation to slow down and stop his car as the double yellow flag rules require.

FIA hold their hands up regarding their own shortcomings

While Gasly came in for some criticism in the report, the FIA also owned up to their own mistakes in how the situation was handled. A surprising acknowledgement regarding the “extreme sensitivity” of having a recovery crane on track at Suzuka in wet conditions, referring to the tragic accident that befell Jules Bianchi in 2014, was the very first admission in their analysis.

“It is important to highlight that, although the driver has an important responsibility on track with regards to their own safety and that of others, they are not solely held responsible for the incident,” was another admission, with the suggestion being that “it may have been better to delay the deployment of the recovery vehicles on track.”

This was due to the fact that, even had Gasly been driving much more slowly, he still could have lost control of his car even at much slower speeds – as well as the possibility that further vehicles could have attended the scene of Sainz’s crash, which Gasly might not have been aware of.

What steps are the FIA taking for the future?

While it’s all well and good the FIA held their hands up regarding their ‘mea culpa’, as well as identifying Gasly’s own mistakes, the key component of such an extensive investigation is in figuring out the processes that need to be put in place to ensure these circumstances don’t happen again.

To that end, the report pointed out that, under the current procedures, a Safety Car neutralisation allows for full control over the cars behind it, but not over cars that are elsewhere on track – as Gasly was.

From this weekend’s race in the United States, further measures will be implemented. Official FIA communication will tell all the teams when a recovery vehicle is on track, and the teams will be obliged to tell their drivers their location.

Race Control, as well as the Remote Operations Centre, will not lose track of cars that are in the pits, thanks to the development of a new live VSC/SC monitor. In order to ensure cars in the pitlane aren’t ‘lost’ in chaotic circumstances, a procedural update will delegate monitoring of cars entering the pits under VSC and SC.

Wittich will meet with the drivers at the United States GP driver briefing in order to outline the steps that are being taken with immediate effect.

Taking a longer-term view to the issue, the delta time problem that allowed Gasly to go so fast ‘legally’ will be addressed for 2023. Rather than a locked delta time, a ‘Dynamic VSC’ will change the delta speed for drivers based on where incidents are declared by Race Control. This requires more extensive work in order to bring about, explaining why it’ll be next season before it’s implemented.

Furthermore, the penalty system regarding drivers disobeying the rules relating to Yellow, Double Yellow, VSC and SC conditions will be fully reviewed.

Separately, a proposal to shut the pit lane exit during SC periods, save for when the train of cars passes, will be investigated. “This would require significant analysis and discussion due to the sporting implication,” the FIA admit. “This may elongate SC periods.”

Changes may be made to the construction and locations of advertising hoardings at trackside, in order to reduce the likelihood of incidents like what happened to Gasly, while the FIA also wish to add more visible lighting to recovery vehicles. In other welcome news, the FIA’s Technical Department also wish to work with Pirelli to improve the working range of the full wet tyres.

All in all, the report makes for welcome reading. It would have been all too easy for the FIA to point the finger at Gasly alone, and bury their heads in the sand about the safety deficits that Japan revealed.

Instead, a full and frank admission of those vulnerabilities have been outlined – and in prompt fashion too. It’s a meritorious approach taken by the FIA’s Safety Department, under Robert Reid. However, one person who may feel hard done by in the investigation is Eduardo Freitas.

The Race Director, who has been working on a rotational basis alongside Niels Wittich, was in charge for Japan – but the FIA have ceased the rotation for the remainder of the season. This means Wittich takes over for now – leaving the situation open to the conclusion the FIA believe Freitas could have handled the situation better.

It’s an unfortunate hangover from the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that, almost a year on, there is a lack of stability at the helm of F1 races. Without stability, people like Wittich and Freitas can’t gain the years of experience the FIA clearly want with immediate effect. Out of all the recommendations made by the FIA’s report, it’s perhaps this that needs a second look. After all, it’s not a mistake Freitas is likely to make again, is it?

Read More: FIA announce changes following review into Japanese Grand Prix incidents