“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” – Henry David Thoreau
There’s been a lot of hot air blown over the tragic accident of Jules Bianchi in Suzuka. Human nature appears to require somewhere to quickly point the finger of fault in the face of an injustice of monumental proportions.
Jacques Villeneuve wants to launch the safety car as often as it takes during a race, to ensure even the smallest mouse which happens to wander onto the circuit is protected. Then others, such as Max Mosley have in nano seconds of the chequered flag jumped to give a stalwart defence of Charlie Whiting and the FIA.
What will be the case is that some things will indeed change. However, this requires a sober assessment of current practices and protocols and for certain well placed individuals within the FIA to lay down their stubborn views and long held positions on the matter of safety in Formula 1.
To the safety car. The first time Formula One saw the use of a ‘pace car’ to control the speed of the competitors during a race was in 1973. That year there had been a number of particularly gruesome crashes, one of which claimed the life of Roger Williamson.
At the Canadian GP in ’73 following a crash between Scheckter and Cevert, a yellow Porsche 914 was released onto the track. The problem was the safety car picked up the wrong driver, Howden Ganley, which allowed all the cars ahead of him to complete an extra lap before catching the snake of cars now under speed control.
This was in the days of manual timekeepers and lap charts, and on the restart following the safety car’s departure from the circuit, the race managers assumed Ganley was leading the race.
Ganley crossed the finish line first and was awarded the race win. However, he refused to acknowledge the win, and explained the error.
After three hours of post race deliberation, Peter Revson was awarded the win, though to this day Emerson Fittipaldi who was second disputes this.
This debacle saw the safety car idea abandoned, and whilst there were token appearances from a Lamborghini Countach during the starts of the 1981,82 and 83 Monaco GP’s.
(Look closely at the rear of the field to see the Lamborghini)
It was not until 1993 when the safety car was once again introduced and the inglorious Fiat Tempra was selected for the job. It was first seen in action that year as the pace car during the Brazilian GP.
Since those times the use of the safety car has developed, and various eras have seen different rules and protocols applied to the periods deemed to require a safety car. Closed pit lanes following the deployment of the safety car, lapped cars left out of position and the SC picking up the wrong driver as the leader of the snake have all created debates over fairness and regulation changes over the past 20 years.
During the sprint era of F1 where Ferrari dominated the sport, the safety car was often viewed as relief by those watching processional races because it would ‘mix things up’ and create some incremental interest. That said, racing purists were upset by these at times randomising events because the order of the race prior to the despatching of the Safety Car was disrupted.
However, the introduction in 2010 of delta times which cars must drive to immediately following the deployment of the Safety Car, was an attempt to retain the integrity of the race to date, and on the whole has worked well.
The current use of the safety car, though fairer in its protocols of use than at other times in history, still creates a huge debate amongst F1 fans and professionals alike. There are those who believe the safety car is the shining knight in white armour – riding into town to on his trusty steed to deliver ultimate safety, in every given situation requiring an on track caution in a Formula One race.
Others believe the safety car is still an intrusion on the racing and that its incremental use will render more random and ‘unfair’ results to Formula 1 races.
If these two polarised positions were the only options, then the safety first ‘white steed’ mantra becomes difficult to argue with.
However, there are alternatives to the safety car, which may indeed be safer than deploying Bernd Maylander and his Mercedes marketing pony, whilst at the same time retaining the race order on track.
To all of us who have raced in club level motorsport or even in the less technologically advanced professional series, from day one we were and have continued to be drilled regarding the importance of obeying the marshals flags. When the racing cars have no flashing yellow lights, no steering wheel safety car delta speed displays and no pit to car radio, on track cautions becomes a matter of life and death for all concerned at a race meeting.
The racing becomes secondary and it is of grave concern to each individual involved that the utmost respect for others is observed.
We saw in Germany this year, the stricken car of Adrian Sutil lay stalled across the pit lane straight toward the end of the race. The matter was dealt with under double waved yellow flags, yet drivers were coming through the final corner at high speeds which certainly did not fitting the criteria of “slow right down and be prepared to stop”.
No driver was sanctioned for this apparent reckless disregard for the double waved yellows and amusingly Lewis Hamilton criticised race control as follows.
“When you come round that corner at serious speed and then there are marshals standing not far away from where you’re driving past, for me that’s the closest it’s been for a long, long time.”
Hamilton also stated he had been having flashbacks to the gruesome TV footage from the 1977 South African GP when Welsh driver Tom Pryce hit a marshal who was crossing the track with a fire extinguisher. Both men were killed in the incident.
The drivers continued to enter the pit straight this year in Germany at high speed despite Sutil’s abandoned vehicle and not just on the first lap they encountered the obstruction, but until the end of the race.
So why no sanctions from Charlie?
Well, in an attempt to quantify what constitutes a breach of yellow flag protocols, Charlie Whiting issued a directive earlier this year.
Proud of his initiative, Whiting stated at the season opener in Melbourne, “We can now split the track into 20 sectors rather than the traditional three. It will allow us, for example, to check accurately that a driver has slowed appropriately for yellow flags where looking at the larger sector would not always be representative.
It will give us much better accuracy when looking at car positions and track sectors – It’s another tool that’s been added to the stewards’ armoury.”
So each F1 circuit on the race calendar has now been divided into a maximum of 20 sections, and race control now have the ability to track the times of each driver lap by lap through each section.
The drivers must now slow by a prescribed time though yellow flag affected sections of the circuit. This is 0.2 seconds compared to their best same sector time for a single yellow flags, and 0.5 seconds for double waved yellows.
At 5807 metres long, this would mean that were Suzuka divided into 20 equal sections, each sector would be 290 metres long. Jules Bianchi and Adrian Sutil were circulating in around 117 seconds per lap prior to their accidents. This means they were covering a 290 metre section in just under 6 seconds.
The implications are clear. No longer does the double yellow flag carry the potency it should, because Charlie’s new regulations require the drivers to reduce their speed by just 8.6% on average at the Suzuka circuit.
It may be simpler for Charlie and the stewards to patrol breaches of yellow flag protocol with this new definition, but an enormous tool in the safety armoury of Formula 1 has been sacrificed. The impotence of double waved yellow flags in Formula 1 following Whiting’s March 2014 directive is now horrifying.
The double waved yellow is far quicker to implement than a safety car, and has the immediate effect of locking down a relatively small section of track to a speed close to the slowest hairpin corner on the F1 calendar.
There have been a number of suggestions from the likes of Max Mosely and Mika Salo to name but two, that maybe Jules Binchi was traveling too quickly under double waved yellow flags, yet the driver’s cannot be blamed for this since March when Charlie Whiting gave them Carte Blanche to travel at more than 90% of their quickest time though hazardous sections of the race track which are under a double yellow caution.
THIS INSIDIOUS NOTION THAT BIANCHI CONTRIBUTING TO HIS ACCIDENT, EMANATING FROM THE FIA IS WICKED AND SHOULD BE CHALLENGED BY EVERY F1 FAN ACROSS THE GLOBE.
Whether Jules had indeed technically breached the speed regulation before he hit the recovery vehicle is a moot point. Had the collision occurred at speeds of 130, 160 or 190kph. the result would have been similar.
F1 cars are designed to crash into other cars and barriers at speeds approaching 300kph, THEY ARE NOT DESIGNED TO SUBMARINE UNDER A 15 TONNE VEHICLE – POORLY ADAPTED TO OPERATE ON A LIVE RACING CIRCUIT TO RECOVER STRANDED CARS
Others have suggested a faster deployment of the safety car would have saved Jules from his fate. However, even had the safety car been deployed almost immediately, it would have collected Jules prior to the leader, he would have been allowed to circulate once more at 120% delta time of his best lap – which is still a mere 16.66% reduction in speed – measured over the entire lap.
It has to be time for a new flag and associated lights around the circuit and on the dashboard to be introduced. This flag should enforce no more than the pit lane speed limiter – or an even slower delta speed if deemed appropriate – while the cars to travel at through temporary hazardous sections of the circuit.
This protocol would have the added advantage that the cars will be traveling at full speed for much of the lap – unlike when behind the safety car – with the result that their tyres and brakes will not cool down as they do behind the safety car.
This writer knows these proposals were discussed at length with certain FIA officials who have decision making powers earlier this year, to no avail, as apparently the commercial rights holder felt safety car deployments improve the show. These protocols were in fact first proposed by an early TJ13 article back in 2012 following the Singapore GP (click here).
For the 2014 event, Le Mans have adopted controlled zones without safety cars where the vehicles are restricted to 60mph. A similar system, named “Code 60″, has been used in the 24 Hours of Dubai, where all cars immediately slow to 60 kph and retain their relative positions on track.
The safety car can still be used when it is necessary to aggregate the entire field into the same section of the lap – usually to clear extensive amounts of debris, At present many occasions when the safety car is deployed, the track aggregation of the field is not necessary.
Of course, when considering the accident of Jules Bianchi, there are a number of other matters for consideration regarding the closing laps of the 2014 Japanese GP; poor light levels, incremental rain, wearing intermediate tyres and green flags being waved which may have appeared confusing in the spray and the gloom.
And given the current protocols for releasing the safety car, there is no guarantee had it been deployed following Sutil’s accident that it would have picked up Jules Bianchi in time to save him.
The FIA has launched an investigation to the events surrounding the Jules Bianchi accident in Japan, yet if Whiting truly wishes to improve safety during the races, he will not buckle to the calls for the ‘Linus Blanket’ of incremental safety car deployment. This is not the answer and will not deliver the objective of improving safety for all personnel on a Formula One circuit.
It’s time F1 and the FIA regained a proper sense of respect for the lives of the competitors and the event marshal’s and it is truly a tragedy, that Jules Bianchi has had to pay so high a price in the hope that certain stubborn men may finally sit up and listen.