Monday 22 May 2017

Webber's dice with death yet again shows value of safety-first strategy

Driver safety was the real winner in Valencia, writes David Kennedy

H e may no longer be president of the FIA but Max Mosley's influence was keenly felt by Mark Webber in Valencia last weekend.

Following a mother, father, aunt and uncle of an accident where his upturned airborne car had a bird's eye view of heaven, the genial Aussie must have been very grateful for the decades of safety measures implemented by Mosley, who made driver safety his priority while in office.

Webber himself is president of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association (GPDA) and their main objective is also to ensure the safety of its members. Collectively their diligence paid off handsomely.

When death looks life in the eye and moves on, the post-mortem on blame follows. Did Webber leave his braking too late? Did Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus deliberately brake too early? Probably a bit of both, but as on the public highway, the onus is on the person behind not to rear-end the car in front. Telemetry is F1's lie-detector test, it's likely that Kovalainen braked early with Webber on his gearbox but it's unlikely he did so deliberately.

Following the accident, the two drivers met in the medical centre where they shook hands. No driver wants to see the inside of that place at the best of times; it reminds them of their frailty and fallibility. So having to engage in social formalities with the very man that shared the carnage would have made for an awkward encounter.

Webber recovered with nothing more serious than some bruising and scratches and little left of 'chassis number 4', which had provided him with back-to-back wins in Monaco and Barcelona. The same talisman "also saved me from serious injury," said a reflective Webber.

What was astounding about that 300kmh accident, that not only saw the car spectacularly somersault, land right-side up, hit a kerb and propel into a tyre bank at 240kmh, is that Webber had the presence of mind to apply the brakes whilst upside down. Not the easiest feat to manage when gravity has other ideas but a remarkable exercise in self-preservation which might have saved his life once his car resumed its self-destruct mission when back on four wheels.

Webber is one of F1's good guys and he has enjoyed his best season since arriving in F1 in 2002. This close call with death will either provide the 33-year-old with an invincibility that he will draw on to win the title this year or a cautiousness that could effect him psychologically.

Another aspect of the safety of this sport which is often taken for granted is tyres. This is Bridgestone's final season in F1. They have been the sole supplier since 2008. Their name has been part of the F1 landscape for 14 years.

It all started in 1885 with the birth of Shojiro Ishibashi. After joining the family business, which sold Japanese traditional footwear called Tabi, he began to patent rubber products. He decided that to sell his products in the British and US markets the company would benefit from having a Western name. Ishibashi meant 'Stone Bridge' and he reversed it to Bridgestone, which he established in 1931.

During their time in F1, first as a shared supplier then as a sole supplier, Bridgestone has excelled in the standards they have set and the rigorous quality control they have exacted from their technical centre in Kodaira City, Tokyo. Supplying F1 is a formidable task. They transport 40,000 tyres all over the world in one season and haul 12 tonnes of equipment to each race. Sixty technicians, engineers, managers and PR staff make up Bridgestone's F1 entourage.

The FIA decide which team gets which tyre and all are bar-coded for tracking by Bridgestone and the FIA. Fourteen sets of tyres are fitted per hour in a frenzy of activity on race weekend. In wet races, a tyre can displace 61 litres of water per second at speeds of 300kmh. The tyre will last approximately 200 kilometres. Some of the technical excellence gleaned from F1 makes its way to the roadcar tyre. So from the humble rubber tree in south-east Asia to the global stage of F1, the role Bridgestone has played in F1 and in making the sport a safer place is commendable.

Colm Conyngham, marketing and public relations manager for Bridgestone Ireland, has seen great benefits derived from the F1 programme and he like others will lament the end of an era as the Bridgestone Corporation bid sayonara to the sport in November, an impressive 11 driver and 11 constructors' titles to their credit. Pirelli has been appointed the sole supplier for three years commencing in 2011.

So, Valencia proved to be a bittersweet weekend for Red Bull as it also gave them something to cheer about when Sebastien Vettel won. Lewis Hamilton was able to cling to second place despite a penalty for racing the pace car to the magic marker on the pit road where the two passed in virtual parallel.

That incident gave rise to a festering wound in Fernando Alonso that was clearly left over from their McLaren days. He suggested in the red mist of post-race indignation that the FIA had "manipulated" the race in Hamilton's favour by delaying a penalty which didn't make any difference to Hamilton's position when he finally took it; whilst Alonso had suffered for adhering to the rules.

You have to say with Lewis it was a marginal infringement but Alonso was never in a position to beat the pace car. The FIA were left none too pleased with Alonso's choice of words. The Spaniard was forced to apologise. FIA may as well have stood for 'forget it, Alonso'.

Jenson Button joined Hamilton on the podium. His consistency could pay off should his team-mate's blistering pace result in future retirements. Kamui Kobayashi, the 23-year-old Japanese sensation, was third for most of the race until a mandatory pit-stop relegated him to seventh.

The British Grand Prix looms large next weekend and the whole country will be looking to its F1 drivers to bring it out of its World Cup depression. So step up to the plate Hamilton and Button. The former won the race in 2007, the latter has failed to make the podium in ten tries.

In the last ten years all the eventual winners have started from the first two rows. Last year, Red Bull got pole, fastest lap and a one-two with Vettel and Webber. Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg and Button completed the top six.

As if the fans at Silverstone need reminding, it's that's same old war again: Germany versus England. And, yet again, Germany is favourite.

And finally, for those following the exploits of Status GP, Rob Wickens finished second in the GP3 race in Valencia and he heads to Silverstone a respectable second in the championship. For a full report visit www.statusgp.com

David Kennedy is Setanta's F1 analyst

Sunday Independent

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