The Macau Grand Prix Is Motorsport's Best-Kept Secret—But Is It Too Dangerous?
After a horrific Formula 3 crash, should the FIA attempt to modify the track, slow down the cars, or both?
Sophia Florsch's terrifying crash at last year's Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix made headlines across the globe—and for good reason. The video of the violent wreck—which saw the German racing driver fly through the air and over the track's catch fence—was seen by millions of people across the globe within hours of the accident. For many people who laid eyes on the violent scene courtesy of social media and news outlets, it may have been the first time they heard about Macau, an autonomous region located on the southern coast of China. Few might believe that this urban maze lined with skyscrapers plays host to one of motorsports' most extreme and dangerous challenges. In fact, many inside the racing community are guilty of the same ignorance.
Luckily, following an 11-hour spinal cord surgery, it appears that Florsch will be all right. But can we say the same about future Macau Grand Prix participants?
Considering Florsch's crash isn't the first (or second, or third) mind-boggling accident at the FIA-approved Macau Grand Prix racing circuit, it's hard not to wonder: Should the track layout be revised? Should the cars be restricted? Or is Macau simply too dangerous of a venue to race at?
To understand the allure of Macau, take a look at the honor roll of past champions there. It reveals an impressive number of young drivers that later climbed to the highest levels of the sport: Senna, Schumacher, Sato, and future IndyCar star Felix Rosenqvist. Winning in Macau requires the utmost levels of precision and the kind of high-speed commitment (a.k.a. balls) that is only matched in parts of other circuits. Macau is 3.8 miles of dizzying, narrow city streets connected to multi-lane highways via hairpins so tight it looks like only one car can squeeze through. (Legendary Monaco stretches just two miles in length.) And the track limits? Steel fencing on one side and ancient stonewall on the other.
As it stands, the Macau Grand Prix hosts three separate FIA-sanctioned series over one weekend. At the top is Formula 3, followed by World Touring Car Cup (WTCR), and since 2008, the FIA GT World Cup. Each category race has its own ebb and flow, but there is one common denominator: Lisboa, the ultra-tight right-hander at the end of a colossal front stretch. When Macau is mentioned, myriad first lap pile-ups over the years come to mind—and that's exactly where Florsch was catapulted during this year’s race. Reports claim that the snafu started when she ran over the rear wheel of a car she was following closely, but even though she quickly began traveling backward ridiculously fast, her car didn't go airborne until it made contact with a row of blue kerbing added inside the red and white kerbing. After reviewing footage from previous Macau GPs, it became clear that this was a new addition for this year's race. (My educated guess: This was installed to stop drivers from jumping the inside kerb to gain a time advantage.)
When these types of kerbs are used, they are generally large enough to drastically upset the balance of the car, in order to punish a driver. Hit them with enough energy, and they can damage the car. In this case, it actually served to launch Florsch's car into the air. 2000 Macau GP champion Lucas Di Grassi—now a Formula E champ—was ahead of the curve (no pun intended) in spotting this, likening her crash to a similar incident in Formula E. As terrifying as the footage is, it distracts from the fact that had it not been for the launch pad (the blue kerbs), the No. 31 car of Sho Tsuboi would've likely absorbed the full force of Florsch's car. Not to dismiss the seriousness of Florsch’s injury, the volatile blue kerbing may have avoided an even more horrendous crash—or, quite possibly, even a death. A side impact from the rear crash structure of another F3 car, with that level of energy, would have been awful.
Could Florsch's Crash Have Been Prevented?
Could it have been avoided, is this a Macau-specific crash, will it happen again? Of course, anything is possible. Many have said before that racing in Macau at all is a foolish endeavor. Objectively you could say anything in motorsport is foolish—that’s kind of the point. But do things need to change?
The same thing could happen at Spa going into Les Combes, Turn 1 at Indy, etc. The fence and the blue kerbs were the issues here—not the circuit itself. Would adding a chicane on the approach to Lisboa alleviate this problem, or would it make things worse? Would it ruin the spectacle that is one of the best overtaking opportunities in Macau?
I asked 2007 Macau GP Champion and current Mazda Team Joest DPi driver Oliver Jarvis for his thoughts.
“I raced F3 at Macau for two years and never saw anything that spectacular," said Jarvis. "The high-speed nature of Macau definitely contributed to it. But almost all the accidents that happen there are quite low speed. Cars locking up and nosing into the wall. The high speed at Macau certainly was a factor, but it was not a common accident there.”
Jarvis, much like myself, suspects almost everyone else who has raced at Macau doesn't believe that changing the circuit would make it safer. However, something along those lines may come as a result of an upcoming unrelated FIA inspection. In order for a circuit to receive an FIA certification, it must adhere to guidelines concerning everything from tire wall placement to advertising space. For Macau to continue as an FIA-sanctioned event, it will need to be upgraded to FIA Grade 2 Certification, because the new Global FIA spec F3 cars are considered Grade 2 Circuit cars, rather than the current Grade 3. This means that race promoters will have to make some serious changes in order to maintain Macau's FIA sanctioning. What exactly those will be is hard to say, but looking at any circuit built or refurbished in the past 10 years, it's obvious that distance to the barriers is a key issue.
But as Jarvis noted, another option could be to restrict the cars, rather than the track.
“I would prefer the cars getting lower power at Macau rather than the track be changed," said Jarvis. "You have to be so precise and on the limit, and you can actually race there. If you start putting in chicanes you will lose a lot of the overtaking potential.”
Track limits at modern racing circuits are a frequent source of debate within the racing community and its followers. The modern street circuit shows the danger of the ultimate track limit: the wall. All recently built or refurbished circuits are characterized by large, paved run-off areas. Large distances from the apex to the tire wall, flat kerbing to avoid cars going airborne, and little to no grass or gravel trap are the norm nowadays. Obviously, this makes Macau even more unusual.
“These modern tracks you can drive over the limit [because there are] no consequences," said Jarvis. "That is why Macau is so special, why all the teams and drivers love it. Back when you and I started racing we couldn’t just go flat out through Copse at Silverstone. There weren’t 50 meters of runoff on the exit. You had to build up to it. That is why IMSA racing in America is so special. After qualifying at Mid Ohio, my teammates and I looked at each other and said, 'Wow.'"
"At the old-school tracks you can push the limit harder than the other guy and beat him," he added.
This is a common sentiment among European drivers crossing the Pond to compete in North America. Tracks in the former colonies have come a long way in improving safety, but have remained far more intact than many of Europe’s historic Circuits.
“Exit kerbs need to punish you," said Jarvis. "The right kerbs that unsettle cars and punish drivers. I know this is a potential safety issue with big kerbs on the exit of fast corners. But there has to be something, otherwise, everyone can just push at 110 percent."
"Most people won in their second year at Macau because you had to learn the track with such little time," Jarvis added. "When I was younger the danger of the race never really concerned me. But now I’m a bit older, I’m married, we have a little girl. I think a little bit more. If anything, I like the walls being close. The really big accidents tend to be when a car goes barrel-rolling through a gravel trap.”
Could Different Seats Prevent Injuries?
Believe it or not, the solution to injuries like Florsch suffered may be found in the racing seats used in today's race cars—or rather, the composition of them. After all, it's the only component, apart from the seatbelts, that is in constant contact with the drivers during a crash. Could a regulation that mandates a more shock-absorbing seat help curb injuries?
“After some of the big accidents at Le Mans, we were told that back injuries were a result of the laid-down driving position [found in prototype-style cars]," said Jarvis. "They said that a more 'upright position was safer,' but we haven't heard much more since then."
“The FIA mandates a 'bead seat' for all the pro championships, but I think mostly for fire-resistance standards. I’m sure there are a lot of young drivers that race with a two-part foam [less safe] seat. We all did."
The “bead seat” that Jarvis refers to is a seat insert made from foam beads, which conforms to the shape of the driver’s body. This type of seat construction not only provides more support and comfort than a rigid seat, but also something much more important: a superior level of impact absorption. As seen in this video, the process of building a seat for an IndyCar—including the optional further step of 3D-scanning and CNC-milling an exact copy of the seat profile—further ads energy-absorbing ability and reduces weight, something not found in other series.
Even with Formula 1 heralded as the pinnacle of innovation in motorsports, the construction and compromise of the seats used in F1 (and F3) are a little suspect when compared to an IndyCar seat. With Formula 1 not being subject to the kind of enormous G-load accidents that Indy cars are subject on ovals, the case can be made that F1 and F3 cars do not require the same level of protection. Take it from Nico Rosberg:
In an open-wheel race car, as Rosberg explains, being as low as possible in the car is important—but this is something that needs to be examined from a safety perspective. Would mandating that something shock resistant be between the floor and seat make a difference? Has anyone asked? For all the ignorant and tawdry whining about the halo before its first race, look how quickly it has proved its worth. Progress saves lives.
So herein lies the rub—for the entire sport. Certainly, there are aspects that can be changed that could help avoid recurring issues. As the sport evolves, safety improvements are going to have to focus more on the car and driver than on the circuits themselves. But there has to be a balance; otherwise, every track and race will be boring. For example, the Circuit of the Americas went the right direction by installing kerbing to punish the liberal use of the expansive run-off provided. (Maybe Liberty Media should leverage this into an endorsement deal with Scotts Turf Builder and start laying one car's width of grass around the perimeter of all racing surfaces.)
There has to be both risk and reward when driving on the limit, and tracks need to be designed to provide both. Too much kerb and you're airborne; a wheel on the grass and you're sideways and spinning. More importantly, fans need to know there are consequences for poor choices—but a race doesn't have to turn into a gladiator match. Personally, I don't tolerate people yearning for the “good old days” when 30 percent of the grid died every year. I will not entertain the idea that an IndyCar has to be traveling at 250 miles per hour into Turn 1 at Indy or in a pack of 10 cars in order for the racing to be any good.
Ryan Lewis is a professional racing driver who began his career piloting open-wheel race cars in Europe. In America, he has raced in the Champ Car Atlantic Series and more recently GT and Le Mans Prototype cars in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Ryan also works as a driver coach and pro wheelman for a number of car manufacturers.