JUST KILOMETRES FROM DISASTER: Marussia's French driver Jules Bianchi at speed in the rain during the 2014 Japanese Formula 1 GP at Suzuka. Some laps later he slid off the track and into a car-recovery crane. Image: AFP / Toru Yamanaka
LONDON, England - Formula 1 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 to reduce the risks, a hole appears in the safety net.
Jules Bianchi's crash at Suzuka on Sunday (Oct 5) left the Frenchman fighting for his life with severe head injuries. That’s inevitably raised questions about what went wrong and what, if anything, might have been done differently.
Some are already asking why the Japanese GP organisers didn’t 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 that leaves drivers' heads so exposed to danger. The use of lumbering recovery vehicles, of the kind into which Bianchi crashed, in exposed run-off areas may also have to be reviewed.
The sport is praying that Bianchi pulls through, as Brazilian Felipe Massa did in Hungary in 2009 after he was hit on the front of his helmet by a bouncing spring shed from another car, and that remains the prime concern.
However, when things go wrong, there are issues that have to be addressed and the answers may not be easy. Despite constant efforts to limit danger, with F1 now having gone 20 years since the last driver was killed during a race, the possibility of a freak accident or tragic combination of circumstances is ever-present.
Max Mosley, a former International Automobile Federation president instrumental in pushing through safety improvements after the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994 felt what happened at Suzuka fell into that '”freak” category.
He told Sky Sports News TV: “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. For anybody to get hurt in modern F1 several things have to go wrong at once - a little bit like the aviation industry.”\
WHAT 'DOUBLE YELLOW' MEANS
The federation said in a statement on Sunday night at Suzuka, while Bianchi was in hospital and in danger of losing his life, that the marshals had displayed double waved yellow flags on the approach to the curve where Bianchi went off to warn drivers of an incident a lap earlier 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, his car crossed the runoff area and then hit the rear of the heavy recovery vehicle as it was lifting the Sauber.
No TV recording of the impact was shown but photographs indicated that his car's roll bar was ripped off.
Mosley added: "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).
“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 (Bianchi) went in under the tractor.
“And that's what caused the danger."
AN ALTERNATIVE DANGER
There has long been concern in F1 about the use of such tractors and cranes while the race is still going on. Seven-times F1 Drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, now coping with his own head injury after a skiing accident in 2013, was lucky to escape serious injury in 2003 when a recovery crane was deployed during a rain-hit Brazilian GP.
• The German's Ferrari skidded off at the same spot and almost crashed into it, fortunately hitting a tyre wall instead.
• In Canada in 2013 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 the pace car before the tractor is given the go-ahead.
Mosley warned: "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. You want to remove the car as quickly as possible.”
MARK DONOHUE'S DEATH
Mosley also defended the Japanese race 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.
"We always think that (American Mark) Donohue in 1975 died because he was taken to hospital in a helicopter with a brain haemorrhage. The doctors will decide whether it is safe to take a driver in a helicopter.”
• Reports at the time said the helicopter could not be used because it was unable to take off safely in the then current weather conditions.