British GP’s chaotic start encapsulates the spectacle and terror of Formula 1’s new era

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Guanyu Zhou’s crash at the British Grand Prix (PA)
Guanyu Zhou’s crash at the British Grand Prix (PA)

Enthralling, thrilling and spine-chilling in equal measure, where on earth to begin to describe this one as the sun sets at Silverstone for another year? Well it’s quite simple really: at the beginning. Because for all the nerve-shredding overtakes, questionable strategy calls and moments of fortune that followed in a brilliant British Grand Prix – won deservedly by first-time victor Carlos Sainz – the stakes in the opening 20 seconds at lights out could not have been much higher.

While the eyes of a record 140,000 spectators were fixed on the battle of the front, with Max Verstappen overtaking Sainz into turn one, what followed behind encapsulates the mouth-watering madness of high-speed motorsport. It was only a light touch from Pierre Gasly, sandwiched in between George Russell and Guanyu Zhou, but it was enough.

The Frenchman clipped the back of home favourite Russell’s rear-left tyre, sending the Brit’s Mercedes spinning into Zhou’s Alfa Romeo, which flipped in a 180 spin almost inevitably. And on the tarmac, gravel and then tyre barrier, the Alfa did not stop spinning.

Zhou was sent curling over the tyre barrier into the perimeter fencing; designed to protect fans from flying debris or tyres, not cars. With the rookie Chinese driver left stricken in a heap, upside-down between the fencing and tyres, photographers nearby did their job. Onlookers gasped for breath. Fans watching on TV were left clueless with no replays incoming.

Yet what they didn’t know – and what only those positioned on the Wellington straight did – was a group of protesters had invaded the track at the first high-speed section of the lap. Sporting T-shirts protesting against global oil usage, they sat down on the side of a live race track, with the greatest machines in sport pounding towards them.

The winner, Carlos Sainz (AP)
The winner, Carlos Sainz (AP)

But, ultimately, they weren’t pounding towards them. With the red flag thrown rapidly after Zhou’s crash, Verstappen, out in front, had slowed the pack down with marshals frantically waving yellow flags.

And so presents the genuine irony of the start to this Grand Prix; while the world waited to hear of Zhou’s condition, that spectacular crash in reality prevented a tragedy down the road. Because without it, who honestly knows what would have been the real story here?

Fortunately, there were no serious injuries or fatalities on Sunday. Zhou later sent a tweet rightly saying the halo device – fitted onto the cars in 2018 to protect the driver while in the cockpit – saved his life. Alex Albon was released from hospital after a precautionary check due to a secondary crash of cars on the first turn of lap one. Huge credit goes to the FIA for their improved safety measures and quick deployment of services to help Zhou. Yet all of this – the sheer danger of it, whether it be drivers or spectators – is what makes it near-on impossible to divert your eyes.

But F1’s booming popularity also has its downsides. Not since 2003 has Silverstone seen a track invader. Why do you think the protesters use this platform to share their grievances? Millions watching on a global scale is quite the platform.

The Grand Prix on its own would have been entertainment enough. Sainz was the beneficiary of a late safety car which thwarted Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton. Verstappen faltered away after a puncture damaged his car irreparably early on. The Red Bull of Sergio Perez battled back from last all the way to second, his tussles with Hamilton’s Mercedes and Leclerc’s Ferrari in the closing stages mesmeric to witness.

That’s the thing. With these new regulations designed to improve wheel-to-wheel racing, Silverstone was the race of 2022 by far in this respect. Yet while Sainz and the Prancing Horse may well remember the taste of victory at the podium, people the world over will have seen Zhou’s crash by now, summing up what makes this new era so spectacular and, paradoxically, so terrifying.

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