Canceling Imola was the right call, at the right time
No, do not refresh your browser: This is a positive column about Formula 1 and the FIA handling a significant and difficult situation.
That hasn’t always been the case. The last two events that got anywhere near this sort of level of decision-making were in Belgium two years ago – where a farcical “race” took place – and in Australia 18 months earlier when Formula 1 decided that it was above being impacted by COVID and that flying everyone to the other side of the world while other sports shut down was a smart thing to do.
I might be being slightly harsh on the latter case, but we did end up with the situation in Melbourne where Lewis Hamilton sat in a press conference on Thursday afternoon ahead of the race saying there was no good reason for being there other than the fact that it shows “cash is king”.
Well, lessons have clearly been learned, and for that, both Formula 1 and the FIA deserve credit.
The situation in Italy has been developing for a number of weeks, with the Emilia-Romagna region also experiencing flooding due to heavy rain earlier this month. That had appeared to subside until the past few days, when the weather worsened again.
A warning was in place for severe thunderstorms and huge amounts of rainfall that would be even more significant given the already-sodden ground and high rivers, but the true impact had yet to be felt when teams had started arriving to set up at the circuit. Similarly, Formula 1’s own operations had been at work for some time in the build-up to race week, and as recently as Tuesday morning the situation had looked far more positive.
F1 was telling stakeholders it expected everything to go ahead as planned, and that it always has operational plans for wet weather broadcasting and running of an event. But within five hours, the tone changed.
With the river level rising directly behind the paddock and garage area at Imola, the circuit was evacuated on the advice of local authorities. That was the first step that had an actual impact on the preparations being carried out for the race and started to set F1 back, but even so there was plenty of time to make up throughout Wednesday if allowed.
The instruction was then not to come to the track on Wednesday either due to the river being in danger of bursting its banks, sending sections of the TV compound underwater and, most significantly, the infrastructure around the circuit coming under immense strain with the damage and flooding elsewhere.
Based on previous history, F1 and the FIA would have taken a wait-and-see approach, because on Wednesday morning there’s still five days until the grand prix itself is due to take place, and the rain was forecast to ease as the day went on, with better conditions expected through the weekend.
But such a decision would have led to the teams, personnel and media all descending on the region while it’s in a state of emergency, and then tens of thousands of fans also showing up in the coming days, taking hotel rooms that could be required for displaced local residents and adding significant traffic to the area.
Discussions were held first thing on Wednesday and the situation analyzed, with all main stakeholders agreeing that the best course of action was to call the race off as early as possible in order to try and prevent people traveling. Giving those involved and all of the fans as much certainty as possible was crucial.
Information then started to come through in order to prevent flights being boarded, with a statement distributed at the first available opportunity. It was much more how crisis management should be compared to the past.
Of course fans will be disappointed, especially those who have spend significant sums to travel to the race and hold tickets, but the call was also made with their safety in mind, and before any financial considerations were resolved.
The biggest frustration in Australia back in 2020 was the fact that nobody would make a decision or communicate it because they didn’t want to be liable for the race’s cancellation from a financial standpoint. This time, the decision comes with F1 being unsure if it can try to fit the race in at a later date this year, but saying it is willing to explore options amid the packed schedule.
Whether that happens or not will probably have an impact on who is footing the bill, but that has been pushed further down the road due to the need to make a rapid decision.
The knock-on impact should be relatively small, with the teams, F1 and the FIA having until Sunday night before they need to start serious de-rigging to get everything to Monaco ahead of the iconic race there in just over 10 days’ time, meaning they can allow the water levels to recede before inspecting any damage.
Within the space of little more than 24 hours, F1 went from having full faith the race would go ahead to agreeing to call it off given developments in Emilia-Romagna, and that now allows the full focus in the region to be exactly where it needs to be: the recovery effort.
People have lost homes, possessions and lives; we’ve lost one motor race out of 23 this year. Even if the track seems completely usable come the weekend and the situation starts to improve, the right decision has absolutely been made.