Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Jules Bianchi's crash in the Japanese Grand Prix reminds us Formula One is an inherently dangerous sport

There was no-one better than Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion, legend, and survivor of Formula One, to sum matters up.
Lauda, the man who almost died behind the wheel in a fiery inferno at the Nurburgring in 1976, said: “Motor racing is dangerous. We get used to it when nothing happens and then suddenly we are all surprised.”
Sadly, Jules Bianchi’s crash is another reminder of this often forgotten, or underplayed fact.
For those looking in from the outside, the sport can seem as safe as the next Sunday afternoon pursuit. We have got used to seeing so many horrendous crashes where the driver has thankfully emerged relatively unscathed.
Think of Robert Kubica’s in Montreal seven years ago, when he hit a wall at nearly 200mph and suffered minor concussion and leg fractures. Or Mark Webber’s in 2010 at Valencia, where the car flipped up inside down in the air before careering in to the barriers. On that occasion, Webber threw the steering wheel out of the car in shock and walked away.
It is easy to become numbed by how much safer it is than 20 years ago, the last time a driver died at a race weekend, with the fatalities of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.
Of course, enormous progress has been made since then. The truly superb, life-saving work of Max Mosley, the FIA president, the late Professor Sid Watkins, the F1 doctor, Charlie Whiting, the race director, and Sir Jackie Stewart, the three-time world champion, along with too many names to mention here, has made it a much less hazardous sport that it once was. The expectation now is a driver will not die behind the wheel of a car.
But motor racing is inherently dangerous by its very nature: you can only decrease the risk, not eliminate it. Unfortunately Bianchi, the quietly spoken 25-year-old Frenchman, has been on the receiving end of that unavoidable fact. It is also, perhaps cruelly, part of the allure of Formula One, that the best drivers race and take risks which can put their safety in danger.
In open cockpit racing, unlikely circumstances can conspire to produce life-threatening accidents. In 2009, Bianchi’s good friend Felipe Massa – who is at his bedside in hospital – experienced such a freak crash. In qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, a suspension spring from Rubens Barichello’s Brawn fell off. Massa just happened to drive in to its path, suffering skull fractures in the process and had surgery surrounding his left eye. It was almost totally unpredictable.
Bianchi’s crash had a similar feel. The chances of Adrian Sutil going off at the same corner a lap before, and the recovery tractor being in the exact spot Bianchi slid off, are very slim. Lessons will have to be learned, and the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, will not be complacent in doing so.
It seems particularly cruel for Marussia that there is a feel of deja vu about all this. A year ago, as F1 was preparing for the Japanese Grand Prix, the news broke that Maria de Villota, a Marussia test driver, had been found dead in her Spanish hotel room. She had sustained injuries in a crash at Duxford aerodrome in 2012.
The argument about open-cockpit racing, and the risk it presents in terms of head injuries, will no doubt resurface about Bianchi’s accident.
But often at times like this there is no more satisfying an explanation or answer than that motorsport is an innately dangerous pursuit. In the meantime, everyone will wait anxiously for news, sending their thoughts and prayers to Bianchi and all those concerned.
The FIA have left themselves open to questions
Sunday evening was by no means an easy one for the FIA. It was a delicate situation, which needed to be handled with great sensitivity and care. But the lack of a facility to ask questions, to understand what the safety procedures were, and if or how they had were followed, was below par.
The following seemed like legitimate questions: Why did the race start when it did? What are the rules on how dark it needs to be before a race stopped? Why was the safety car not deployed when Sutil’s car was being cleared by the recovery tractor?
The answers may all be very straightforward and very simple, casting the FIA in a positive light (I am inclined to think this is the case). But the failure to engage with most of the questions left them open to criticism.
The silly season is becoming rather more serious
Before Sunday began, the Japanese Grand Prix weekend was one of the busiest of the year. Sebastian Vettel stunned Red Bull and the paddock by so dramatically announcing his departure.
For months we have been told by drivers about how the naughty media is concocting “rumours” and “speculation”, but it seems now there is much more to it. Everyone, including Jenson Button, will watch anxiously as Fernando Alonso plays his hand. Is it to be McLaren, or an audacious year-long sabbatical with Mercedes in mind for 2016?
Hamilton seizes the initiative
If it had not been for Bianchi’s accident, Lewis Hamilton would have been jumping for joy on the podium. It was one of those drives of his where it makes you want to stand up and applaud. He seemed to have Nico Rosberg’s number for most of the wet race and bravely made his move halfway through.
In a normal year, it would be initiative seized in the championship, now he is 10 points clear. But the ridiculous double points rule in Abu Dhabi is denying us that. Even if he wins the next three races, he still won’t be particularly assured of winning the championship. Either way, the momentum is with the Briton