Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix proved a challenging one for both stewards and drivers, with heavy rain a prominent feature of changing weather conditions, along with certain limitations of the circuit, making safety of paramount importance. Lewis Hamilton’s victory at Suzuka, taking him ten points clear in his push for the championship, was overshadowed by an incident involving French driver Jules Bianchi, who was rushed to hospital after impacting with a recovery vehicle.
On a circuit laden with heavy rain and standing water, with both the weather conditions and spray from the cars ahead contributing to substantially hindered visibility, safety would evidently become a challenge. A series of safety cars and an early red flag had already spoken to the stewards’ consideration of how best to proceed with the race. Despite these measures, during the 42nd lap Adrian Sutil’s Sauber, after aquaplaning in through the corner, ran into the barrier of turn 7. Recovery vehicles were quickly dispatched, double yellow flags were waved, signalling to drivers the need for particular carefulness when approaching the corner, and Sutil appeared unhurt. However, in a similar incident to the preceding collision, Biacnhi’s Marussia span out of control, skidded off the track and into the back of the recovery vehicle. Marshals immediately signalled for medical assistance, and Bianchi, 25, was rushed first to the circuit’s medical centre and then by ambulance to Mie General Hospital. On arrival he underwent surgery, and upon its successful completion was moved to intensive care where, encouragingly, he was reported to be breathing independently of machines. In a public statement doctors described his condition as “stable”.
While thoughts and prayers have been extended to Bianchi and his family by fans and colleagues alike the FIA’s reaction must be a review of the incident, with aims of further improving safety conditions and preventing similar incidents from occurring in the future. As much as Formula One’s regulators might focus on ensuring the sport is conducted in a fair manner and is entertaining for fans, their number one responsibility is a duty of care for the safety of the drivers, and cases like Bianchi’s inevitably invoke reconsiderations of measures taken to ensure that safety. The discussions over Suzuka are likely to be in response to the suitability of long-standing and, crucially, unrevised tracks, along with questions over whether a red flag would have been the more appropriate course of action during the recovery vehicle’s use, given the level of water covering the track and the challenges with visibility.
Suzuka hosted its first Formula One race in 1987, remaining the track of choice for the Japanese Grand Prix for twenty years. In 2007 redesigns to the Fuji Speedway prompted Suzuka’s replacement for the following two years, before the race returned in 2009, remaining there since. Circuits such as Suzuka, active in Formula One for almost thirty years, are often insufficiently equipped for the high speeds of modern Formula One cars, and thus require revisions to either (and in some cases both) corners and run-off areas in order to be safe for drivers. The run-off area at which Bianchi’s incident took place is atypically small for the modern era, and as such might be enlarged and perhaps gravelled so as to improve driver safety. In addition to track concerns, while racing in the wet has long taken place in Formula One, intense rain such as that of Sunday’s race, especially when spray in close racing significantly impairs visibility, might in the future result in pausing the race with a red flag.
It is here that incidents often provoke productive revisions in regulations – the events of Imola ’94, during which both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna passing away, wrought enormous changes in on-track safety, particularly in the fields of medical response and the implementation of on-site medical centres such as that which treated Bianchi.
As Bianchi’s condition stabilise and with doctors aiming for a full recovery, his incident at Suzuka might lead to the implementation of modifying safety regulations, thus ensuring the future safety of Formula One’s drivers.
What safety measures might this incident prompt?