The circumstances surrounding the incident that has left Jules Bianchi with life-threatening head injuries are very unlucky at the least. As the recently released spectator footage shows, the marshals attending to the stricken car of Adrian Sutil were in the process of taking the Sauber away from the circuit perimeter and behind the armco barriers when the Marussia struck the tractor extracting the Sauber. Had Bianchi arrived at the Honda curve two minutes later he would have hit the same tyre wall as Sutil, got out of the car and walked away. Equally though, had Bianchi arrived at the turn seconds earlier or later than he did, he may well have struck numerous track marshals attending to Sutil’s car. The fact that Bianchi did not strike a marshal is as lucky as the Frenchman striking the tractor was unlucky. The main question that the sport will be asking itself over the coming weeks is to determine where the focus of such an incident lies and what changes should be implemented to prevent this occurring in the future.
Having viewed the footage one thing is certain. The fact Bianchi still has a chance to survive what appears to be an almost direct blow to the cockpit from a very solid object, is a testament to the safety of the current racing driver’s helmet. Jules Bianchi has always worn a Schuberth helmet while driving for the Marussia team, their work should be applauded.
The other area of safety that understandably comes into question whenever a driver is seriously injured is that of the car. In this instance it must be said that a Formula 1 car has by its very nature, an open cockpit, a fact that some have been quick to raise as being the root cause of injuries suffered now by Formula 1 drivers. Rob Smedley has already indicated that the implementation of a driver canopy would not be difficult and something that he would not oppose. In the last few years the FIA has even tested canopy designs in bid to combat drivers being struck by debris as occurred to Felipe Massa at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. Open cockpits are one of the most significant features of Formula 1 cars, in fact, no Formula 1 car has ever contested a Grand Prix with a roof over the drivers head. The other distinctive feature are the cars exposed tyres but even Mercedes contested and won races in the 1954 and ’55 Formula 1 seasons with the W196 Streamliner. While absolutely beautiful and competing in the infancy of the sport, the Streamliner simply doesn’t look like a Formula 1 car to the point that some would say it really isn’t. The Formula in Formula 1 is an ever changing landscape, that is its beauty, but it’s most traditional component, the area where there are no components at all, should remain so. Period.
The lunacy of any suggestion that Bianchi’s injuries are the result of Formula 1 cars having exposed cockpits is that any such change in this area opens up the possibility for additional safety issues being exposed to the drivers, issues, the occurrence of which would be far less remote than that suffered by Bianchi. The implementation of canopies has the potential to trap drivers in the event of an accident, fog up from inside, crack or chip, come lose and detach from the car, generate immense heat, and provide unnecessary distraction to a driver under lit circuit conditions. These multiple safety factors are reason enough for canopies not to be implemented in to the sport and this is before you even begin to discuss what this writer suggests would be the highly negative impact that such a decision would have on its image.
Surely any focus on the issue of implementing further changes to the construction and the appearance of the current Formula 1 car is failing to address the most important factor in the prevention of the injury suffered by Bianchi. Instead, the focus of any crash investigation should surely centre upon the cause of the injury inflicted upon the driver and how that can be prevented in the future. In this instance there can be little doubt that the tractor that Bianchi’s car hit is the root problem. The dilemma is by no means a new problem, Martin Brundle reflected on his crash at the same corner in the rain-interrupted 1994 Japanese Grand Prix. On that occasion he hit a marshal, fracturing their leg, instead of the extraction vehicle recovering the arrows of Gianni Morbidelli. Immediate example that spring to mind are Vitantonio Liuzzi at the 2007 European Grand Prix, and the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix where Michael Schumacher narrowly avoided an even larger tractor than that used in the Bianchi incident. In watching the video through the link above, it is telling that Martin Brundle recounts to the viewers the very same concerns he has in 2014. If Formula 1 are looking for a warning sign, this surely must be it. Perhaps, tragically for Bianchi, it will be the remoteness of a car striking an extraction vehicle, that generated complacency in the sports officials.
Unlike the changes that were clearly necessary following the deaths of Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna, what is required of Formula 1 in this instance is simple, easy to impose, and will not cost the sport any money. Former world champion Jacques Villeneuve was quick to provide it, stating that wherever an extraction vehicle is required to enter the confines of the racing circuit, a safety car should be deployed, regardless if the track is wet or dry. While the effect of this would invariably slow down the process of a race, it is an acceptable solution which has been strictly enforced in motor racing in the United States. To be honest, I think the sport will not be reluctant to implement such a rule change as it provides sad justification for a practice that many purists, myself included at times, that have seen it as an entertainment tool rather than a safety mechanism. To not implement such a rule and to have a similar circumstance arise again, no matter how remote, would be scandalous on the sport’s reputation.
The solution as it currently stands, where double waved yellow flags are shown to drivers indicating the presence of marshals and vehicles on the circuit is unable to provide effective safety, not so much to the drivers, but more importantly, the marshals. Formula 1 drivers can not be expected to determine in the moment, particularly in wet conditions as was the case for Bianchi, to slow to a speed that they deem appropriate when the extent of the safety issue on the circuit is unknown to the driver. In a sport where tenths of a second can mean the difference between winning and being fifth, drivers will increasingly push the limits of what is an acceptable speed, in a bid to gain or maintain an advantage over an opponent. Formula 1 can not afford to put the lives of volunteers at risk in the face of such incidents. Let’s hope that the investigation carried out into the accident at Suzuka places a great deal of importance on what was the most likely outcome from this incident, being that Bianchi’s out of control car would’ve killed numerous marshals.
It is somewhat reassuring that the new president of the Grand Prix Driver’s Association (GPDA), Alex Wurz, has announced in the press that they will not succumb to any knee-jerk reactions following the incident at the Japanese Grand Prix. To make potentially damaging changes to the ‘formula’ in Formula 1 will do nothing for the sport’s future prosperity and only tarnish the legacy of one of the sports brightest talents.