At Suzuka last weekend F1 was brutally awoken from its hazy and rosy-eyed daydream of driver safety when Jules Bianchi’s Marussia ploughed into the back of a recovery vehicle tending to Adrian Sutil’s stricken Sauber during a race taking place in the middle of a typhoon. The incident was a timely reminder of the extraordinarily dangerous nature of motorsport and the measures that still need to be taken by the governing body of a sport that practically endorses jumping over the edge of control.
Bianchi’s crash not only asks questions about the state of F1’s ambition for ultimate safety, but also whether wet weather racing is at risk of dying out as a part of F1.
Safety in F1 has been the priority since the untimely death of Ayrton Senna, a tragedy that proved to the top of the FIA that safety was an issue that they had to take seriously again, and to make significant improvements quickly with haste not seen since the safety campaign of Jackie Stewart in the ’70s. The introduction of longer run-offs, pit lane speed limits and barriers bolted to the ground to help shock absorption were all introduced at a rate of knots.
In the early 2000s the HANS (Head and Neck Safety) system was introduced, dramatically reducing the possibility of critical neck injuries for drivers. However, in 2009 after Felipe Massa’s horrible accident when he was knocked unconscious and left with a fractured skull when a piece of broken suspension from Rubens Barichello’s car pierced his helmet, there was renewed zeal into the search for a way to help protect the heads of drivers from impact and debris. After Bianchi’s crash this search will be even more frenzied.
Perhaps the most important fact to come out of this horrendous accident is the FIA’s acceptance that there needs to be an acceptance of responsibility within their treatment of safety. For years it has been the case that when recovery vehicles are on the circuit there should be double-waved-yellows (the highest level of hazard warning in a race environment before a safety car) and for drivers to control their speed during this period. Race Director Charlie Whiting came out on Friday that this should change, stating that “One of the most important things to learn here is that it is probably better to take the decision to slow down away from the drivers, to have a system where it is clearer to everyone how much we think drivers should slow down.” In addition to this the FIA have put forward the possibility of ‘skirts’ around the bottom of recovery vehicles in order to prevent a recurrence of the Bianchi accident.
These moves forward are all well and good, and perhaps should have happened sooner, but where much of the criticism from drivers originated afterwards was towards the continuation of a race in conditions that Felipe Massa called “the worst race of my life”. There have been few wet-weather races in recent times that have been considered to have been stewarded correctly by the men who risk their lives each week. With any instance of rain heavier than a shower the appearance (or lack of) the safety car has garnered criticism from drivers, and in heavy rain conditions the decision to postpone the start of races is seen as an inconvenience rather than a safety based necessity. This indecision and contradiction put forward by drivers puts the future of wet-weather racing in peril.
For racing purists and many drivers, the appeal of wet races is clear. For many it is the ultimate test of driver skill and endurance, a test that only the very best pass with flying colours. For Bernie Ecclestone, wet races add intrigue and excitement into a sport that has rightly been described as boring in recent years. Great performances in the wet from the likes of Graham Hill, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button all back this up and yet the questioning from drivers persists. If F1 is serious in its pursuit of ultimate safety, and it is, the next step is to ban all wet weather races and keep drivers as safe and as much in their comfort zone is possible. Sadly for Bernie and his fans, the loss of such an integral part of the sport and its related history will hurt its viewership and create a sport that lacks any of its original appeal. The future of F1 as a sport that prides itself on the pursuit of speed and skill is on the ropes, and is only another Bianchi-shaped punch in the gut away from collapsing into the depths of irrelevancy.