As the French driver Jules Bianchi was being monitored overnight in intensive care after surgery to treat a subdural hematoma following his crash in Sunday’s Japanese GP at Suzuka, questions were raised about the timing of the start of the race, and of the deployment a safety car in the closing stages just prior to his accident.
Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, who finished third, said that the sport needed to learn from its past mistakes, citing the 1976 Japanese GP at Fuji which went ahead despite atrocious conditions because of the inflexibility of the start time. That race was the first to be televised and simply had to go ahead, despite conditions so bad that Niki Lauda, returned to his Ferrari cockpit after his fiery accident in the German GP in August, pulled in to retire on the second lap and thus handed the world championship to James Hunt.
This time the organisers had considered bringing the race forward two hours from its 15.00 schedule because of the threat of Typhoon Phanfone, but in the end concluded that would be too expensive in terms of possible ticket refunds and the need for complex logistics to inform fans of the revised time. As a result the race started in poor conditions and visibility was failing as it neared its unhappy conclusion.
That schedule ought to be reconsidered for the future.
Adrian Sutil, whose Sauber was being lifted by the mobile crane tractor into which Bianchi’s Marussia crashed, said he believed a safety car should have been deployed after his accident, rather than just the double waved yellow warning flags.
Such things are at the discretion of Charlie Whiting, the race director, who earlier had called it right starting the race, and then restarting it after a red flag only two laps in, behind the safety car. He also got it just about right instructing driver Bernd Maylander to bring the safety car into the pits after nine laps so that the drivers could start racing.
Hindsight is always 20/20 vision, and there was criticism that a safety car had not been deployed as Sutil suggested. But it was Bianchi’s responsibility to slow sufficiently when he saw the yellow flags and had he done so all would have been well.
Motor racing is inherently dangerous, yet F1 has had a striking record after the intensive work that went into safety following the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994. But it can never be totally safe, and many observers have recognised that the next big accident would occur because of a set of freak circumstances such as pertained in the Bianchi incident.
There’s always a temptation for declamation after such situations, especially by those not fully cognisant of the safety process. But now is the time for calm heads and wise counsel. Based on the past 20 years the FIA can be trusted to investigate the incident and implement whatever changes are deemed necessary.
In the meantime, the F1 family prays for the safe deliverance of one of its own.