F1’s refocus on driver safety is legacy of Jules Bianchi tragedy


Months before his death, Jules Bianchi had already ensured that Formula One had become a safer sport.

The Frenchman became the first driver to die from injuries sustained in an F1 race since Ayrton Senna, 21 years ago. He was in a coma for nine months after his crash at Suzuka in October.

But within hours of the sickening accident between his Marussia car and a recovery vehicle, urgent talks were taking place to eradicate the possibility of another driver being injured in similar circumstances.

Just a month later, in Austin – and for the last two races of the 2014 season in Brazil and Abu Dhabi – there was a successful trial of the virtual safety car (VSC), to be used when double-waved yellow flags are needed on any section of the track, but when circumstances do not warrant the use of the safety car.

The use of the VSC was confirmed by the sport’s ruling body, the FIA, in January, and is now a feature of the 2015 season. The system slows cars into a holding pattern while the track is being cleared and drivers must respect the speed limit sanctioned by stewards.

This will go down as Bianchi’s legacy, but the Frenchman’s tragic accident also refocused a sport that was in danger of drifting into complacency after so many years without a fatality – unlike America’s Nascar and IndyCar series, in which racing mishaps have been a little too common in recent years. New, safer nose designs were introduced and cockpit safety was improved by the upward extension of the Zylon anti-intrusion panels, which now go as far as the rim of the survival cell, alongside the driver’s head.

The ghost of Jules Bianchi may not be able to claim credit for the announcement, at the start of the season, that unsafe releases would be punished with an automatic 10-second stop-and-go penalty for the driver concerned; or for the new rule that any driver who had a member of his team – or a piece of equipment – on the starting grid after the showing of the 15-second signal would face starting the race from the pit lane. But again, what happened to the Marussia driver in Japan concentrated the careful mind. A sport that has become almost neurotically safe – especially when you think of drivers’ death toll in the 60s and 70s – was never going to allow a re-run of Suzuka 2014.

Jean Todt, the FIA president, is often criticised – quite rightly – for his lack of leadership in F1, but when it comes to safety issues, at least, he is dutiful, and the day after the crash in Japan he had commissioned the FIA race director, Charlie Whiting, to draw up a detailed report of the incident, with a view to introducing new safety measures.

Todt said: “I fully trust the people around me. They are professionals who have to react in a very quick way in sometimes very difficult situations. But, saying that, we have to learn from what has happened, and we will learn because we cannot face such a situation again.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Weaver, for The Observer on Saturday 18th July 2015 16.49 Europe/London

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