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GP Week : Issue 229
OPINION MiKe doodSon In the days before the racing started at suzuka last week, it must have been hard for people at the circuit not to think about Jules Bianchi. One year after the crash which would eventually take the 25 year-old's life, he was on everyone's mind. Even from the other side of the world, anyone watching on TV could feel the genuine affection for the fallen Frenchman both from his paddock colleagues and from race-goers who could not possibly have known him personally. Despite being a hard-bitten racing family with track bereavements behind them over three generations, the Bianchis are not inured to misery. In a private ceremony at Suzuka on Thursday, the Manor team paid their tributes to their much-loved driver, but Jules' father, Philippe, was not there. He says he can't bear to watch F1 any more: the only race he attended this year was the Hungarian GP, only a few days after Jules had succumbed to his injuries, nine months after the Suzuka crash. Philippe only went because the drivers had planned a commemorative tribute, and they invited him to be there. The official reaction to Bianchi's accident was quick and effective. A report was commissioned by the FIA to investigate how it came about that his Marussia had run off the road under double yellow flags and crashed into a mobile crane which was helping to recover a car that had crashed only a few minutes earlier. While the 396-page report was being prepared, the FIA devised and implemented the Virtual Safety Car procedure, which employs in-cockpit electronic signals to slow the field and neutralise the race without bunching up the cars. On the three or four occasions this year when it has been invoked, the VSC appears to have worked both fairly and efficiently. We cannot be sure whether it would have coped with the extreme conditions (falling darkness and deep puddles) that obtained at Suzuka last year, but the experts are confident that it would have mitigated the circumstances which led to Bianchi going off the road. The FIA study even examined the feasibility of requiring F1 cars to be fitted with protective canopies. The leader of the FIA safety commission is Peter Wright, a vastly experienced engineer who once worked at Lotus under Colin Chapman. Wright has made no recommendation about canopies (which remain the subject of debate) but suggested that the use of one would not have saved Bianchi. "The car would have been stopped by the roof," said Wright, "and although the head would not have hit the crane, it would have hit the roof with the same result." It goes without saying that safety should be paramount in motor racing. Over the last 40 years, improvements in the construction of cars and the design of circuits have reduced the severity of accidents and improved a driver's chance of sur viving. But the uncomfortable fact remains that the danger of the sport is one of the elements which makes it so attractive. Someone with a deeper understanding of the subject than most is Max Mosley, who was in charge of international motor racing from 1991 to 2009, latterly as President of the FIA. Although he brushes off any suggestion that he was anything other than a rank amateur, it is worth noting that Mosley had some successes in British club racing and went on to compete at the international level in Formula 2. In April 1968 he was competing at the wheel of his privately- entered Brabham in the F2 race at Hockenheim which took the life of Jim Clark. Speaking to the London Daily Telegraph last week, Mosley acknowledged the contradictory nature of his position during his years with the federation. "It's difficult to find a balance between [being safe and] making the thing look purged of all excitement," said Mosley. He illustrated the dilemma by recounting the apocryphal story of the racing driver who is offered the choice of two cars, one of them built to be a safe (and therefore heavy) and the other to be ultra-light and dangerous, resulting in it being two seconds a lap faster. "That's how you are when you want to race," Mosley reflected: "you are prepared to take the risk. It's up to the governing body [to set a high standard of safety]. Racing drivers tend not to think about safety. And when they do think about safety, that's the time to retire." There are drivers who do not hesitate to express, strongly, their opposition to attempts to make racing even safer. This year, both Gerhard Berger and David Coulthard have condemned the FIA for some fussy new rules on driver etiquette. Some of those rules were subsequently relaxed, but you don't need me to remind you that Berger and Coulthard can afford to pontificate on safety because they both retired long ago and don't have to expose themselves to danger anymore. For this reason, I was intrigued to see that Lewis Hamilton, who is as brave as they come, actually has some reser vations about the Suzuka circuit. Narrow, fast and bordered in places by worryingly narrow run-off areas, Suzuka is nominated by most drivers as 'challenging.' If pressed, Lewis would probably choose to use a word like 'dangerous' instead. Although Hamilton has two pole positions to his credit in Japan, they were recorded (2007 and 2008) at the Fuji track. Since Suzuka was reinstated as the home of the Japanese GP in 2009, he has failed in seven attempts to get on pole there. "It's been a bad track for me," he told Autosport. "Why? I don't know – it's never been a comfortable circuit for me. I come focused and prepared but it's just not a track I feel comfortable on – it's a weird sensation." Whatever it is at Suzuka that gives Hamilton the heebie-jeebies in qualifying, he seems to have overcome any reser vations under race conditions, as he proved by winning there last year and again on Sunday. Last year, because it suited Bernie Ecclestone's TV schedules, the organisers at Suzuka allowed themselves to be bamboozled into starting their race so late in the afternoon that before the chequers came out it was already getting ominously dark. The FIA's report did not directly attribute Bianchi's accident to any difficulty the driver may have had in seeing the yellow flags being waved at the corner where he crashed. Nevertheless, following a recommendation from Paris, this year's race was started one hour earlier. These steps will, we hope, serve to reduce and perhaps even eliminate the most obvious risks of racing at Suzuka and elsewhere. It is still possible, though, that the circuit will be the scene of another tragedy like last year's. As Max Mosley says, "the truth of the matter is, unfortunately, that Bianchi didn't slow down ... much." Tough, uncompromising words, those. But surely we must come to terms with the fact that motor racing will never be entirely safe. If it were not so, it would lose much of the magic which draws us to it in our millions. Lest we forget, one of those who took his enthusiasm to a higher level was Jules Bianchi. 13 GPWEEK.com // 13 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: OPINION is f1 safer since bianchi's crash?