No one who understands motor racing could have believed the risk of death had been expunged from Formula One completely. And the long months waiting for news of an improvement in Jules Bianchi’s condition had long passed the point where hope ceased to be realistic.
Even so, the news on Saturday that he had succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix was the worst kind of shock.
In December last year, two months after the crash which ultimately claimed Bianchi’s life, a ten-man FIA panel which included former team principals Ross Brawn and Stefano Domenicali and two-times world champion Emerson Fittipaldi published the results of its investigation into what went wrong at Suzuka. Many of its outcomes, including the new Virtual Safety Car procedure, have already been adopted.
However Saturday’s long-dreaded news leaves Formula One facing its eternal dilemma anew: how to race cars at over 300kph while containing the risks within an acceptable level.
Of course F1’s safety standards have made great strides since the dark days of the sixties and early seventies. But the law of diminishing returns has also become a factor.
In an appalling irony, Bianchi’s uncle Lucien also lost his life at the wheel of a racing car. Practising for the Le Mans 24 Hours on the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1969, his Alfa-Romeo struck a telegraph pole and exploded.
Fifty years ago the question of how to make circuits safer was more straightforward: barriers and run-off areas were obvious improvements over trees and telegraph poles. Now the question of how to make cars and tracks safer is usually a matter of striking a delicate compromise between different kinds of risk.
Enclosing cockpits with canopies has been on and off the agenda since 2009, when Felipe Massa suffered serious injuries due to flying debris at the Hungaroring and Formula Two racer Henry Surtees was killed by a flying wheel at Brands Hatch.
But despite extensive research by the FIA, and series such as the World Endurance Championship moving to fully-enclosed cockpits in both its prototype classes, F1 remains an open cockpit formula.
Would cockpit canopies make for safer cars? In the case of Massa’s accident, almost certainly. But other risk factors which would need to be addressed, such driver cooling, clearing the screen in adverse conditions and cockpit evacuation.
Nonetheless the debate over enclosing cockpits has been sustained by a string of recent near-misses. While other open cockpit championships have also had similar incidents, the most high-profile crashes in F1 involved Fernando Alonso at Spa in 2012, Max Chilton at Silverstone last year and Kimi Raikkonen at the Red Bull Ring less than a month ago.
The latter involved a driver who just a few days earlier had suggested F1 could stand to be “a little bit more dangerous”. After Alonso almost landed on Raikkonen’s head in Austria, Nico Rosberg admitted the dangers open cockpits exposed remains an “area of concern” for the drivers.
But even this drastic step would likely be no panacea. The FIA admitted as much in its Bianchi crash report.
“It is not feasible to mitigate the injuries Bianchi suffered by… enclosing the driver’s cockpit,” it noted. Due to the energy involved in the impact – Bianchi’s 700kg car hit a 6,500kg crane at 126kph (78mph) – there is “simply insufficient impact structure on a F1 car to absorb the energy of such an impact without either destroying the driver’s survival cell, or generating non-survivable decelerations”.
“It is considered fundamentally wrong to try and make an impact between a racing car and a large and heavy vehicle survivable,” the report continued. “It is imperative to prevent a car ever hitting the crane and/or the marshals working near it.”
The latter point is the most significant one. Twenty years before Bianchi crashed at Suzuka’s Dunlop Curve in the rain, Martin Brundle had a near-identical experience. But he missed a course vehicle and hit a marshal, who suffered a badly broken leg.
Moments before he crashed Brundle was shouting on his radio for the Safety Car to be sent out. Since then he’s continued to say as much in similar circumstances in his capacity as a television commentator:
Sadly it seems to have taken Bianchi’s accident for this lesson to be learned. While the FIA report stated the decision to use double waved yellow flags while a crane was at the side of the circuit instead of deploying the Safety Car was “consistent with the regulations”, the panel’s first recommendation has served to fundamentally change how driver speeds are controlled in these situations.
The subsequent introduction of the Virtual Safety Car, which worked well when used properly for the first time at Silverstone two weeks ago, shows it is now understood that it should not have been left to drivers to decide how much to slow down by in such a scenario.
Many of the weekend reports on Bianchi’s crash referred to it as a “freak” accident. But while the chances of Bianchi having the misfortune to hit a crane in the way he did were indeed small, looking at the bigger picture it’s possible to see there were warning signs that such an accident might happen to one driver one day.
Of course it’s easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight, but until Saturday it was also possible to cite F1’s two-decade streak without a race driver fatality as an indication that safety was not a pressing area of concern. That is no longer the case.
At a time when the sport is planning a major increase in speeds in the near future, Bianchi’s crash serves as a reminder that Formula One’s safety record can never be taken for granted. It can only be sustained by remaining open-minded about how the sport can become safer, and by being unafraid to challenge the past conventions.
The goal of a fatality-free Formula One may be an unreachable one, but it must always be the objective.
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