By Hollie Hughes-Rowlands
The 2022 Japanese Grand Prix was one of the more notable races of the season so far, and not because it decided the World Driver’s Championship. Unfortunately for victor Max Verstappen, his performance was overshadowed by a safety incident that drove the Formula One world into furious debate over the quality of current safety regulations.
After Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz crashed into the barrier on the opening lap, a recovery vehicle was called out onto the track to remove the vehicle whilst the others were still running behind the safety car. Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly – who had dropped behind the pack after a trip to the pits due to debris from the aforementioned crash – was driving at speed to catch up and came perilously close to the recovery vehicle, which was sitting on the racing line.
Though the incident was not aired live, footage released after showed how the poor visibility caused by the rain meant the tractor did not become visible to Gasly until he was practically on top of it.
The incident, its potential consequences, and who was at fault became the topic of much discussion. The FIA claimed that it was following standard procedure for vehicle removal, and that it was normal to recover cars under the safety car. They accused Gasly of driving faster than the speed limit set for safety car conditions.
Gasly stated that having the recovery vehicle on track while F1 cars were still driving was an “unnecessary risk” and that the vehicle should simply not have been there. He also claimed that he was driving faster to respect his delta lap time and that the instruction to slow down reached him just before the crash site, not giving him enough time to safely slow down in the wet conditions.
The Frenchman was backed by a large number of drivers and team personnel, including Sergio Perez who said on Twitter that the incident was “totally unacceptable” before stating “I hope this is the last time ever I see a crane on track!”
Lando Norris also called the incident unacceptable, while Carlos Sainz said that even at safety car speeds, crashing into the recovery vehicle could have fatal results, asking “Why even risk it?”
The incident also brought back memories of Jules Bianchi’s fatal crash in similar circumstances at the same track in 2014. In a race held in wet conditions and fading light, Bianchi lost control of his car and hit the back of a recovery vehicle picking up Adrian Sutil’s crashed Sauber. Bianchi later died of his injuries.
At the time, his death provoked a wave of safety innovations in procedure and car manufacture in an attempt to avoid such a tragedy in the future, which included the introduction of the Virtual Safety Car and the Halo.
With the promises of safety improvements still ringing in the ears of drivers, one can hardly blame them for being upset and angry at the potential of an almost identical incident occurring on the same track. How could the FIA allow such a situation to develop in the first place?
Formula One has had an interesting relationship with safety. At the origins of the sport in the 1950s, safety concerns were almost non-existent. Drivers did not have to wear protective race suits or full-face covering helmets.
Track barriers were often hard walls or hay bales, and there were no mandatory seat belts. The immense personal risk to drivers was almost an accepted part of the sport. As the years have progressed, this situation improved with measures such as the introduction of proper protection on the car and the uniform of drivers, the implementation of the safety car and virtual safety car, the creation of tyre walls, the imposition of a pit lane speed limit and more recently, the Halo.
However, these improvements are often made in response to the injury or death of a driver. For example, two of the biggest safety improvement waves occurred in direct response to the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Jules Bianchi.
Does this have to be the case? Should it be? Is it right that safety concerns seem to be reactive, rather than proactive?
Jules Bianchi’s death was a heart-breaking tragedy, and even more so because it could have been prevented. Had the recovery vehicle not been there he might have survived; had the race not been run in such conditions he might have lived.
Ultimately, it took his death to bring in the measures that might have saved him. Similarly, Gasly’s near miss was another entirely preventable situation. Had the FIA waited until the cars came into the pits, or simply not started the race in such poor conditions, there could have been no potential danger in the first place. As it happened, Suzuka was a very near miss.
After the incident, Gasly stated ““I am just extremely grateful that I am still standing, and I am still going to be able to call my family tonight and still going to be able to call my loved ones and nothing happened. But really for the sake of us drivers I hope that this can be the last time we see a crane and take such an unnecessary risk.”
Clearly, the FIA need to make some changes.
It is impossible to completely remove the danger factor from Formula One. Nonetheless, the drivers have indicated that they do not want this to happen again, and the FIA needs to listen to them. To fail to review their procedures would show disrespect to Pierre Gasly, to Jules Bianchi, and to the life of every driver on track.
Image: Renault Sport via Flickr