I can only express my shock and sadness about the accident during yesterday’s Japanese Grand Prix. I have little insight to offer. I am not a motorsport safety expert, nor a medic. But like any motorsport fan I have an opinion and I do have some concerns.
Amid the shock in the hours following the accident, many users of social media sought to point the finger. But no one can be blamed — it was a series of circumstances that had the most unfortunate consequences. That does not mean there are not lessons to learn however.
Safety was the watchword all weekend as typhoon Phanfone loomed towards Suzuka for race day.
There were suggestions of moving the race to Saturday in order to avoid the heavy rainfall. It seems that a proposal to move the race to earlier on Sunday was considered more seriously, but ultimately rejected by the race promoters.
Such a move is unprecedented in the TV-driven modern era of Formula 1. That it was considered despite the inconvenience it would have caused to spectators and broadcasters is a mark of how seriously safety is taken.
At first it appeared as though the decision not to move the race start time was vindicated. Although it took a while for the race to properly get going, there was a lot of great racing in bearable conditions. Until Adrian Sutil’s crash there were remarkably few if any incidents in the wet conditions.
However this is the point at which lessons could probably be learned.
The danger of recovery vehicles
Many observers, notably Martin Brundle, have long warned about the dangers of having recovery vehicles on the circuit when cars are racing. Although double waved yellow flags were out, in wet conditions this is no guarantee that a car won’t aquaplane off the circuit.
Formula 1 already came scarily close to such an incident at the 2007 European Grand Prix. As several cars aquaplaned off, Vitantonio Liuzzi’s car came careering towards the safety car. Luckily the safety car driver Bernd Mayländer spotted him coming and took evasive action.
But Liuzzi went on to kiss a tractor with the rear of his car. A metre further and it could have been a very different story, for both the driver and the marshals.
(Watch the video from 1:08 onwards.)
The sport has done huge amounts of work to become as safe as possible. The cars can withstand enormous impacts, and many might argue that the circuits have become too safe in the sense that they do not provide a sufficient sporting punishment to drivers who make mistakes.
What happened this weekend is another demonstration that what happens after an accident that can be more dangerous than the accident itself.
Since Ayrton Senna died in 1994, there have been no driver fatalities at a race weekend. But three marshals have died after being hit by debris or while recovering a car.
To have tractors and other recovery vehicles lumbering around at danger zones of the circuit has long seemed like an anomaly. Every element of a circuit is scrutinised for its safety features, with improvements being made to barrier technology and run off areas all the time. It seems like madness to then put a tractor in the way of all those well-designed safety features.
Reluctance to deploy the safety car
Some drivers have suggested that the race should have been neutralised sooner. I remember the BBC’s commentators wondering if the safety car should come out. David Coulthard noted, “historically it takes a car to go flying off the track to react with a safety car.”
In the event, not even Adrian Sutil’s crash brought out the safety car. It was not until Jules Bianchi’s horrific accident that the race was neutralised and ultimately stopped. It was too late by then.
Earlier this year at the German Grand Prix, Adrian Sutil’s car was left in the middle of the circuit without the safety car being deployed. Marshals had to push it into a safe place during a live race.
You have to wonder if a more cautious approach could be taken, and if the safety car should come out more often for incidents like this.
Fading light conditions and the trend for late evening races
Adrian Sutil also suggested yesterday that fading light may have been a contributory factor in yesterday’s accidents. This brings us back to the discussion about the race start time.
The race was able to go ahead at its scheduled time, following a short delay. But the race could not have been delayed for much longer. Minutes after the race ended, the circuit was bathed in darkness. This is not the first time this has happened.
The reason for this is that the race began at 3pm local time, and finished at around 5pm — not long before sunset. There is theoretically a four hour time slot in which the race can take place, but that is nonsensical when almost half of that slot after sunset.
The race time was this late for the convenience of global broadcasters. But you have to wonder about a strategy that (rightly) takes F1 to new markets around the world, then (wrongly) nudges the start times so that European fans can get a bit more sleep.
Surely it would be better for races to start at noon or 1pm local time so that there is enough contingency to deal with any delays. That way there would be no temptation to squeeze in a delayed race with the sun setting.
Those are just my thoughts. As always, Formula 1 will react to learn the lessons from this tragedy. In the meantime, we will hope for the best possible outcome for Jules Bianchi.