Belgian Grand Prix 2001: Drama, Chaos, and Tragedy Averted

The podium at the Spa 2001 grand prix
The podium!

Spa Francorchamps is a legendary F1 track, one we attended for the 2009 F1 race.

It’s quite astounding in its grandeur, nestling next to a tiny village in the Belgian countryside. It’s also revered as one of the most daunting tracks in the world.

And it produced monumental epics such as the Spa 1998 race. But the race three years later was almost as memorable, for all the right (and wrong) reasons.

Spa 2001: Race Review

The race took place on the 2nd September in (yes!) 2001. At that point in the championship, the title had been decided at the previous race.

Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were unbeatable all season long, with David Coulthard’s (DC) McLaren title challenge fading at mid-season point due to reliability issues.

The Williams team should also have been title contenders with Juan-Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, but the car’s reliability issues also halted such ambitions.

Michael Schumacher entered the weekend in holy territory. At that point, he was only the third man in history to claim four world titles.

He was understandably in an upbeat mood, as he’d won two titles on the trot for Ferrari after the team’s bleak wait from 1979-2000.

However, Williams entered the weekend as firm favourites. Their power happy BMW engines on a power happy circuit like Spa seemed a match made in heaven.

However, qualifying was heavily disrupted by rain for the first 30 minutes.

It was only in the closing minutes did the drivers get a decent clear run, with Montoya blitzing pole from Schumacher (Ralf) by almost a second.

Schumacher (Michael) was third. Behind that lot was more of shock, with Hein-Harald Frentzen in his unfancied Prost up in fourth.

1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve found himself sixth, with the normally competitive McLarens caught with Mika Hakkinen seventh and DC ninth.

The rain meant the time differences across the field were much wider than you’d normally expect. Tenths of a second were now full seconds.

For example, DC’s best time was six seconds slower than Montoya’s pole lap.

Fernando Alonso (who went on to win two titles in 2005 and 2006) in his Minardi was 20th and 10 seconds off the pole time.

However, it was immaterial due to the rain. But an indication of how this weather can play havoc with an F1 field.

Spa 2001: The First Race

Despite the heavy rain during qualifying, there was only a light sprinkling of rain on the 2nd of September. This came 11 minutes before the start of the race.

As the formation lap was about to begin, there was immediately agony for the Prost team.

Frentzen up in a wildly unexpected fourth had a gearbox problem and stalled. He was sent straight to the back of the grid—a disaster for the beleaguered Prost team.

The start was also aborted. But on the second attempt, pole sitter Montoya suffered an issue and was left stationary.

The field went off without him, with his mechanics then firing up the car. The Columbian then had to take up dead last at the back of the field (some decent news for Frentzen, at least).

Then the race began proper, with Ralf Schumacher leading from the start. But his brother promptly overtook him at Les Combes to take the lead.

Further down the field, there’s always an enormous amount of nipping, tucking, and overtaking amongst the pack as they harry each other for positions.

It’s a knife-edge balancing act, guiding one of these monsters around Spa at 200mph whilst carefully judging each move.

Everything went sickeningly wrong on lap five, with a shocking incident. The enormity of which reminded everyone of the dangers of motorsport.

Luciano Burti’s Spa Accident

Spa 2001 is perhaps most famous for Brazilian driver Luciano Burti’s terrible accident, which happened on lap five of the race.

In the Prost, Burti was challenging Jaguar driver Eddie Irvine for 15th position as the pair approached the tremendously fast, flat-out Blanchimont corner.

The pair clashed and the hapless Burti shot across the gravel trap into a sickening impact. It was full force 111 g0 (1,090 m/s2).

In comparison to a road car, a 160 pound person crashing head on at 30mph whilst wearing a seatbelt would experience a 30 g impact.

Anything above 50 g is considered an immediate risk of serious injury or death.

It was immediately obvious this was the most serious accident F1 had seen since 1995. And it’s questionable whether Burti would have survived the incident only a handful of years earlier.

Luciano Burti at Spa in 2001

It was very unpleasant viewing watching Irvine (normally a playboy, loudmouth character) desperately trying to wrench the devastated Prost out of the tyre barrier.

The live scenes (with Murray Walker‘s sombre commentary) all suggested this was going to be a fatal accident.

However, thanks to the FIA’s various and incredible safety advances since 1994, Burti survived.

The sport actually downplayed the severity of Burti’s condition in the immediate aftermath and didn’t report on the extent of his condition.

This was, of course, largely to protect the Brazilian driver’s privacy. It only emerged many years later he had severe concussion, facial, and head bruising.

He was briefly placed into a medically induced coma, but was released from intensive care on 4th September (two days after the crash).

Unfortunately, Burti would then suffer seizures and amnesia for some four months after the accident. Prescribed medication was able to alleviate both.

But the accident did bring about the end of Burti’s F1 career at the age of 26, with only 14 race starts to his name.

In 2014 he posted this image to his Instagram account, which shows the extent of the damage to his crash helmet.

He notes it was some 13 years before the FIA handed the helmet back to him!

As with all serious accidents in F1 (such as Romain Grosjean’s 2020 crash), the FIA often impounds certain items for tests to further improve safety standards.

In an interview from 2019 with Autosport, Burti attributed his survival to F1’s safety improvements in the aftermath of Imola 1994 and Ayrton Senna’s death.

He’s now 46 and works as a commentator for TV Globo in Brazil.

Spa 2001: The Second Race

After a huge delay following Burti’s crash, the grid reformed for Spa take two.

However, the Williams mechanics ran out of time making changes to Ralf Schumacher’s car before the formation lap began. And so there was this bizarre sight of the car still yanked up on its jack and helpless in the air, like it was on a hovercraft.

Sir Patrick Head (the team’s legendary engineering director) could be heard on the radio remarking with disbelief, “Wait… what’s going on with Ralf’s car, it’s up in the air!?”

This all meant both Williams drivers lost their qualifying 1-2 and had to start right at the back.

But after all the mayhem in the first section of the grand prix, what followed was a bit more formulaic.

Giancarlo Fisichella aced the start in his Benetton and almost catapulted into the lead. But Schumacher was able to take control in the inimitable way only he could.

He went on to dominate the race, winning by 10 seconds from McLaren’s David Coulthard. Fisichella came home a fine third—his first, and only, podium of the season in a dodgy car.

But it was clear Williams had blown the race.

It should have been an easy 1-2 for the British team, but their season-long reliability issues had struck again.

A set of weird circumstances led to Ralf Schumacher dribbling home in seventh and outside the points, with Montoya retiring with a blown engine on lap 14.

But in his usual enthusiastic way, he made some serious progress from the back of the grid. It’s just his engine didn’t like that at all.

Meanwhile, newly crowned title winner Schumacher enjoyed one of the easier wins of his career.

Also of note was French driver Jean Alesi’s sixth position, which was the final point he scored in his illustrious F1 career.

He retired from the sport three races later at the close of the season in Suzuka.

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