Open Wheelin’ Blog: The McLaren Mystery and the Puzzle Behind Medical Secrecy in Auto Racing

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

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

The Formula One season opening Australian Grand Prix is just over one week away, but something about the first race doesn’t feel right.

For the first time since 2000 (excluding the 2005 United States Grand Prix farce), the lights will extinguish without two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso on the grid. Following a testing crash in Barcelona, doctors advised the McLaren driver to sit out the race and avoid risking another concussion.

This is not the first time a driver has been held out of competition as a preventative measure. Most recently, Sergio Perez did not start the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix because of lingering symptoms from his qualifying crash at Monaco. Even this far in advance, part of me is pleased to see that concussions are finally being treated with as much precaution as they should be.

An F1 race without Alonso isn’t the only thing that feels off about this though. In fact, nothing about the incident and the way it was handled by the team feels right at all.

For the sake of this discussion, I’ll check my tinfoil hat at the door. Conspiracy theories about the crash and the condition of Alonso have run rampant through the racing community for over a week. I’m not inclined to blindly believe anything, but I can’t and won’t say for sure without properly disclosed information that anything what we’ve been told about the incident is a cover-up of sorts by McLaren.

But outside of the numerous explanations offered by fans, some in the media, and the few eyewitnesses to the crash, there’s an interesting ethical question raised by the handling of this and similar scenarios.

Is it OK to lie about a driver’s condition? And is simply not telling the truth the same as lying?

We’ve heard it all since last Sunday. The wide range of theories about the accident include electrical shock, a blackout behind the wheel, gusting wind, a mechanical failure, and a long list of others too extensive to list entirely.

I don’t know which of those, if any at all, have merit. You don’t either. However, those that do know haven’t exactly gone to great lengths to clear up either the cause or the effect.

The F1 paddock coined the term “Ronspeak” years ago to describe the cautious, calculated manner of public speaking by McLaren CEO Ron Dennis. Little has changed about his demeanor. Over the last ten days, Dennis’ comments have been inaccurate at best, and downright deceitful at worst.

Ronspeak: “[Alonso] is not even concussed. The technical definition of a concussion is that you can see it in a scan. The possibility is that the change of direction happened so fast that actually it was like – it’s inappropriate to use the word – a whiplash of the brain. It didn’t actually touch anything. It didn’t bruise, it didn’t bleed.

“The CTU and MRI scans were completely clear, no indication of any damage. There was no concussion detected in the scan and physically he is perfect.”

Alonso suffered a concussion from the impact that reportedly measured 30 g-force and was knocked unconscious.

Ronspeak: “It’s Fernando in Spain, you can imagine every doctor wants to be involved in some sort of diagnostic process. We are just letting this whole thing unfold, but he is completely fine.”

Alonso remained hospitalized for three days and spent time in intensive care, a treatment unit typically reserved for patients with severe or life-threatening injuries. “Physically perfect” people stay in the waiting room or at the track.

Ronspeak: “There will be some tests and processes laid down in the FIA [before he can race again]. I can’t see any reason he won’t just sail through it.”

Per doctor’s recommendation, Alonso will not race in Australia.

Ronspeak: “I’m not a doctor.”

Well, I believe that one.

I can’t blame anyone who rushed to conclusions about the crash, because McLaren was in no rush to present the facts at all. Conspiracy theories take root in mystery and thrive in the shadows of perceived dishonesty from authority. Is it any wonder McLaren is not universally believed when its leader routinely adopts the “yesterday I was lying, today I’m telling the truth” public relations policy from boxing promoter Bob Arum?

Maybe Dennis believes it’s true that no publicity is bad publicity for his brand. Granted, my net worth is approximately 865 cents as opposed to $865 million like his, but I disagree and so do the overwhelming majority of fans McLaren should be trying to connect with.

Many people, myself included, have been skeptical about the crash and its aftermath. It seemed likely that something exceptionally strange or serious happened to Alonso, to the McLaren MP4-30, or to Alonso because of the car. In the process of deciphering fact from fiction (and Ronspeak from Standard English), you couldn’t help but feel worried about Alonso’s well-being.

And that’s the central cause of all of this mayhem. If McLaren or Alonso’s management had made a straightforward statement at the beginning, wouldn’t this have been so much better for everyone involved?

Instead, the precedent that has been set regarding sports injuries seems to have become one of dishonesty and misinformation, which then leads to distrust and further misinformation from the public.

In other sports, coaches do this all the time. They keep quiet about their banged up star athletes and label players as “game-time decisions” even though they know beforehand how that player will be incorporated into the game plan. If the New England Patriots are to be believed, three quarters of their roster is injured and could be hampered come Sunday afternoon. Tom Brady is questionable and might not even play!

Yeah. Right.

It’s about keeping the opponent guessing. Gamesmanship. But football, basketball, baseball—those are games. Auto racing is a sport that clearly operates under a radically different dynamic, so what is there to gain?

I’m fully aware that personal privacy is important in times of tragedy. Yet, even in the extreme cases of Michael Schumacher and Jules Bianchi, most of what we’ve learned about their conditions have come through vague official statements and leaks from supposed inside sources.

We have no way of confirming the validity of these leaks, but it’s all we have to go on so naturally, we all run with it. In the end, allowing rumors to spread and scrutiny to intensify because of relative silence does nobody any good.

Drivers are important to us. As fans, there’s a special bond shared with our heroes that, even if one-sided, is still a meaningful emotional connection. For media, they are the reason we do what we do and enjoy doing it. And for the families and teams whose bond is actually personal and shared on both sides, they undoubtedly want what’s best for the drivers too.

I don’t say this because I want more paragraphs for a story or because I want something else to debate. I just want honesty. No injury was ever healed because of secrecy, and perhaps most importantly, no ridiculous rumor ever spread because of too much truth.

I’m not a doctor, but I’m not an idiot either. It would sure be nice if teams stopped treating us that way.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.

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