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After a Horrific Crash, F1 Ponders What More It Must Do to Protect Drivers

After a Horrific Crash, F1 Ponders What More It Must Do to Protect Drivers

Jules Bianchi of France and Marussia receives urgent medical treatment after crashing during the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit on October 5, 2014 in Suzuka, Japan.

Jules Bianchi of France and Marussia receives urgent medical treatment after crashing during the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit on October 5, 2014 in Suzuka, Japan. Getty

The mood in Sochi, Russia, is somber as Formula 1 prepares for what should have been an exciting weekend marking the inauguration of a new track. Instead, drivers, race officials and fans await any word on the condition of Jules Bianchi, who was critically injured in a horrific crash five days ago in Japan.

Formula 1 has long prided itself on its dedication to safety, and indeed the sport has seen drivers walk away from truly frightful crashes in recent years. Not one driver has been killed since Ayrton Senna died at Imola in 1994, a tragedy that brought great advancements in safety. But Bianchi’s crash, during a rain-soaked race at the Suzuka International Racing Course, has brought a moment of self-reflection as the sport ponders what more might be done to protect drivers who hurtle around tracks at upward of 180 mph in open-cockpit cars that have no roof.

“If something happens there is always the chance to learn something and avoid it happening,” four-time champion Sebastian Vettel said. “But you have to understand that with the cars we race, the speeds we travel, accidents can happen.”

Indeed. Rare is the race without a mishap. But Bianchi’s crash was truly terrifying. The 25-year-old Frenchman, a driver for the Russian team Marussia, suffered a severe brain injury when his car slammed into a tractor removing another wrecked car from the track. Bianchi remained in critical but stable condition Friday at a hospital in Japan where, his father said, “he is is fighting as he always did, the same way as if he was racing. He is strong.”

Still, the mood among drivers was, according to The New York Times, darker than at any time since Senna’s death. Marussia announced today that it will enter just one car, instead of the required two, out of respect to Bianchi. The car reserve driver Alex Rossi would have driven will instead remain in the pit row garage, ready to race but idle. And the Times noted drivers used phrases like “a gray cloud,” “a catastrophe” and “a bit of a shadow” to describe the mood in Sochi, which is marking its first appearance on the F1 calendar. Although many drivers showed restraint, Force India driver Sergio Perez took the FIA—the sport’s governing body—to task for its handling of the race at Suzuka.

Jules Bianchi.

Jules Bianchi arrives for the drivers’ parade shortly before the accident on October 5, 2014. Jiri Krenek/isifa/Getty

It is not acceptable,” Perez said. “We have to look for answers from the FIA on what happened in this tragic accident. We have to make sure they hear us.”

The FIA is awaiting race director Charlie Whiting’s report on the crash, and Jenson Button, head of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, urged his fellow drivers to refrain from finger-pointing. But with Bianchi gravely injured and a cloud over the sport, some are calling for F1 to take more aggressive action to protect drivers.

Some are even calling for F1 to enclose the cockpits. In other words, give the cars a roof.

What Happened?

Sunday’s race was doused by heavy rains that accompanied Typhoon Phanfone. The race already had seen several safety car periods (relatively slow, non-racing laps led by a pace car) and even a red flag session in which the race was briefly stopped. The chain of events that led to Bianchi’s crash started on lap 42, when Sauber driver Adrian Sutil hydroplaned off the track at Turn 7, a lefthander called Dunlop Corner, and hit a barrier. Although he climbed out of the car unharmed, his car was totaled. Track marshals summoned a tractor to remove it.

That prompted a double yellow flag period, in which racing continues but drivers slow down as they move through the area and are prepared to stop if necessary. One lap after Sutil’s crash, Bianchi approached Turn 7 at speed and hydroplaned off the track and into the tractor. Although the crash was not seen on the official F1 feed, amateur video showed the sleek racer hitting the tractor with enough force to send the tractor bouncing into the air.

Bianchi takes a corner at the Japanese Formula One 1 Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan - 05 Oct 2014.

Jules Bianchi takes a corner at the Japanese Formula One 1 Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan on October 5, 2014. Rex Features via AP

The car sustained extensive damage, and Bianchi was unresponsive to radio calls and track marshals who raced to the scene. Doctors scrambled to extricate him from the car, then raced him to the track medical center, where he was taken to a local hospital. He suffered a diffuse axonal injury.


The nature of Bianchi’s injury underscores one of the great risks of Formula One—the driver’s head is exposed, with the only protection coming from the helmet and a roll hoop. The cockpit has, over the years, grown increasingly protective; drivers in Senna’s day raced in cars that afforded little protection of the shoulders, neck and head. In the wake of Senna’s death, cockpit walls have grown taller, leaving little more than the driver’s line of sight exposed. Most of the driver’s body is well protected by the car, and many drivers have experienced extremely violent accidents with minor, if any, injuries.

And yet the sport has seen several close calls.

Five years ago Felipe Massa was struck in the left temple by a 1.75-pound suspension spring that flew off a competitor’s car during qualifying at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Massa, who was going about 160 mph, was knocked unconscious and drove straight into a trackside barrier.  He missed the rest of the season, but made a full recovery.

Three years later, during the Belgian Grand Prix in 2012, Fernando Alonso was nearly hit in the head by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus as it sailed over Alonso’s car during a four-car pileup at Turn 1. The Spaniard was shaken, but uninjured in a testament to luck and the strength of modern F1 cars.

Later that year, Marussia test driver Maria de Villota hit the back of a truck at relatively low speed during testing in England. The helmet and the top of her car took the brunt of the impact, leaving the Spaniard with several injuries to the head and face. She lost her right eye in the accident but slowly recovered; she died a little more than year later  from cardiac arrest and complications of the brain injury.

What’s Next?

Claire Williams, deputy team principal for Williams F1, believes the sport should consider enclosed cockpits, among other things, telling the BBC that “safety is always paramount so we have to find ways to ensure our drivers are as protected as possible.”

She went on to note that while the aesthetics of a Formula One car are important—Formula One cars have always had open cockpits, though they’re much more protected than those of a generation ago when driver fatalities were commonplace—closed cockpits should at least be considered. “Our sport is dangerous at times, but a lot of work has been done behind the scenes in the past 20 years.”

Three-time world champion Fernando Alonso echoed that call Friday, when he told Autosport, “I probably tend to agree we should at least check and try or test the idea. We are in 2014, we have the technology, we have aeroplanes and many other examples used in a successful way, so why not to think about it?”

This is not the first time F1 has considered enclosing the cars, but, as Autosport reported earlier this week, the sport’s top teams rejected such a proposal about a year ago because the cars would be “shockingly” ugly.  “It was agreed that the project should be discontinued,” Autosport notes.

There are more than aesthetic issues at play. Enclosed cockpits would present new—but certainly not unsurmountable—challenges to aerodynamicists. And they could create other safety issues. F1 rules, for example, require drivers to be able to get out of the car within five seconds, something that would be tricky, though not impossible, to accomplish with a canopy over the cockpit.

And, frankly, there is 50 years of tradition to consider. “I’ve got sort of mixed feelings,” Vettel said of the idea. “For F1 cars since the beginning of F1… [open cockpits] is one of the things that is very special.

Slow Down, and Heed the Flags

There are other things that can be done, quickly and easily, to improve safety. Sky Sports F1 analyst and former F1 driver Martin Brundle says recovery vehicles, like the tractor Bianchi hit, should be banned from the track. He’s got personal experience with this; 20 years ago, Brundle crashed on the same track under the same circumstances as Bianchi. He just missed the tractor and hit a track marshal who suffered a broken leg.

“The things are too high, you’re sitting down so low,” a visibly shaken Brundle said just after Bianchi’s crash. “Especially on that corner, because it just keeps turning left. You’re going into the barriers if you go off there. There’s no way of recovering and you’re going too fast.”

Another consideration is the adoption of Le Mans-style “slow zones” in which drivers are held to a specific speed through accident zones and are heavily penalized for exceeding it. Such zones would have to be carefully designed and regulated so as to avoid having drivers slow from race-pace to, say, 50 mph. But all F1 tracks are divided into three sectors, and it would be possible to restrict racing through a specific sector as marshals clear a collision.

There are even some calling on F1 to slow down at the first sign of danger. “It is indisputable that Jules carried MUCH TOO MUCH [sic] speed into that corner,” Gart Hartstein, a former F1 medical rescue coordinator, wrote on his blog. “He is instructed (by the flags) to slow enough to be able to stop, yet he was fast enough to aquaplane. Those are mutually exclusive options. Period.”

That point has not been lost on F1. Race director Charlie Whiting, the final authority on everything that happens during a race, said all the drivers at Suzuka had indeed slowed during the double yellow, but some more than others. He said the FIA is exploring ways of ensuring all drivers slow down, and far more than they currently do.

“One of the most important things to learn here is that it is probably better to take the decision to slow down away from the drivers, to have a system where it is clearer to everyone how much we think drivers should slow down,” he said, according to the BBC.

Hartstein complains that flag discipline in F1—that is, drivers obeying flags telling them to slow down—has grown lax and the FIA has shown little interest in enforcing it. Drivers, he says, often ask exactly how fast they can go during yellow or double-yellow flags, which he says suggests they are missing the point of the flags. “Disrespect for flag discipline is not a minor issue,” says Hartstein. “It kills and injures people. If flags are respected, things get remarkably safer.”

There is no doubt that motor racing is inherently dangerous. But the sport has shown the ability to make things markedly safer. Jackie Stewart helped end the days when grave injury and even death could be expected (14 drivers were killed between 1966 and 1978). Ayrton Senna’s death brought still greater focus on safety, ushering in an incredible 20-year run without a fatality. Bianchi’s horrific crash has prompted the sport to once again consider what it might do to make racing safer still.

“We have to learn from what happened,” FIA president Jean Todt said Friday. “And we will because we cannot be faced with such a situation again.”


Global , Crashes from the World

Date: 10/13/2014 4:11:27 PM

By: YASA WEB , http://omnifeed.com
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