The questions to be asked after Jules Bianchi’s accident in the Japanese GP
What - if anything - can be learnt from Sunday's horror crash...
By Pete Gill and James Galloway
Last Updated: 07/10/14 8:53am
Was it safe to stage the Japanese GP on Sunday?
After such a horrendous accident, doubts about whether the Japanese GP should have been held were inevitable. One newspaper has already described the grand prix as 'the race which should never have started'.
But despite dire warnings of torrential rain striking the circuit on Sunday as Typhoon Phanfone bared its teeth, conditions were far from treacherous for the vast bulk of the race. After two exploratory laps behind the Safety Car and a brief red-flag stoppage for the track to continue to dry, the second Safety Car deployment ended with several drivers immediately pitting for intermediate tyres.
Even at the time of Bianchi’s crash, when conditions had begun to deteriorate overhead, the bulk of the field were still using intermediate tyres rather than the full wet-weather compound.
Why wasn’t the race moved forward?
It was reported before the race that the FIA had twice approached the Suzuka race promoters ahead of Sunday’s race 'to offer the opportunity' to move the start forward by a couple of hours. It’s claimed that Honda refused due to fears that supporters wouldn’t be able to travel to the circuit in time for an early commencement.
However, it was still raining heavily 90 minutes before the scheduled time, and, with the typhoon’s reach so wide, there was no clear window of good weather in any of Sunday’s forecasts.
Moreover, the final say over moving the race would have remained with the FIA. As former governing body president Max Mosley told SSNHQ on Monday: “Everything to do with safety is the FIA – even right down to cancelling the race because of the weather and postponing it to the following day. You would be very reluctant to do that but if there was any safety question you would do everything that was necessary."
Should the Japanese GP be staged in October?
This is a wider matter above and beyond the question of when the race ought to have started on Sunday afternoon. Season after season, the Japanese GP tends to be scheduled in early October or late September, typhoon season in the region. Could a more judicious time in the calendar not be sought? For 2015, the Japanese GP has already been scheduled for 27th September. Nevertheless, it’s important to stress that the staging of Sunday’s race was, by any recognisable definition, safe.
But should the Safety Car have been deployed immediately after Adrian Sutil’s crash?
This is a far more awkward question, but nevertheless one which should be answered with the immediate caveat that Race Control governed Sunday’s race with extreme caution. Although Felipe Massa said afterwards that the second Safety Car deployment should have been extended, it’s important to note that he was speaking from the perspective of a Williams car that handles particularly badly in the rain. In contrast, Lewis Hamilton was pleading with Race Director Charlie Whiting to start the grand prix in earnest for several laps prior to its full commencement.
However, Race Control’s decision not to deploy the Safety Car when, with steady rain starting to fall, Sutil crashed at the Dunlop Curve is already under intense scrutiny. "Everyone knows this is one of the most tricky corners and when it is getting late and the rain increases...let’s say when you have an accident there you should probably think about a Safety Car," Sutil told Sky Sports F1 afterwards.
Instead, according to the FIA’s post-race press release, ‘The marshals displayed double-waved yellow flags before the corner to warn drivers of the incident’.
Was Bianchi aware of the double-yellow flags?
The caution spelt out by double-yellow flags is defined as ‘double-waved yellow flag means slow right down and be prepared to stop’.
According to The Daily Mail, ‘it seems Bianchi did not lift off the throttle as he would normally do in the circumstances’. But, shorn of any relevant telemetry from Bianchi’s car, that’s just speculation. There’s no reason to believe at this stage that speed was a factor in the cause of Jules’ crash and there’s no reason why he would have been speeding at the time of his crash – not only was he 18th, and with no realistic prospect of finishing in the points, but he was driving in absolute isolation: the car in front was ten seconds up the road, the car behind was ten seconds shy.
It may simply be the case that Bianchi aquaplaned off the circuit. “This particular corner was a very tricky one the whole race through, but especially in the end when it was dark. You just couldn’t see where the patches were and that’s why I lost the car,” explained Sutil. And as Kimi Raikkonen explained after the race, aquaplaning can happen at any time in the wet and at any speed: "Behind the safety car we drive 100kph and you could aquaplane, so even if you slow down you might get into trouble. If there's too much water you can go off, simple."
Why wasn’t Jules transferred to hospital in the medical helicopter?
There has been more than a little confusion about this particular point. It’s often the case when a driver requires an immediate hospital visit that they are taken to the facility by the circuit’s medical helicopter, as happened with Felipe Massa, for instance, in Hungary in 2009. In Bianchi’s case, the FIA media delegate told reporters at Suzuka that the unconscious Frenchman couldn’t be airlifted owing to the deteriorating weather conditions and would instead be taken to Mie Hospital, some 10km away from the track, by road ambulance.
Confusion spread, however, when the medical helicopter was seen taking off from the circuit at around the same time as Bianchi’s departure in the ambulance. It's been suggested since that medical considerations were behind the decision to take the Frenchman to hospital by road, with ex-FIA chief Mosley chief explaining: “That’s a medical decision – if the helicopter can’t fly, the cars don’t run. When you have a head injury, sometimes it’s very dangerous to take someone up in the air where the pressure drops and things then get worse. The doctors will decide if it was safe or unsafe to take someone up in a helicopter. It’s a medical decision on the spot."
However, Sky Sports News HQ have reported that the medical helicopter wasn’t used as it wouldn’t have been able to land at the hospital owing to fog in the area.
What lessons need to be learnt?
While the main focus of attention in the aftermath of Suzuka is, and should, quite rightly be on the health of Jules Bianchi, it’s inevitable that questions surrounding safety in F1 have and will continue to be raised.
For all the commendable – and crucial – safety advancements made in the sport over the last 20 years, it’s a disturbing fact that the three most serious accidents to have occurred in F1 machinery over the last five years – those of Massa, Bianchi and, in straightline testing, Maria de Villota – have resulted in the drivers in question sustaining serious head injuries. A scary near-miss for Fernando Alonso at the 2012 Belgian GP, when Romain Grosjean’s Lotus flew straight across the front of his Ferrari at the start, led Paddy Lowe to describe closed cockpits as “inevitable” – yet two years on, such debate had faded and no such changes have yet been implemented despite the FIA Institute having in recent years testing prospective designs for both jet fighter-style bubble canopies and roll hoops.
With or without such protection, the sense of using unwieldy trucks to recover stricken cars in the gravel or run-off areas while a race is still ‘live’ may also be called into question. Certainly such practice as seen at Suzuka was nothing out of the ordinary, but just because F1 has always done it that way mean it remains the safest solution? It’s certainly not the case that we haven’t seen near-misses before, just take a look of the footage of the 2007 European GP at the Nurburgring when Tonio Luizzi flew into the gravel trap backwards after a sudden downpour and his Toro Rosso made light contact with a tractor lumbering its way back across the gravel while attending to other cars.
You can be sure the FIA will be thoroughly looking at all angles to ensure F1 remains as safe as possible. Sometimes there are no easy answers.