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Debate: can Formula One exist without danger?
As the world of motorsport mourns Jules Bianchi, TG asks if F1 can ever eliminate risk
Last weekend, 25-year-old Marussia driver Jules Bianchi succumbed to the injuries he sustained at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, passing away in hospital nine months after suffering a diffuse axonal injury. His funeral took place yesterday in his home town of Nice.
This is a sombre moment for everyone involved in F1, which had not seen a driver killed since Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died at Imola in 1994.
Thankfully such tragedies are exceedingly rare: before that weekend two decades ago, Formula One had been on its previous best run of nearly 12 years without a fatality, a streak dating back to Riccardo Paletti’s death in Canada in 1982.
Safety has improved vastly since the era that was dangerous enough to inspire Ron Howard’s Rush, though understandably some are questioning whether anything more could have been done to prevent Bianchi’s accident.
At the same time, it’s argued that wrapping F1 in too much cotton wool will simply sterilise the very sport he loved.
So can motorsport ever be completely safe?
“This is a sombre moment for everyone involved in F1”
The simple answer is ‘no’. No element of life is entirely free from danger: even lawn bowls or croquet come with some level of risk. The question is how much of it F1 is prepared to tolerate.
After the race in Suzuka last year, race director Charlie Whiting launched an investigation into the incident which saw Bianchi’s car collide with the vehicle recovering Adrian Sutil’s Sauber from a crash on the previous lap.
The weather, race start time, warning flags, the safety car and the speed of the transfer to hospital were all analysed, though no single cause was entirely to blame.
In truth, Bianchi’s injuries were the result of an improbable combination of events unlikely to be replicated any time soon. Rightly, though, that hasn’t deterred officials from looking at what they can change to limit the perils faced by drivers.
The GPDA have said they owe it to the racing community to “never relent in improving safety”, while Bernie Ecclestone has stated that the sport “must never let this happen again.”
In the wake of Bianchi’s Japan crash, F1 responded with new safety measures. As well as strengthening the cockpit area, officials have also introduced the Virtual Safety Car. It makes drivers slow down to a predetermined lap time, which in theory ‘neutralises’ the race whilst maintaining the gaps between the cars on track.
But as former FIA president Max Mosley says: “There’s always a danger something will go wrong. You can never get a zero probability of injury but I think we’ve minimised it.”
“Ecclestone says F1 must never let this happen again”
Part of the argument against removing risk from Formula One – beyond the fact it’s all but impossible – is that it would make the sport less exciting, for both spectators and drivers.
Closed cockpits have been repeatedly mooted as a method of directing impacts away from drivers’ heads, although former McLaren driver David Coulthard has repeatedly warned against interfering with the fundamentals of F1.
“Could you reduce the risk of head injuries with a cockpit canopy? Yeah, course you could,” the Scot told TG a few months ago. “But that takes away the DNA of the sport. It’s like those wingsuit guys who skim across treetops in the air. That would scare the s**t out of me, but for them, it’s a thrill.”
It’s part of the spectacle too. Audiences need to see crashes in order to understand that drivers are performing on the limit in a sport that – despite recent criticism – remains incredibly challenging even for the most talented individuals.
But allowing the possibility of a crash isn’t the same as requiring drivers to put their lives on the line.
Take Mark Webber’s shunt at Valencia in 2010 as an example. The sight of his Red Bull soaring upside down at 190mph before colliding with the barriers was remarkable to watch, but would have taken on a rather different complexion if he’d been seriously injured, or worse.
Drivers need to be able to walk away from impacts like Webber’s to ensure that racing is not overshadowed by tragedy. Fans all over the world come to see the fastest cars going wheel-to-wheel at speed, but not because they might get hurt in doing so. Driver welfare must always take priority over entertainment.
“Racing cannot be overshadowed by tragedy”
The late Professor Sid Watkins – who was appointed chairman of the FIA Expert Advisory Safety Committee in 1994 – understood that fatalities had no place in motor racing, or in any other sport for that matter.
Much of Formula One’s improved record in the last thirty years can be attributed to the British neurosurgeon, who saved the lives of Rubens Barrichello and Mikka Hakkinen (among others) after becoming F1’s race doctor in 1978.
McLaren boss Ron Dennis said Watkins had done “more than anyone” to give drivers more protection, with 1979 F1 world champion Jody Scheckter praising his achievements having battled “against the politics” of the sport.
Watkins was famously close to Ayrton Senna, too. After the pair witnessed the death of Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying on that tragic weekend at Imola in 1994, Watkins tried to convince the Brazilian to retire from racing. Senna replied: “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit. I have to go on.”
He died the next day.
“F1 must never cease to challenge the world’s best racers”
Senna’s outlook is crucial to this debate, as there are many reasons why drivers are drawn to Formula One. For some it’s the power of the engines, for others the prestige. And for a few it’s because, on some level, they feel compelled to exist at the very limit of their physical and mental ability.
This is the key to F1’s predicament. It must never cease to challenge the world’s best racers, nor prevent them reaching that point where adrenaline and fear put them on the edge of what is possible.
At the same time, though, it has a duty to minimise the risks for anyone who takes on that challenge.
Jules Bianchi, with all of his potential, should be a reminder of that.
TopGear would like to extend its condolences to Jules Bianchi’s family, friends and colleagues.