It obliged Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll to switch from intermediates to medium rather than soft tyres on a drying track, with the Canadian subsequently crashing heavily on his final lap.
Under sprint shootout rules, drivers are obliged to use medium tyres in SQ1 and SQ2, then softs in SQ3.
However, the rules also state that if the track is declared wet by the FIA those rules won’t apply, and drivers can use any set of dry tyres through the three sessions.
The relevant regulation reads: “If any of the periods SQ1, SQ2 or SQ3 gets declared wet, the specification, mileage or number of dry-weather tyres that may be used in the remainder of the sprint shootout will be free.”
That’s exactly what happened at the last sprint weekend in Austria, where the track was declared wet but was in fact dry from very early in the first session, and tyre usage became free.
Although the FIA is not obliged to declare the track wet, teams assumed that with rain expected on Saturday in Belgium the same procedure would be followed. Under this scenario, if at any point the track was drying in SQ1 and SQ2, they would have the ability to switch to the soft.
Some teams thus based the choice of what tyres they returned after Friday’s running on the likelihood of needing more softs and fewer mediums, and also based their preparations for the shootout session on the basis that they would go from intermediates to softs if the track dried in any of the three segments.
However, around 15 minutes before the shootout began FIA sporting director Steve Nielsen told the teams by intercom that despite the ongoing rain the track would not be declared wet. In effect, that locked them into using mediums in SQ1 and SQ2 on a drying track.
It’s understood that the call may have reflected what happened in Austria, where some teams questioned the necessity of freeing up dry tyre choice with the track having been declared wet.
Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23, climbs out of his damaged car after a crash in Q2 of the Sprint Shootout
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
In the event SQ1 remained wet, but with a dry line appearing Stroll agreed with his Aston team’s choice of going to slicks in the closing minutes.
However, instead of the usual intermediates to soft transition he was obliged to take the mediums.
Urged to warm them up on his out-lap Stroll was clearly struggling for grip, and part way around the lap he told the team “it’s too early.” He was told by his engineer that the team was now committed to the choice that that “we have to do the best with the decision we’ve made”.
He duly started his flying lap, but part way around it he had a heavy crash, bringing out the red flag and ending SQ2.
After a delay to retrieve his car the final SQ3 session ran in dry conditions, with everyone on softs.
The unusual aspect of the whole scenario is that, while the FIA followed its own accepted procedures, it was the first time that the regulations have obliged a driver to go from intermediates to mediums on a still damp track when softs would be the standard choice for maximum performance.
It’s understood that the FIA deems the warm-up of the mediums to be as good as the softs, and thus sticking to the planned shootout tyre allocation was an acceptable choice.