F1 safety back in the spotlight

LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One fans are used to seeing drivers walk away from terrifying accidents but sometimes, in a sport that will always be dangerous however much is done to try and reduce the risks, a hole appears in the safety net.

Jules Bianchi's accident at Suzuka on Sunday, which left the Frenchman fighting for his life with severe head injuries, has inevitably raised questions about what went wrong and what, if anything, might have been done differently.

Some are already asking why the Japanese Grand Prix organisers did not move the race forward when it was clear an approaching typhoon would make conditions difficult, or stop it with the fading of the light.

Others have wondered whether the sport can continue as an open cockpit formula, leaving drivers' heads so exposed to danger.

The use of lumbering recovery vehicles, of the kind that Bianchi crashed into, in exposed runoff areas may also have to be reviewed.

The sport is praying that Bianchi pulls through, as Brazilian Felipe Massa did in Hungary in 2009 when he was hit on the helmet by a bouncing spring shed from another car, and that remains the prime concern.

But when things go wrong there are issues that have to be addressed and the answers may not be easy.

Despite constant efforts to limit dangers, with Formula One now having gone 20 years since the last driver fatality during a race, the possibility of a freak accident or tragic combination of circumstances is ever-present.

Max Mosley, the former International Automobile Federation (FIA) president who was instrumental in pushing through safety improvements following the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, felt what happened at Suzuka fell into that 'freak' category.

"I can't really fault any of the people involved. The marshals or the race director or any of those people. I think everything was done as it should have been," he told Sky Sports News television.

"For anybody to get hurt in modern Formula One, several things have to go wrong at once -- a little bit like the aviation industry," he added.


The FIA said in a statement on Sunday night at Suzuka that the marshals had displayed double waved yellow flags before the corner where Bianchi went off to warn drivers of an earlier incident involving Sauber's Adrian Sutil.

Double waved yellows are a signal to a driver to slow right down and be prepared to stop.

Whether Bianchi saw those flags in the rain and poor visibility remains an open question, but the facts are that he lost control with the car crossing the runoff area and hitting the rear of the recovery vehicle as it was lifting the Sauber.

No television footage was shown of the impact, but photographs indicated the roll bar had been ripped off.

"After Senna and (Austrian Roland) Ratzenberger were killed in 1994 in one weekend, several other life threatening incidents and another a fortnight later with (Austrian Karl) Wendlinger, we started a programme of systematic research on all aspects (of safety)," Mosley added.

"Crash helmets, driver protection in the car, rollover bars, fire precautions and so on. That is an ongoing thing.

"In this particular case, I don't think any of those precautions would have helped because as I understand it, he went in under the tractor. And that's what caused the danger."

There has long been concern in Formula One about the use of such tractors and cranes while the race is still going on.


Seven times world champion Michael Schumacher, now coping with his own head injury after a skiing accident last year, was lucky to escape serious injury in 2003 when a recovery crane was deployed during a rain-hit Brazilian Grand Prix.

The German's Ferrari skidded off at the same spot and almost crashed into it, fortunately hitting a tyre wall instead.

In Canada last year, a marshal died after being run over by a mobile crane while hurrying to remove Esteban Gutierrez's crashed Sauber towards the end of the race in Montreal."

The alternative to deploying such a vehicle would be to leave a crashed car in a potentially dangerous position, with accompanying risks, or bring out a safety car before the tractor is given the go-ahead.

"There's pretty much an automatic procedure that as soon as a car goes off, that car becomes a danger to other cars. If another car going off at the same place hits it, the effects are unpredictable. So you want to remove the car as quickly as possible," said Mosley.

The Briton also defended organisers from those who questioned why Bianchi was taken to hospital by road ambulance rather than in the medical helicopter.

"That's a medical decision... when you have a head injury, sometimes it's very dangerous to take somebody up in the air where the pressure drops and things then get worse," he said.

"We always think that (American Mark) Donohue in 1975 died because he was taken to hospital in a helicopter and had a brain haemorrhage. The doctors will decide whether it is safe or not to take the driver in a helicopter," he said.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by John O'Brien)

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