Although Formula One is a sport that, every race weekend puts the lives of drivers and spectators on the line, there seems to be a complete lack of common sense in those that actually run the thing. Whether it is ineptitude or stupidity I am not sure, but how we even arrived at the scenario of last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, is scandalous.
While Marussia’s Jules Bianchi lies in the Mie General Hospital fighting for his life with a severe diffuse axonal injury, questions are now raining in regarding the state of safety in Formula One. And so they should be. It is beyond belief that the governing body, the FIA, have not implemented cockpit protection already. They have had plenty of time to consider it. Think back to 2009 and Felipe Massa’s horrendous accident at the Hungaroring. The Brazilian was hit on the hit by an 800 gram spring from the back of Rubens Barrichello’s car and suffered life-threatening injuries as a result. One week prior to that, a young Formula Two driver, Henry Surtees – son of 1964 World Champion John – was tragically killed at Brands Hatch when a wheel detached from another car and hit him on the head. And just two years ago, Marussia test and reserve driver Maria de Villota suffered a freak accident and drove into the lifting tailgate of a team lorry. She survived the initial impact – and lost an eye as a result – but died a year later due to her injuries. The tragic irony one year later is that another Marussia driver lies in a Japanese hospital after a similar incident.
Now while most people new to the sport – and even those who don’t followed it – will be saying “why don’t the FIA implement some sort of safety measure so it doesn’t happen again?” the fact of the matter is, that they have had since 2009 to sort this out. They have had five years and three serious incidents – two of them fatal – before last weekend to try to prevent this sort of thing happening again. Last year, proposals were made by the FIA to introduce a cockpit protection device. Something that would sit attached to the monocoque in front of the driver. Substantial tests were carried out on the device, which included a bouncing wheel being directed towards it. The tests proved successful. Another proposal was made to completely cover the cockpit and the driver’s head – something akin to a Le Mans prototype car. This method has more of a guarantee of protection, but concerns have been raised about the ease of escape for a driver, say for instance if there was a fire, or the car was flipped upside down. The FIA chose to run with the first proposal. It didn’t seem too bad, plus they were proactive in finding a solution.
But why didn’t it go through? The tragedy of it all is that this planned was rejected. Not by the FIA but by the teams! We don’t know exactly how many teams but certainly the top teams, Red Bull, Merceds and McLaren. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious and given the circumstances of last weekend, I can assure you nobody is laughing. The reason for this highly innovative safety measure not being implemented was aesthetics. It was deemed by team bosses as “shockingly bad” by Christian Horner and Martin Whitmarsh, former McLaren boss considered it “shockingly ugly”. Ross Brawn, then boss of Mercedes also found it aesthetically bad.
I am sure the above mentioned team bosses will be regretting the veto on that project. As mentioned at the top of this piece, Formula One plays with the lives of drivers and fans, and it is the duty of all involved to make it as safe as possible. But as we have seen in the past five years, complacency has ruled. Yes Formula One is exponentially safer than it was in the 60s and 70s, but as any ten year old could tell you, Formula One is – and always will be – a dangerous sport.
If only the FIA had the balls to overrule teams on driver safety matters. And if only the teams and the people who run the sport stop for once and think about common sense things rather than satisfying the commercial side of things, thing could be so different now. They say they are doing something about it, but nobody is really trying hard enough.
In the meantime, I – like so many F1 fans around the world – pray for Jules Bianchi. Apparently there is a Grand Prix on this weekend, but I’m sure nobody, not even the drivers, care too much about it.