Comment: Jules Bianchi's crash reminds us F1 is a deadly sport
There was no-one better than Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion, legend, and survivor of Formula One, to sum matters up.
Lauda, the man who almost died behind the wheel in a fiery inferno at the Nurburgring in 1976, said: “Motor racing is dangerous. We get used to it when nothing happens and then suddenly we are all surprised.”
Sadly, Jules Bianchi’s crash is another reminder of this often forgotten, or underplayed fact.
For those looking in from the outside, the sport can seem as safe as the next Sunday afternoon pursuit. We have got used to seeing so many horrendous crashes where the driver has thankfully emerged unscathed.
Lauda crash in Nurburgring in 1976...
Think of Robert Kubica’s in Montreal seven years ago, when he hit a wall at nearly 200mph and walked away with barely a bruise. Or Mark Webber’s in 2010 at Valencia, where the car flipped up inside down in the air before careering in to the barriers. On that occasion, Webber threw the steering wheel out of the car in shock and walked back to the pits.
It is easy to become numbed by how much safer it is than 20 years ago, the last time a driver died at a race weekend, with the fatalities of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.
Of course, enormous progress has been made since then. The truly superb, life-saving work of Max Mosley, the FIA president, the late Professor Sid Watkins, the F1 doctor, Charlie Whiting, the race director, and Jackie Stewart, the three-time world champion, along with too many names to mention here, has made it a much less hazardous sport that it once was. The expectation now is a driver will not die behind the wheel of a car.
But motor racing is inherently dangerous by its very nature: you can only decrease the risk, not eliminate it. Unfortunately Bianchi, the quietly spoken 25-year-old Frenchman, has been on the receiving end of that unavoidable fact. It is also, perhaps cruelly, part of the allure of Formula One, that the best drivers race and take risks which can put their safety in danger.
In open cockpit racing, unlikely circumstances can conspire to produce life-threatening accidents. In 2009, Bianchi’s good friend Felipe Massa – who is at his bedside in hospital – experienced such a freak crash. In qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, a wheel nut from Rubens Barichello’s Brawn fell off. Massa just happened to drive in to its path, suffering skull fractures in the process. It was almost totally unpredictable.
Robert Kubica walked away unscathed from this crash ...
Bianchi’s crash had a similar feel. The chances of Adrian Sutil going off at the same corner a lap before, and the recovery tractor being in the exact spot Bianchi slid off, are very slim. Lessons will have to be learned, and the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, will not be complacent in doing so.
It seems particularly cruel for Marussia that there is a feel of deja vu about all this. A year ago, as F1 was preparing for the Japanese Grand Prix, the news broke that Maria de Villota, a Marussia test driver, had been found dead in her Spanish hotel room. The injuries she suffered when she drove in to a stationary lorry at a test session at the Duxford Aerodrom in 2012 seemed were deemed to be part of the cause.
The argument about open-cockpit racing, and the risk it presents in terms of head injuries, will no doubt resurface about Bianchi’s accident.
But often at times like this there is no more satisfying an explanation or answer than that motorsport is an innately dangerous pursuit. In the meantime, everyone will wait anxiously for news, sending their thoughts and prayers to Bianchi and all those concerned.