More than 48 hours have passed since Jules’ accident on Sunday and I’m still effectively speechless. Whenever I try to talk to someone about the accident, I find myself repeating the same words: “horrific”, “freak accident”, “tragedy”, and so on, before my voice trails off and I find that I’m incapable of expressing myself.
Similarly, I struggled to put my thought into writing here. On Sunday, I wanted to write something but, after loading WordPress, I found myself staring vacantly at the screen, my hand hovering over the keyboard waiting for direction, but my thoughts instead focused on how shocking the crash was for me and the F1 community in general.
In 2014 we marked the twentieth year since the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix. You’ll know, I’m sure, that they were the last drivers to lose their lives at a Formula One race meeting. This year we also patted ourselves on the back for the very fact that no driver has died on a race weekend in over twenty years.
Granted, we’ve come close. In the months after Senna’s death, F1 witnessed the crashes of Karl Wendlinger, Andrea Montermini and Pedro Lamy: three crashes which could very easily have been fatal, and which left Wendlinger in a coma for several weeks after his shunt at the chicane in Monaco. In 2001, Luciano Burti suffered a near-fatal crash when he collided with Eddie Irvine at the Belgian Grand Prix and hit an unprotected tyre barrier. In 2009, Felipe Massa was hit by the spring of Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car, which hit and penetrated his helmet at a weak point, knocking him unconscious and sending him into tyre barriers.
I began watching Formula One a year later. Since then, we’ve seen several titanic crashes, all of which have had no serious outcome, except perhaps to give a driver a bad name. Mark Webber’s flip in Valencia 2010 saw a lucky yet easy escape for the Aussie. In 2012 Alonso came within millimetres from death when Romain Grosjean’s Lotus flew over his head. In 2014, Esteban Gutierrez flipped several times following contract with Pastor Maldonado. In the case of Alonso and Gutierrez, as both drivers sat motionless in their cars and the cameras panned out, for fear of showing the gruesome details of what could prove to be a tragedy, I sat in fear of witnessing my first serious on-screen crash. But the racing gods spared both men, and they quickly reacted suitably, giving a thumbs-up, or looking around in confusion to figure out what the hell had just happened.
These events trained me to become comfortable in the fact that Formula One is a safe sport.
I’ve written articles in the past about dangers in the sport pre-1994, or dangerous behaviour by teams or drivers in contemporary Formula One. I’ve also written about changes in Formula One safety since ’94, and how, although our sport is far safer now, it is still dangerous. After last weekend’s events, I’ve realised how loosely I typed the words. Although acknowledging the ever-present danger in Motorsport, I had never put major thought into the realities. I was talking with near levity. The Bianchi incident has brought me kicking and screaming back to reality.
We have become too complacent in F1. Max Verstappen, who made his debut at the Japanese Grand Prix last weekend, wasn’t even alive when the last driver was killed. It’s a new generation, and – or so many thought – a whole new ball game.
Although what happened to Jules Bianchi was just the most unfortunate series of isolated incidents coming together, it showed that there are loopholes in the safety of our sport. A tyre explosion, as happened several times last year, could kill a driver. Indeed Kimi Raikkonen was very fortunate to avoid the carcass of Jean-Eric Vergne’s tyre when it exploded in front of him in Silverstone last year. Again this year, Kimi was lucky to survive a crash when he went off track at Silverstone and rejoined in the middle of the pack, causing Felipe Massa to slam into him. A tyre – this one intact – bounced away from the collision and missed Max Chilton by inches. This too would have likely seriously injured, if not killed, Chilton on impact with his helmet. Chilton was also hit by a missile launched by Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus at the 2013 German Grand Prix. It hit the zylon strip above his helmet visor, which was implemented following Massa’s aforementioned crash. Although it would not have killed him without the zylon strip’s development, it could easily have caused a big head injury.
Had Romain Grosjean’s car travelled two centimetres lower over Alonso’s car in Belgium 2012, Alonso could have suffered severe head trauma. Had Rosberg’s car rolled when it was launched over the back of Narain Karthikeyan’s HRT in Abu Dhabi 2012, it would have hit the barriers upside down and rendered the roll bar useless as his head would bear the brunt of the impact. As you can see, the only exposed part of the driver, the head, is coming into danger more than we realise. Nowadays we laugh off crashes and show them to our friends to demonstrate how crazy F1 can be. Risk is a big part of the show and one of the reasons both drivers and fans alike are drawn to it.
But steps must be made in the wake of this incident. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association has already warned against knee-jerk reactions, but yet advances in safety that exclude coating the drivers in bubble wrap must fully be encouraged. For example, the use of JCBs must be reviewed. In Ireland, trucks have a barrier running underneath the back of them to stop drivers accidentally driving under them. Perhaps a similar device could be fitted to JCBs, or perhaps a shock-absorbing material running along the bottom of the JCB, meaning that: a) cars can’t drive under them and b) if a car does hit one, some energy will be dispersed. Had such a barrier existed on the back of the JCB on Sunday, Bianchi would not have been able to go under the JCB at head level, with such force that it launched the back of the tractor off the ground. Obviously this is what some would call a knee-jerk reaction, but something must be changed about the recovery vehicles if we are to keep using them.
Another system which could be used simultaneously is to implement speed limiters, as exist in Le Mans. This limits a driver to a top speed – say 60kph – in a yellow flag zone. As speeding is being discussed as a possible cause for Bianchi’s crash, this is definitely something which should be considered. Jacques Villeneuve has called for Safety Car periods every time a car is to be cleared away, but this is simply not realistic. This would lead to far too many stops and starts – especially with the new safety car re-start rule being implemented. The speed limit is a much more feasible option.
Another possible solution being thrown about even more is the introduction of cockpit canopies. I’m opposed to these for a number of reasons. To start with Bianchi’s example, the extensive damage to rear of the Marussia and the super-strong roll bar means a canopy would probably have been obliterated. Perhaps, depending on the design, it could even have collapsed inward into the cockpit, squashing Bianchi and adding to his already severe injuries. In other situations, such as when Kovalainen went underneath crash barriers at Catalunya in 2008, it could hamper rescue efforts. Then there are situations revolving around the electric ERS pack in the car, or fires in the cockpit. The regulations make it mandatory to be able to conduct a cockpit evacuation in a maximum of 7 seconds. A canopy would hamper a quick exit, and – in the case of a fire or electrical failure – could in fact trap drivers in the cockpit. All-in-all, these are not a viable solution.
I’m not a safety expert – and don’t wish to appear as such. I trust that the people in F1 whose job it is to be experts are experts though, so I will leave it to them. But to return to my point, Formula One needs to do as much as it can to close the apparent loopholes. Without the aid of cockpit canopies to deflect flying objects, perhaps a drivers head cannot be protected any further. The helmets, as Bianchi’s intact helmet proves, are incredibly tough. The cars are also very safe: they are always destroyed in big impacts, taking energy out of the crash and leaving only the important survival cell completely impact. They are perfectly designed (and rigorously tested) to ensure that when landing upside down, hitting one another, or having high impact collisions with barriers, they do their job incredibly well. Therefore, the safety weaknesses I see are only in the procedure of removing cars that have left the race, or trying to further protect the head.
We know F1 will do it’s best to protect it’s drivers, which is perhaps the thing that F1 is best at organising. But, for now, our thoughts lie with Jules Bianchi who lies in a critical condition in hospital. We should continue to hope and pray for his successful recovery and keep his family, friends and colleagues in our thoughts today.
Image courtesy of Marussia F1 Team.