We have just about become comfortable with the concept of night races, after the success of last year’s Singapore Grand Prix. But in Bernie Ecclestone’s quest to have all races starting at a sociable hour in Europe, could he have inadvertently invented the dusk race?
There were a couple of close calls last season. The season finale at Interlagos last year was strange enough. The fact that the entire circuit was plunged into complete darkness immediately after the chequered flag only added to it. The podium was lit, and the sky behind looked pitch black even with all of the techniques they can use on television to mitigate it.
The sun wasn’t even setting. Sunset was approximately 90 minutes after the end of the race. But heavy clouds ensured that if the race hadn’t finished, they may well have had to bring out the red flag anyway, so dark the place seemed.
It was a similar scenario during Friday Practice for the Italian Grand Prix last year. Even in the late morning, when the sun is high in the sky, a fierce storm gave teams a dry (okay, a very, very wet) run for the dark conditions they were to expect at the following race in Singapore.
In the past two yeras the start time of the Australian Grand Prix has been shifted from 1400 local time to 1530 last year to 1700 this year. The idea behind this is to have the race starting at 0700 British time (0800 CET), which is a smidgen more sociable than 0300.
I don’t know about you, but being a nightowl I much preferred the middle-of-the-night start. It felt like a special occasion, and for me it was all part of the romance and the excitement of the build-up to the start of the season.
Sometimes ITV put on a special night of programming building up to it. No such thing from the BBC this year of course. A “grand prix night” is a bit redundant when the grand prix is on in the morning. This is a missed marketing opportunity, showing once again that Bernie is not quite as smart as he thinks he is.
But does the later start also have implications for safety? The evening start is a messy compromise. Bernie wanted a night race, but the Australian GP organisers refused. So they met in the middle.
That’s all very well in normal circumstances. The race starts at 1700. So the sun will be pretty low, but it will still be daylight.
But what if something unforeseen happens? The start of last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix was delayed by fifteen minutes. If the race has to be stopped, that will add more time as well. On top of all this, the race may be anything up to two hours long (and that excludes any stoppages for red flags).
On 29 March 2009 the sun sets in Melbourne at 1918. Let’s say the formation lap takes three minutes. If the two hour time limit is reached, cars could still conceivably be running at racing speeds at 1905 (for the time it takes for the leader to reach the finish line, then the cars on the lead lap to complete that lap). Then there is the in-lap. If, for some reason, the red flag has to come out, they would only be able to take ten or fifteen minutes maximum to be sure that the race will be completed with the sun still in the sky.
It is an unlikely scenario. The two hour time limit is seldom reached, and a lengthy race stoppage is thankfully also rare. But the possibility exists. I’m surprised not to have seen anyone else mention this. Can the drivers, marshals and spectators be sure that all of the appropriate precautions have been taken?
Could the Australian Grand Prix be the first ever dusk race?