Lewis Hamilton: I saw a karter die when I was nine
All Formula One drivers were alone with their thoughts on Friday as they pulled down the visor a week after Jules Bianchi’s horrific accident, but none were more poignant than those of Lewis Hamilton, who revealed for the first time his “trauma” of watching a fellow kart racer die when he was nine.
As the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, outlined proposals to improve safety and establish an expert commission to learn the lessons of the Bianchi accident in Japan, Hamilton spoke movingly of his own tragic experience at Kimbolton kart track in Cambridgeshire two decades ago.
“When I was nine years old, I saw a young driver die when I was racing in karts,” Hamilton said. “A good friend of mine who was a good friend of his stopped racing, but that has never been something that has entered my mind.
“That was a very traumatic time for me as a kid. Even now, I can remember standing on the bank beside a track with him with our suits on just before a race, all laughing and joking. And then the next thing I knew I was at his funeral. It was the first time I had ever been to one.”
In his BBC Sport column, the championship leader added: “It is very hard to put that out of my mind at the moment, after what happened to Jules. Things like this really open up your view a bit. Bad things happen to people, but the world keeps going, which is really sad in a way. But it does not make me rethink wanting to be a Formula One driver.”
The 29-year-old was remembering Daniel Spence, who died aged nine in December 1994. Spence, the brother of Jamie Spence, a former British Formula Three champion, succumbed to chest and neck injuries after another kart flipped over on top of him. Daniel Spence’s father, Dave, was a close friend of Jenson Button’s late father John, who died this year.
Hamilton’s touching story came on the day business resumed for the sport’s stars in practice for the Russian Grand Prix, but most admitted their thoughts were elsewhere. Daniel Ricciardo said he would be “lying” if he claimed his mind was not on Bianchi’s terrible accident.
Sebastian Vettel, his Red Bull team-mate, added: “Does getting back in the car help us after what’s happened? It does and it doesn’t. It helps to get your head elsewhere and focus on the day job – looking after the best possible set-up and comparing the tyres and learning the new track, it keeps you occupied. But on the other hand, it’s only been a couple of days, so it’s quite fresh and difficult.”
Jenson Button said it was an “emotional” time but once he was back in the car, he was in his “own little world”.
The drivers met the FIA before Charlie Whiting, the race director, and Jean Todt, the FIA president, held a 75-minute press conference. Whiting submitted his report to Todt on Friday morning, and the Frenchman announced a commission of experts will come up with plans to improve safety in the wake of Bianchi’s accident. It will be headed by Peter Wright, the president of the FIA safety commission. Wright will meet Todt in Geneva next Wednesday to discuss the details.
Speaking for the first time about the crash, Todt said: “We have to learn from what happened. And we will because we cannot be faced with such a situation again. Each life is very important.”
After showing reporters video footage of the crash from trackside cameras, Whiting added: “It was the perfect storm and the chances of an accident like that being repeated exactly are very slim.”
Whiting announced that he would meet the teams this morning to discuss employing speed limits in similar situations to Bianchi’s accident, so the decision to slow down or not is taken out of drivers’ hands.
He also revealed the kind of tractor Bianchi hit would be used with “extreme caution”, but said that any specific changes were “highly unlikely” to be in place for tomorrow’s inaugural Russian Grand Prix. For the start of next season, plans to introduce skirts on the side of tractors are being developed, to stop cars going underneath them in the way Bianchi’s did.
The race director added that Felipe Massa’s claim after last Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix to have been “screaming” at race officials to stop the race was not accurate. “That’s not entirely true,” Whiting said. “I don’t think he was screaming. ‘Track conditions are getting worse’ was the only thing he actually said. I don’t personally think that constitutes screaming.”
Whiting also rejected suggestions that the late start time – 3pm in Japan – contributed to the accident amid heavy rain from Typhoon Phanfone.
As the fallout from Bianchi’s crash continued, his car sat empty in the Marussia garage and the team confirmed only Max Chilton would race this weekend. Graeme Lowdon, sporting director, said he had been touched by the sport of the Formula One community.
Concerns grew for the 25-year-old French driver on Friday, as his brother, sister, and best friend arrived for a bedside vigil in Yokkaichi, Japan. Tom and Melanie Bianchi headed for the Mie General Medical Centre. Lorenz Leclerc, a young man said to be Bianchi’s best friend, joined his parents Philippe and Christine at the hospital earlier in the day. They did not speak to reporters at the scene.
Bianchi remains in a “critical but stable” condition with a diffuse axonal injury.