No point blaming anyone for Jules Bianchi accident

Effort must be made to learn from Marussia driver’s accident at Suzuka on Sunday and make motorsport safer, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Jules Bianchi’s accident, while highly unfortunate, had little to do with the wet conditions in Japan, writes our columnist. Getty Images
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Even before it happened, the harbingers were evident. In the build-up to the Japanese Grand Prix, the talk was of Typhoon Phanfone and the havoc it might wreak. Suggestions were made the race could start earlier in the day – or even a day earlier – to avoid the downpours that were forecast.

Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One Group’s chief executive, who must be credited for successfully developing it into an international money-spinning race series, did what he always does: what he deems best for his sport.

He dismissed advice to bring the race forward, telling Forbes: “I’m not moving anything anywhere. Nothing is changing at the minute. If it rains, the teams will race.”

And so they did. The 15th contest of the 2014 season started as scheduled at 3pm local time. With the heavens having opened 10 minutes earlier, it did so under safety-car conditions and with all 22 cars on wet tyres.

Forty-one completed laps later, and with the weather having eased slightly, Adrian Sutil aquaplaned off the track. One lap later Jules Bianchi suffered the same issue at the same part of the track. After 46 laps, the race was red-flagged, with the result brought back to Lap 44, and Lewis Hamilton was handed a race win he will likely never cherish.

Bianchi, a Marussia driver of immense talent, was taken unconscious to hospital by ambulance after his car had violently collided with the recovery truck treating Sutil’s Sauber.

The FIA, motorsport’s ruling body, said he suffered “severe” head injuries, was undergoing surgery and would later be taken to intensive care.

It would be easy to say such an accident could have been avoided, but such a sweeping statement would be foolhardy. Every accident in F1 could be avoided if races never took place.

Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button all said, post-race, that conditions were not a problem and the track was drive-able on intermediate tyres – the compound used when the track is too dry for wet-weather rubber.

Niki Lauda, the former world champion, suffered horrendous burns at the rain-hit 1976 German Grand Prix, a race he had ferociously demanded be called off.

On Sunday he said the FIA, the sport’s governing body, did everything correct in Japan, but he conceded the race could have started two hours earlier.

The time shift would have meant improved weather conditions and improved visibility.

Lauda is correct: the race could have and should have started earlier. It is believed the FIA twice suggested the start time be brought forward, but race promoters Honda refused. They had their reasons, but to blame Honda would be ill-advised.

Such an accident was not foreseeable, was not a direct result of the weather and could just as likely have happened at almost any other circuit and any other race on the calendar.

Motorsport is dangerous, of that there has never been any doubt.

Bianchi’s accident is one of the most serious in F1 since Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash at San Marino in 1994.

The fact the sport has not witnessed a death in the 20 years since is testament to the vastly improved safety regulations. Yet lessons must be learnt from Sunday’s events.

Inevitably, the focus will now be on what could have been done differently. While the weather and start timing should have been dealt with better, a more pressing consideration for the future must be the rules regarding recovery vehicles and their presence on track.

Bianchi’s accident occurred under yellow flags, but it would not have occurred under safety-car conditions. The FIA would be wise to use the accident at Suzuka to prompt a regulation dictating that whenever a recovery vehicle is on track, a safety car is mandatory.

“We always have to be aware that motor racing is very dangerous,” Lauda said on Sunday. “This accident 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.”

It is natural to look for somebody to blame, but the focus should instead be on making the sport safer. Change the rules regarding recovery vehicles and accidents similar to that of Bianchi can be avoided.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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