A Price Worth Paying?

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Aryton Senna: ‘Racing, competing, it’s in my blood. It’s part of me, it’s part of my life; I have been doing it all my life and it stands out above everything else.’ 

On Sunday 5 October 2014, the racing world fell silent as they witnessed 25 year-old Jules Bianchi crash under wet conditions at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. Despite the massive improvements in safety made possible by modern race technology, debate persists regarding the dangerous potential of motorsports. The question remains, should the race stewards have introduced the safety car sooner? For now, we honour the talent of a young driver who was beginning to make his mark in the F1 world.

It had been a wet weekend at Suzuka– perhaps a grim foreshadowing of events which were to unfold. After the completion of 21 laps, the slippery track was deemed to be dangerous and the race was suspended for 20 minutes until the conditions on the circuit improved. It was then resumed under the safety car and following a further 8 laps, the drivers were released from its speed impediments when it re-entered the pit-lane. The race was on.

It was Lap 43 when things turned sour. Jules Bianchi, of team Marussia, lost control whilst travelling at high-speed at the spot where recovery vehicles were attending to a crash which had happened the previous lap. Adrian Sutil had spun under wet conditions and his Sauber hit the tyre barrier. It was imperative that race marshals looked to remove the vehicle as quickly as possible.

However, in the midst of this operation, the rain claimed another victim. Bianchi travelled across the run-off area and hit the back of the recovery tractor. The situation worsened when he failed to respond to his teams radio message. He was unconscious as he was transferred to Mie General Medical Centre in Yokkaichi- the bad weather had prevented the helicopter from flying – before undergoing brain surgery and was moved to intensive care. Recognising the gravity of the situation, the race was red flagged after 44 laps of a scheduled 53.

At the race’s conclusion, commentary on the days events ranged from tributes to the young driver as well as serious demands as to why the race was not brought to an early completion. Nikki Lauda, non-executive Chairman of Mercedes AMG Petronas team, who still possesses scars from his serious injury at the German Grand Prix in 1976, believed that the conditions did not warrant an early intervention. He said: ‘We always have to be aware that motor racing is very dangerous and this accident is a coming together of various difficult things. One car goes off, the truck comes out and the next car goes off. This was very unfortunate.”

So perhaps, Bianchi’s crash was an unlucky accident? It is true that drivers acknowledge they are professionals in a high-risk sport. Seven time Formula 1 champion, Michael Schumacher stated bluntly: “To control 800 horse power relying just on arm muscles and foot sensitivity can turn out to be a dangerous exercise.”

In contrast, Felipe Massa, current 2013-14 Williams driver, disagreed with Lauda’s assessment. Post-race, he confirmed that he was ‘screaming’ on his radio, five laps before the safety car was deployed, about the unsafe conditions on track. The apparent dissent and opposing views suggests that this problem of safety is a question which will never proven or rectified.

Bianchi was a promising young driver in the world of motorsport. Before F1, he was a reigning French karting champion and he won the Renault 2.0 series, with a tally of 5 race wins and 11 podiums. This year marked his second season in competitive Formula 1, and his ninth place finish at the Monaco Grand Prix was Marussia’s first point scoring yield since they entered F1 in 2010. This man possessed a raw talent, and his presence during the remainder of the season, will be sorely missed.

The podium celebrations at Suzaka were conducted with an utmost respect, there were no champagne celebrations- a sombre shadow was cast over the paddock. In the post-race press conference, shocked drivers Hamilton, Rosberg and Vettel revealed their concern for their fellow colleague and were left stumbling for words. Jules’ accident had shaken the world of motorsport. It was a stark reminder of the hazards they had began to forget about in modern racing.

The inaugural race in Sochi followed the next weekend and it was apparent that Bianchi was at the forefront of everyones mind. Tributes poured in for the injured racer: Team Marussia emblazoned #JB17 on their helmets and they raced only one car in recognition of their missing driver. The remaining 21 drivers gathered at the front of the grid and observed a minutes silence for a fellow driver, young man and friend. After winning the race, Lewis Hamilton said: “All week there was only one person on my mind and that was Jules… If it means anything, I would like to dedicate my win today to him and his family. I hope that every positive energy will help.”

The display of solidarity throughout the weekend suggested that everyone was ready to fight with Jules – this was something that he could overcome. And so as the racing world attempts to overcome the shocking memory of this incident, Jules’ battle continues. In an update about their driver, Marussia emphasised that, “Jules continues to fight” and fight he did. Positive news surfaced on 19 November when his parents issued an update on his situation. After suffering a diffuse axonal injury, Bianchi no longer remained in an artificially induced coma and was breathing unaided. He was deemed stable enough to be transferred to a Nice hospital to continue his recovery, but he is still unconscious and his condition is described as ‘critical’.

And so as the Formula 1 season draws to a close- with the finale taking place on 23 November in Abu Dhabi Jules continues to dominate the thoughts of drivers, teams and racing  alike. For a sport which arouses so much passion, it begs the question: are the dangers it invites a price worth paying?

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