Now that the Bianchi family went ahead with launching legal action against the FIA, Formula One Group and Marussia, as it had been expected for months, perhaps it is time to revisit the circumstances of the incident that cut short the life of a promising young driver.
One element that rarely gets discussed in the Bianchi accident is the geometry of the Dunlop Curve. Charlie Whiting is on record, a week after the events and when the FIA was still in full-on defensive mode, that in those conditions — a stricken Sauber, a heavy duty vehicle and unprotected marshals barely 15m from the track, with a race proceeding under tropical rain conditions inside the eye of typhoon Phanfone — double yellows was the standard and correct safety response from the FIA and that the safety car was not needed:
“We put out double yellow flags, because we thought that given the consequences of the incident [with the Sauber car] we could deal with it without the use of a Safety Car. The next step would be, of course, sending the Safety Car onto the track, but because the car [of Adrian Sutil] was [quite] away from the track, this was a natural decision on our part in similar circumstances. We did not see the need to release the Safety Car on the track at that moment.”¹
While Charlie Whiting is certainly FIA’s Safety Delegate, this strikes as a load of self-serving excuses, so let us consider the impact of the track geometry on the entire incident and the implications on safety-related decision-making.
Many have made a fuss about the double waved yellows being replaced with green flags immediately after the tractor with the stricken Sauber had passed back the control Tower 12 (and seconds prior to Bianchi’s car submarining under the recovery vehicle). Now many experts (including Dr Hartstein) have made the point that this was an absolutely normal, business as usual operating procedure, since drivers look far off and by the time they’ve noticed the green flag and have had time to react, they’ll already be past the marshalling post. Generally this is probably a fair point.
However this is what doesn’t quite work out given the geometry of the Dunlop Curve. This corner, following the Esses, is a particularly hard to take corner where you always fight the car so as to not lose it, even in dry conditions. You need to very carefully apply throttle, and be very firm with the steering or else you risk losing the car. Taking it while driving in typhoon conditions must be as godawful as driving Monaco under torrential rain — with hindsight, it really is no surprise that in those conditions two cars lost it there within two laps… This is no doubt one complication that sets the Dunlop Curve apart from other “similar circumstances”.
The other point is that the way the corner flows, from the Esses to the Dunlop Curve, drivers have a clear sight of the marshalling post from very early on, when they’re still carefully managing throttle out of the Esses and prior to the full-throttle acceleration zone. If they spot the green flag at that point then the expected inclination of any racing driver would be to start accelerating in the natural acceleration zone for this curve, which is well prior to the Sutil and Bianchi skidding zones.
Earlier analysis by TJ13 puts the probable start of the slide at the point when Tower 12 is already visible to the driver:
Seeing a green flag will presumably make a driver understand that it’s time to accelerate…
Had this been on a straight, or in a braking zone before a tight corner, then putting the green flag on would have been the fine thing to do. But in such a complicated corner, at the point of full-throttle acceleration after the Esses, in those conditions, with a stricken car on a skidding trajectory, with marshals and a tractor operating at 15m from the track with precious little gravel on the escape road, putting a green flag right there right then was undoubtedly a very reckless safety-related decision by the FIA.
And of course we should not forget that a heavy duty recovery vehicle not designed for impact with F1 machinery makes for an iffy presence on an active track under any circumstances (near-misses having occurred on a number of occasions in the past), let alone in a tricky corner under atrocious weather conditions. In the memorable words of four-time world champion Alain Prost:
“I don’t want to make any polemics with the FIA, because I have a lot of respect for what has been done in terms of safety over the past 20 years.
“It is cars and tracks [that have been improved] and there was only one thing left: it was this f*cking truck on the track.
“You have the procedure, but the weather conditions were getting worse and worse with more and more water, so visibility was very bad.
“So you cannot have the same decision according to the procedure if the weather was good or bad. That is why I say I am not convinced. In this condition, especially with all the experience they have in terms of safety, they should have zero risk.
“If it was my son, I wouldn’t want this type of accident with a truck on an F1 track. That is what I cannot accept.”
Conspicuously, the whitewash, two-page summary report investigating the circumstances of Bianchi’s accident had precious little to say about the presence of a recovery vehicle not designed for impact with F1 machinery on an active track…
¹ Normally the FIA publish every press conference associated with an F1 Grand Prix on their site in downloadable PDF format. In this instance, however they did not do so. The only complete record of what was said came from a Russian website that appeared to have been translated from English to Russian and back, cross checked with quotes from journalists who were present in Sochi. The quote in this article comes from TJ13’s translation of the Russian transcript of the press conference, without the intervention of Google translate. Apologies for any translation errors.