• Saturday, May 25, 2024
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BusinessDay

What lessons can F1 learn from Jules Bianchi’s crash?

The accident during the Japanese Grand Prix that left Marussia driver Jules Bianchi in hospital with severe head injuries is an illustration of the unsolvable and sometimes terrible paradox at the heart of motor racing.

No one wants to see racing drivers hurt, and yet it is an inescapable reality that the very possibility of it is a part of what makes Formula 1 such an intoxicating draw for its participants and the millions who watch it around the world.

It has been 20 years since the last driver fatality at a grand prix, when the loss of Ayrton Senna kick-started a renewed drives for greater safety that continues to this day.

Yet all the drivers know that they are risking their lives every time they zip up their fireproof overalls, strap on their helmets and head out on to the race track to do what they love. It’s an adrenalin fix that those who have experienced it tell you is like nothing else on earth.

Risk is part of the challenge, inherent in why drivers are revered; in the same way people admire the astronauts who went to the moon. They are doing something ordinary mortals could not – and would not – do.

What they do out there is beyond the bounds of comprehension of ordinary people: a combination of balance, feel, dexterity, skill, judgment and extreme levels of both bravery and physical fitness.

The sense of taking man and machine to the limits of the laws of physics and human capability is at the heart of the appeal of F1. Top drivers are the best in the world with the most advanced, challenging and fastest cars science can produce within the limits imposed on them by the rule makers.

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Those limits are there because the people who run F1 are fully aware of the dangers, and want to limit them as much as possible while maintaining the essence of the sport.

Just two races ago, in Italy, there was a discussion about whether safety changes to the famous Parabolica corner – turning a gravel run-off into asphalt one – had removed its challenge.

And the contradiction organisers are battling with was there again on Sunday.

There were the usual complaints about the race starting under the safety car after heavy rain, only for conditions to have improved so much that drivers were in for the lightly treaded ‘intermediate’ tyres within a couple of laps.

Yet later, after Bianchi’s accident, there were criticisms that the race had not been stopped sooner when the rain came down more heavily.

At Suzuka, where Bianchi crashed on Sunday, this contradiction is inherent in the track itself.

The drivers love the place because it is what they call an “old-school” circuit, an extreme driving challenge where the risk of an accident is much higher than at more modern circuits, which are often criticised as being sanitised and soulless.

Suzuka is often likened to a roller coaster, but this is a roller coaster where it is all too easy to come off the rails. Run-offs are small, and mistakes are often punished by impact with a barrier and a damaged car, rather than a second or two lost running wide into a vast expanse of asphalt.

For the drivers, the jeopardy inherent in Suzuka is not a bad thing, and for all the greater risk of a crash, very few drivers have been injured there. The run-offs may generally be smaller than those elsewhere, but they tend to do their job.

In any case, that is not why Bianchi, a popular and promising talent whose career is only just beginning, is in intensive care in the Mie Prefectural General Medical Center in Yokkaichi.

It has been five years since a driver was as seriously injured as this in an accident at a grand prix. That was when Felipe Massa was hit on the helmet by a suspension part from another car in Hungary 2009.

“We get used to it when nothing happens and then suddenly we are all surprised,” said Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda, a man who came close to death in a fiery accident in the 1976 German Grand Prix and still bears the scars.

“But we always have to be aware that motor racing is always dangerous – and this accident today is a coming together of various different things.

“One car goes off, the truck comes out and the next car goes off and this was very unfortunate.

“There could be a lesson learned that in the difficult conditions of today, in the race, that [the governing body] could have acted differently.”

Safety has come a long way in motorsport, and the FIA is constantly striving to improve it.

But the unfortunate reality of motor racing is that sometimes lessons are learned the hard way.

BBC Sport