They were bidding farewell to a respected colleague and friend and offering what support they could to his grief-stricken family. It was, simply, the sport at its best, away from the internecine battling, the driver rivalry that somehow feels almost childish in this context and the endless politicking over F1 as a business.
It was also a salutary reminder that while so much has been done to make it safer, at racing’s heart, lies a very real risk.
At Suzuka last year, where Bianchi suffered the crash that ultimately caused his death, there was initial confusion. No one was quite sure what had happened. At dusk, in heavy rain that was a precursor to a typhoon, his car had come off at the Dunlop curve and was no longer moving.
It transpired it had hit the recovery vehicle tending to Adrian Sutil’s car. But it was what happened next that was truly telling. There were no television pictures of Bianchi climbing from his car unhurt, as we have all become so used to in recent years. Now a sense of real dread permeated the air, one exacerbated by shock as it became clear the Frenchman’s injuries were life-threatening and he was taken to hospital.
The concern for Bianchi and the shock it engendered had an almost unreal air about it. A driver had not been killed on the track since Ayrton Senna died at Imola in 1994. It had been 20 years, time enough for it almost to seem as though safety measures had seen the danger off for good. Bianchi’s accident and his subsequent tragic death proved that no matter what you do, motor sport – as the tickets to every race meeting remind you – is dangerous. Perhaps F1 then, for all its admirable efforts, has had some luck too since that weekend when Roland Ratzenberger was also killed at Imola.
What some consider the neutering of the danger in the tracks themselves and the in-car improvements such as the Hans device, has enabled drivers repeatedly to come out of huge accidents. Michael Schumacher escaped with only a broken leg at Silverstone in 1999 after a brake failure sent him head-on into a tyre wall and he was racing again 98 days later. Mark Webber climbed out of his car virtually unscathed after cartwheeling through 180 degrees at Valencia in 2010. Robert Kubica suffered only mild concussion after his Sauber disintegrated on hitting the wall at 180mph in Montreal in 2007. Sergio Pérez’s huge impact with a barrier at Monaco in 2011 resulted only in concussion, while the pile-up at the start at Spa in 2012 was horrific but the drivers were unhurt.
Even Felipe Massa’s freakishly unlucky accident in 2009, when a spring detached from the Brawn in front of him and hit his helmet knocking him unconscious and resulting in serious head surgery, put him out until the following year. There are further examples but from them all no fatalities.
Outside F1, however, it has been a different, sadder story. In recent years alone I have reported on the death of British driver Dan Wheldon in an IndyCar race in 2011. The same year I was astonished to see Allan McNish walk away from a huge incident at the Le Mans 24 and just hours later his team-mate Mike Rockenfeller do the same from an even bigger crash later in the race. They had been lucky. Denmark’s Allan Simonsen, at the same race in 2013, was killed when his Aston Martin came off at high speed at the Tertre Rouge corner.
Also in 2013, I had to write on the deaths of María de Villota, from injuries sustained during a test for Marussia the previous year, and the British driver Sean Edwards, who was leading the Porsche Supercup series at the time.
Elsewhere, on bikes the impressive young talent of Marco Simoncelli was brought to a premature end when he was killed at the Malaysian MotoGP in 2011, while only last Sunday, Bernat Martínez and Daniel Rivas Fernandez were both killed in an accident during a support race for the World Superbike Championship at Laguna Seca.
It is a grim list that simply proves the inherent risks in motor sport have never gone away, but in F1 they had apparently receded to an extent that made the worst case scenario almost unimaginable. That is to the sport’s credit and much as it often deserves criticism, its pursuit of safety has been wholehearted and genuine.
The drivers know the risks, indeed they embrace them; it has always been and will always be part of the attraction of the sport – high speed and danger go together. And fans know it too, with complaints of over-sanitised circuits not offering a sufficient test becoming commonplace in recent years.
Changes in the wake of Bianchi’s accident have already been implemented and it is to be hoped that F1 and other forms of racing can elude further tragedy. But while mourning the 25-year-old’s untimely death, remember that it also serves as a reminder to all parties that risk simply cannot be regulated out of this most dangerous of sports.
This article was written by Giles Richards, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 22nd July 2015 15.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010