Opinion: Why di Grassi’s social media pile-up misread Macau


Credit: Audi Sport Media Centre

A year on from Laurens Vanthoor‘s farcical, upside-down triumph in the Macau FIA GT World Cup, the world’s GT3 exotica would produce a no-less absurd spectacle in 2017. For a weekend that coincided with a three-way GT title showdown in the World Endurance Championship, the strength and breadth of the entry was remarkable. Fully-fledged manufacturer assaults from Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Porsche, stand-alone entries from Ferrari and Lamborghini plus a debut outside of the United States for Honda‘s NSX GT3. In the cockpit were the likes of “Mr Macau”, Edoardo Mortara, double DTM champion Marco Wittmann, GT supremo Vanthoor, current Blancpain Endurance Mirko Bortolotti and Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi.

Sadly for di Grassi, his first combustion-powered race of 2017 and his first outing in the R8 LMS, ended with a crash in the Solitude Esses. However, this was not the lowest point of the Brazilian’s weekend. The GT World Cup’s seemingly annual moment of meltdown this year came during Saturday’s qualification race, and took the form of a pile-up of comic proportions:

Multi-million-pound carambolage. Daniel Juncadella‘s steering had been knocked out of alignment by startline contact with the outside wall that had seen the Spaniard audaciously try to take the lead from Mortara. Having been unsuccessful, Juncadella’s steering would push him wide and into the barriers at Police bend: one of the tightest and most blind corners on the circuit. Whilst Raffaelle Marciello would fractionally miss Juncadella’s Mercedes, the unsighted Porsche of Vanthoor would start a chain-reaction that would see most of the tightly-bunched field pile into one another and leave di Grassi’s Audi off the ground.

Speaking to Autosport, the Brazilian stated, “I don’t remember in my career having 12 drivers discussing a shunt. It was a big one. But in that corner, on the first lap, with the cars this wide – it is very difficult for people to avoid.”

“I was totally blind. I came around the corner and was very close to Markus [Pommer], and then I hit him. That is Macau,” he explained. “It is the risk that comes from starting in the midfield, as you have more risk of a shunt. In this situation, even if you are careful you cannot avoid the accident. It is not a risk management. It is just a matter of luck.”

And yet, later that week Lucas did not appear quite as sanguine and philosophical about the intrinsic risks of Macau, and in a tweet, argued the incident could be a basis for safety improvements:

As a proposal, di Grassi’s suggestions did not receive the warmest reception, with many critical of an effort to sterilise the very risks that motivate so many drivers to annually return to Macau. David Coulthard facetiously teased,

Lucas’ idea certainly is flawed, but not in the cruder personal manner that much of the torrent of criticism disputed. It is too easy to caricature a tweet, to suggest that an idea in isolation is a profound reflection of the man who sends it. It is too easy to conclude that the newly-announced CEO of Roborace; purveyor of driverless, electric racing cars; is hell-bent on reducing drivers to mere spectators, and aspires to fully automated proxy motorsport. That is a crass undersell of the Brazilian’s talents.

Di Grassi is perhaps among the most technically gifted racing drivers in the world, having been instrumental in the development of the Dallara GP2/08 and Formula E’s Spark-Renault SRT_01E. He has also proven himself as an astute businessman, and despite only having had an anonymous F1 venture with backmarkers Virgin in 2010, enjoys the customary F1 Monaco residence alongside much of the F1 grid. As spurned former F1 drivers go, di Grassi has prospered to an unparalleled extent.

He is unquestionably a new breed of racing driver. Versus a sport that is perhaps more inclined towards rose-tinting history than any other, di Grassi is apparently more at ease with the future direction of motorsport than other drivers. Clearly an avid F1 advocate, Lucas told Autosport’s Dieter Rencken that automated racing and FE could free-up F1 from any obligation to be ‘road relevant’, and thus put the driver centre-stage. It should also not be assumed that motorsport’s resident progressive racing driver is also an advocate of the halo, as the Brazilian explains:

Obviously, di Grassi is a much more nuanced character than the ‘safety police’ Twitter rantings would suggest, and yet for several reasons, his call for an “automated driver warning system” fails to add up. Firstly, in most circumstances, it is puzzling to see why it would be more effective than a flag marshall. On Grade 1 FIA accredited circuits, the flags – which drivers are attuned to from a young age – are backed-up by programmable lighting panels, which are mirrored by Magneti Marelli‘s patented cockpit display system. It is difficult to see why an experienced marshall would prove a less effective warning system, or why, considering the reaction time taken by the driver, an automated system would give any meaningful prior notice.

Secondly, there was around half a second between Juncadella’s Mercedes making contact with the barriers at the Police bend and Vanthoor’s Porsche starting an irreversible chain-reaction. There is not a warning system in the world that provide meaningful notice of such an instantaneous incident, where the field is so tightly bunched, so unsighted and carrying so much momentum out of the high-speed Paiol curve. No flag or warning system could ever have stopped this runaway-train of GT exotica. It was a perfect storm.

Indeed, it was such a perfect storm, it is not so much a basis for safety improvements, but the start of a discussion about whether modern GT3 machinery is on the cusp of outgrowing the Guia Circuit. The current batch of GT3 challengers are wider and produce more downforce than ever before, and whilst their ultimate lap time is constrained by BoP (Balance of Performance – usually takes the form of ballast or power caps), the increased downforce means that more of the lap time is generated through corner speed as opposed to speed down the straights. More superficially, it is worth asking if drivers of the quality we have seen in recent GT World Cups cannot avoid major incidents, whether collisions are simply inevitable. As di Grassi argues, has racing a GT car at Macau simply become a “matter of luck”?

Credit: Audi Sport Media Centre

Clearly, no amount of skill could have prevented the Macau incident, and it is unlikely that any amount of GPS data and accelerometer telemetry could have prevented it either. And yet, that is unlikely to deter any of the drivers from a chance to drive the streets of Macau again, as many of them will happily resign themselves to the intrinsic risks just so they can indulge in the primal thrill of a circuit with the high-speed flow of Spa, but the margin-for-error of Monaco. It would not be a surprise to see di Grassi among those clamouring for another chance to drive the mighty Guia Circuit. Motorcycle riders will likely also flock to the infamous circuit again in 2018 despite the tragic death of Daniel Hegarty during this year’s Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix. The GT Cup may have racked-up the highest repair bill, but it was not the defining incident of this year’s petrolhead pilgrimage to Macau.