Open Wheelin’ Blog: Three Questions in the Wake of the Japanese Grand Prix

Joel Sebastianelli Featured, Formula One, International, Joel Sebastianelli Blog, Sprints & Midgets, Staff Columns 0 Comments

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Blog by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Getty Images photo —

Just a week ago now, the buildup to the Japanese Grand Prix was near-deafening, with anticipation soaring through the roof leading up to the race for those who stayed awake during early hours of the morning to watch it.

The storylines doubled down on their own outlandishness, creating one of the wildest weekends in F1 history. Entering the weekend, all eyes were on the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in their dogfight for the world championship. Then, Sebastian Vettel’s surprise announcement to leave Red Bull and join Ferrari took center stage, triggering a domino effect across the driver landscape that hadn’t been matched in magnitude since Nigel Mansell’s decision to depart Formula One for CART after winning the title in 1992.

While fans (at least Stateside) braved the clock and the whirlwind of storylines, Formula One drivers were asked to brave the weather conditions at Suzuka, where Typhoon Phanfone made its way up the coast as race time approached. Although downgraded from its prior super-typhoon status, the storm still pounded the area with torrential rain and wind throughout the weekend.

Instead of collecting two of every mechanical animal and departing for Sochi, F1 stayed.

After all, there was a race to be run, money to be made, wet and wild excitement to be had.

But when darkness enveloped the circuit, it wasn’t the championships or the driver market that that left Japan as the most important talking point of the weekend.

By now, race fans around the world have surely seen Jules Bianchi’s horrifying accident that brought a halt to the Grand Prix, and they’ve read nearly every take on the crash, its implications, and on Bianchi the person. Bianchi’s diffuse axonal injury threatens to trap him in a coma for the rest of his life like 90 percent of those who suffer from the traumatic brain injury.

Many questions arisen in the wake of the tragic crash, many of which deal with hypotheticals that, sadly, we will never know the answer to. However, there are some questions we do know the answer to, and in an attempt to dispel misinformation and with full respect and well wishes to Jules Bianchi, three in particular are worth reviewing.

Why did Formula One start the race on time given the forecast when they could have moved the start time up on Sunday or even to Saturday?

It’s easy to vilify the FIA, but the attempt was made to do both of these things. Earlier in the weekend, the promoter was asked to move the event forward to make for safer conditions for drivers, fans, and everyone involved with the event to ensure better travel to and front the Grand Prix as well as to Sochi for the following weekend’s race. However, the promoter reportedly refused, citing that moving the event on such short notice could actually do the opposite and interfere with attendance figures.

On one hand, complying when hindsight common sense says the wrong decision was made is easy. However, the powerful FIA does not have complete and unchecked control over race weekends. The race promoter chooses when a race is run, and both the FIA and Charlie Whiting must comply with the verdict—unless conditions on sight are deemed unsuitable for a Grand Prix. In that case, the FIA can elect not to run the race, but they cannot reschedule unless approval is granted by the promoter in charge.

Perhaps this was an error in judgment to go ahead with the race, just as it was dangerous to run a race into darkness Williams’ Head of Vehicle Performance Rob Smedley said was the darkest he had ever seen race conditions in his 15 years around the sport. Missteps were surely made by the FIA, but the issue as a whole is closer to gray than black or white.

Fine, but how could the FIA condone those race conditions as safe come race day?

Racing in the rain will always be more dangerous than racing in the dry. 1998 at Spa and 2003 at Interlagos immediately come to mind as racing run in the wet that perhaps never should have been run and which resulted in widespread carnage. However, those races didn’t have the stigma of a typhoon attached.

It’s worth noting that, outside of the first two laps under safety car before a red flag, the event was not run in the worst conditions imaginable. In fact, drivers switched to intermediate tires after one stint on wets, indicating that the tracks was drivable without full treads and there was no standing water on the racing line.

Niki Lauda withdrew from the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix because the torrential downpour created nearly un-drivable conditions, but he believes neither the cover of darkness or the weather were directly responsible for what happened on Sunday.

“…the race was run safe more or less to the end so it could have been run to the end without the accident. Motor racing is dangerous. We get used to it if nothing happens and then suddenly we’re all surprised,” Lauda said.

“But, we always have to be aware that motor racing is very dangerous and this accident [Sunday] is the coming together of various difficult things. One car goes off, the truck comes out and then the next car goes off. It was very unfortunate.”

None of this is an excuse to clear race control and the FIA of all wrong doing, but we’ve seen drivers race in far worse. The real question lies with how Adrian Sutil’s crash was handled at the turn 7 Dunlop Curve.

The video of the crash taken from the stands shows waving green flags displayed by the marshals. Why was the local yellow removed?

Again, there was a significant lapse in judgment, but that lapse isn’t exactly how it appears. The section of track in which Adrian Sutil crashed was still under a local yellow. The marshal stand with the waving green flag was immediately after where the marshals were working to remove the wreckage, meaning that drivers could accelerate beyond that point. Equipment and multiple marshals were still in the gravel, but they were legally out of the way.

The fault here lies not with the marshal in question or the rules as written, but with the underlying safety issue. Too often, the FIA bases decisions on a numbers game and the theory that if something has a very small chance of going wrong, than it isn’t going to go wrong. Usually, this is true, but it is absolutely not universally true and this way of thinking needs to change. Twenty years ago just a few hundred years away from the site of Bianchi’s accident, Martin Brundle lost control in the wet and nearly took out a marshal vehicle as well, instead clipping a marshal and breaking his leg. Brundle has openly admitted he thought the crash might end his life as he careened towards the cleanup crew, just as the marshals could have been killed as well.

In the end in 1994, the worst case scenario was avoided. In 2014, it was not and it’s miraculous that no marshals were severely injured or killed either.

If nothing else, we should all be in agreement that no marshal should ever be put in a situation like this again. In the event of a crash cleanup, the safety car should be deployed until the necessary equipment and manpower are cleared.

Sadly, these are three of the only questions we can answer for now. We don’t know if Jules Bianchi will ever awaken, we don’t know if a canopy, a changed start time, or different circumstances could have changed this unfortunate reality.

We also don’t know how this accident will change the complexion of the sport. After Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed at Imola in 1994, F1 has dramatically changed safety measures for the better.

F1 doesn’t owe it to Jules Bianchi to change its way of thinking. The damage has already been done, and no apology, bodywork decal, or heartfelt ceremony will do a thing anything to change that. It does, however, owe it to the marshals who volunteer their time and their safety for the love of Grand Prix racing, the drivers of the future, and the drivers of the present to keep them safe from harm.

Racing is inherently dangerous, and the paradox at play says the same feats of risk on the track reward drivers with victory and excite fans are the same feats that put them at harm every race.

There will always be risks in racing and freak accidents can occur at any time. A failure of authority to think clearly, however, is a risk that ought to be stamped out completely.

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