October 5th 2014 – a date no fan of Formula One or motor sport in general will easily forget. This was the day when the sport lost one of its own. Although he may have only died this month, this was the last time the world saw Marussia’s Jules Bianchi, in his prime, doing the thing he loved the most – racing cars. His death may now be a rarity in a sport with a long history of fatal accidents, could more still be done to prevent similar accidents from happening again?
As a big F1 fan, I don’t like to miss a race. If I can’t watch it live then I record it and catch-up as soon as possible whilst making sure I don’t find out the result in the meantime. I always used to say to friends and family ‘unless there is a serious injury or death, under no circumstances tell me the result.’ Having been born into an era where it is taken for granted just how safe the drivers are, this was always said partly in jest; I never expected it to come true. Even watching the race that day, which was taking place under abysmal conditions, it never crossed my mind that someone may die. Therefore, when the news came through that Bianchi was seriously hurt, I was shocked as it was a completely new experience for me. However, for the seasoned followers it was an unfortunate reprise of the older, darker days of F1.
Over the last few years Formula One has seen some horrifying crashes, such as those of Robert Kubica during the 2007 Canadian GP and Mark Webber at Valencia three years later. These high-speed, car mangling crashes left the majority wondering how both drivers managed to escape without serious injury. This pays testament to the incredible work that has been done over the last twenty years regarding the safety of the drivers. Nearly everything that can be made safer has been. Crash barriers are now designed to absorb all the energy generated from a high speed impact, the cars cocoon the drivers within them like a ‘joey’ in its mother’s pouch and the tracks are designed with huge run-off areas to minimise the chances of a car-on-wall impact. However, as Bianchi’s incident proves, the battle to provide complete safety is never complete.
One of the inherent dangers of open-cockpit racing is that the head – one of the most vital yet fragile elements of the body – is exposed. There have been many measures put in place to provide as much protection as possible, such as neck supports and roll cages, but the fact is that the head is still vulnerable to being hit by objects. Bianchi died of injuries sustained when he careered head-first into a recovery vehicle which was removing the stricken Sauber of Adrian Sutil and, unfortunately, he isn’t the only driver to have recently died because of a blow to the head. In 2012, Marussia test driver Maria de Villota crashed into a team truck during a straight-line test. Although she initially survived, she a cardiac arrest a year later which doctors believe was caused by neurological problems she had as a result of the severe head and facial injuries she suffered. Henry Surtees, son of former F1 champion John, died in 2009 after being hit on the head by a stray wheel, whilst Felipe Massa was lucky to survive after being hit on the head by a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s car at the 2009 Hungarian GP.
Naturally, Bianchi’s accident and subsequent death has lead to the re-emergance of calls to ban open-cockpit racing and ensure each driver is fully protected. Whilst an obvious move, I and many others don’t agree with this. It’s part of the sport and creates an element of risk which makes F1 so addictive to both the drivers and spectators. As David Coulthard said earlier this week, if you take that away then you kill the sport for good. If anything Formula One is now too safe – accidents are a rarity – and this is one of the reasons many fans have become disinterested. There is something exhilarating about seeing cars crashing, as long as the driver is unharmed, and the less frequent this is the more people don’t watch.
Instead, the focus should be on completely minimising the risk of a driver hitting their head, something which the FIA have already done by introducing the Virtual Safety Car. This forces drivers to lap at a certain speed whilst an accident is being cleaned up instead of them rushing round to catch up with the rest of the pack. This was what Bianchi was trying to do and led to him hitting some standing water at high speed, causing him to aquaplane uncontrollably off the track. There should also be new regulations concerning the recovery of cars that have retired. It’s all well and good trying to do the job as quickly as possible but the fact is the marshals and recovery truck should not have been in that position whilst the cars were still lapping at high speeds. It is pure luck that no-one else was killed or seriously hurt.
However, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that a human being has lost their life. Bianchi was a fine racer and destined to win races, if not championships, at the highest level for years to come. Let’s hope that his legacy can now be used to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. RIP Jules Bianchi.