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Formula death

Formula death
Imagine going at 110 kilometers an hour. It’s a <g data-gr-id="85">nerve wracking</g> and adrenaline boosting experience, isn’t it? According to speed tests <g data-gr-id="83">that’s</g> the average speed at which cars are driven on national highways in India. Now imagine going at thrice that speed. Adrenaline boosting becomes positively scary. Welcome to the dangerous and risky world of Formula one and motorsports.

Formula One  is the topmost class of open-wheeled auto racing governed by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), motorsport’s world governing body. The “formula” in the name refers to a set of rules to which all participants and vehicles must conform to. However, these prescribed set of rules have undergone significant changes in the recent years. Most of them had to do with safety. The F1 World Championship season consists of a series of races, each race known as a Grand Prix, held usually on hardboiled tarmac circuits, and in a few cases like the Monaco grand Prix on closed city streets. The results of each race are combined to determine two hotly contested annual Championships, one for drivers and one for constructors.

Safety standards have improved since the first World Championship Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950, where there <g data-gr-id="100">was</g> no medical <g data-gr-id="87">back-up</g> or safety measures in case of an accident. In the <g data-gr-id="99">1960s</g> helmets and overalls became mandatory and the FIA assumed responsibility for safety at the circuits, albeit grudgingly. Further steps were taken to improve the safety of the Formula One car in the 1970s. In the <g data-gr-id="97">1980s</g> the carbon fibre monocoque replaced aluminium, increasing protection upon impact. Following the death of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994, a number of measures were introduced in an attempt to slow the cars down, including a wooden undertray. In 1998 grooved tyres replaced racing slick tyres to reduce cornering speed. 

Safety measures continued to be introduced into the 21st century, with a number of circuits changing their configuration to improve driver safety.However, that did not prevent the tragic death of Jules Bianchi.

When Formula One mourned the death of Jules Bianchi on Tuesday, during his funeral in Nice, it was with a truly moving, collective, heartfelt spirit from across the drivers. For a brief moment, teams appeared to be united. They were bidding farewell to a respected colleague and trying to express solidarity with  his grief-stricken family. It was, simply, the motor sport at its best, away from the internecine battling, the endless turf wars 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 and frightening 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. During an overcast dusk, in <g data-gr-id="82">heavy</g> 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 conditioned to in recent years. Now a sense of real anxiety permeated the air, one exacerbated by the macabre nature of his accident.

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, <g data-gr-id="88">motor sport</g> is dangerous. There has been no equipment designed to protect a driver who is hurtling down a concrete at 300 plus kilometres an hour. Perhaps F1 then, for all its admirable efforts, has had some luck too since that weekend when Ayrton Senna was 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. It’s even more unfortunate that post surviving that horrendous crash, what ultimately caused huge damage to Michael Schumacher was skiing, another dangerous sport. Several other incidents come to mind, 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 arose.

Outside F1, however, it has been a different, sadder story. In recent years alone there has been the sad death of British driver Dan Wheldon in an IndyCar race in 2011. The same year spectators were 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.

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 <g data-gr-id="104">motor sport</g> 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 evade 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.
Nikhil D Thiyyar

Nikhil D Thiyyar

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