Jules Bianchi’s accident in the Japanese Grand Prix was terrifying. For those who are unaware, Bianchi aquaplaned off the circuit (the depth of the water on the track was greater than his tyres could cope with) into a recovery vehicle which was in the process of removing another crashed car. He went under the back of the vehicle, ripping off the top and rear of the car in the process, meaning that his head was now the highest point of the car. If you have seen video of it then you can understand fully the seriousness of the incident. Certainly, the FIA should scrutinise fully every circumstance leading up to the incident, and to conclude as to whether any errors were made, but the simple fact is that this incident was a freak one, exacerbated by several small factors which unfortunately led to a serious outcome – Bianchi is fighting for his life in a Japanese hospital as this article is written.
Circumstances on the Sunday afternoon were wet indeed, with Typhoon Phanfone threatening to hit the circuit, and the associated rain with it affecting the race. Thankfully, a drier spell was found for the race to go ahead. I have been watching Formula 1 for years, and races have been held in far worse conditions than was seen in Japan, with no serious incident occuring. The running of the race on Sunday had, in my view, very little bearing on the scale of Bianchi’s accident.
Adrian Sutil had crashed into the barriers on lap 43 of the race, with the rain slowly getting more intense. A lap later, in worsening conditions, Bianchi had his accident in a yellow-flag zone on 17-lap old ‘intermediate’ tyres. These tyres were worn heavily, so the tread in them could not cope with the amount of water coming down the track – nearly every other driver had pitted for fresh tyres to cope with the extra rainfall. Certainly, the age and condition of the tyres Bianchi was on almost certainly caused his initial aquaplaning.
When Sutil had crashed, double-waved yellow flags were being displayed which meant that the drivers had to adhere to a set speed which was displayed on their dashboard. The Safety Car was not sent out, until it was clear that Bianchi had suffered a serious accident, but then the race was abandoned when the extent of his injuries became clear. The fundamental problem with target lap times during periods of caution is that drivers are too focussed on not penalising their race too much rather than devoting their attention on their own safety and other potentially hazardous events on-track. Bianchi clearly left the circuit at a speed too fast for the yellow-flagged section of circuit he left. Had a safety car been deployed, rather then a simple target lap time, then this issue and accident would have not occurred.
Of course, aquaplaning did not cause the severity of Bianchi’s injuries, it was the impact of his car with the JCB recovery vehicle. If Bianchi himself had hit the JCB directly, he would not have been here today. Fortunately, his injuries were as a result of the sudden deceleration associated with his car hitting the tractor, rather then any penetration to the head.
So to sum up, Bianchi’s accident was as a result of seemingly unforeseeable circumstances, coupled with unchecked speed in yellow-flag conditions. However, this unchecked speed has to partly be the fault of the FIA representatives at the race, who did not deploy the safety car in difficult conditions or instruct the cars to reduce their speed dramatically – put simply, the slower you go, the less likely you are to aquaplane and spin at higher speeds.
So what, if anything, should the FIA do?
Simply put, the answer is nothing, or at least they shouldn’t be introducing any new regulations. The only three serious accidents to drivers since the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994 have been the result of a spring flying into your face, driving into the tailgate of a lorry, and crashing into a tractor. Not exactly what I’d call common occurrences. The only steps that need to be taken in the wake of Bianchi’s accident are further reinforcement of yellow-flag rules, speeds and marshal safety. The fact that Bianchi survived is testament to the huge developments in car safety since that fateful weekend in 1994. The state of Formula 1 has never been safer and there is no need to alter anything that does not need to be altered.
Some of the knee-jerk reactions to Ayrton Senna & Roland Ratzenberger’s death in 1994 involve the ludicrous addition of tyre chicanes in high-speed areas which ironically caused even more accidents. This sort of ludicrousness is not needed now, just a more stringent following of the rules.
It is inevitable that accidents will happen. Formula 1 is an inherently dangerous sport – the drivers accept that there is a chance they could be seriously injured or worse every time they set foot in their cars. Thankfully, the risks involved have been dramatically mitigated, and the likelihood of serious injury or death has been reduced dramatically. I just hope that, 20 years after the last death in F1, another name doesn’t get added to the list of those killed in action.