As Mario Andretti has noted, “motor racing is also this”.
And it is. For all that we love this game, relish its battles and its drama, it has a side which cannot be detached. One in its inherent nature. That there is a risk of injury and worse death for those competing in it.
Death always has a larcenous nature, taking away what is precious to us, but in motor sport this is multiplied by that often it is fine young people, often in their prime, often too with so much more laid out ahead of them as a driver and human being, that are the victims. And in Jules Bianchi we have in recent days had merely the latest to leave us and on these terms.
Even though the period between his Suzuka accident and his ultimate passing was a lengthy one, some nine months. Even though Jules’ father had warned us in the weeks before that hope was looking sadly meagre; that death would have to be considered. Even though he reminded us that “it’s not what Jules wants, being in a hospital bed. It’s not his life…” Even with this the gloom, the shock, that has followed the ultimate confirmation has hung heavy. No matter the circumstances the hurt at such times for those in and around the sport is near-impossible to avoid.
Times like this also cannot help but elicit a spell of reflection, and to give new perspectives on what was considered before. Indeed with what now to hindsight seems horrible timing Kimi Raikkonen earlier this month in his contribution to the widespread debate about how the sport could be improved commented that he’d like to see F1 become “a little more dangerous”. Niki Lauda concurred, stating that in the modern game “the highest limits and the risk factor have been lost”.
We shouldn’t be too hard on those espousing such views, and for a few reasons. One is of course none of us knows what lays ahead; how words can rapidly due to exterior events take on a very new slant. Further Lauda added at the time that he was talking about risk – presumably as in the challenge of driving an F1 car – rather than danger. Perhaps that’s what Kimi meant too.
But also we shouldn’t be too hard as however much we might be tempted to rail against the notion we have evidence that the ‘risk factor’ attracts people. Bernie Ecclestone, not one to sugar coat his words, said as much sometime after the sport’s previous fatalities in the notorious and harrowing Imola weekend of early 1994. Rather than fans turning away from F1 as a result its following in fact rose sharply in the period afterwards, and this Bernie attributed to a couple of things. One is that the deaths, particularly that of Ayrton Senna of course, got F1 media coverage in places it originally never would have been anywhere near. But moreover the fatalities reminded everyone that F1 still is dangerous. That it’s played for higher stakes than most sports you’ll tune into during a lazy weekend. This Kimi indeed noted among his recent comments: “we don’t wish to see anyone get hurt, but it [danger] makes things a little more exciting.”
But Imola and its fallout revealed something else too. Something incongruous to the above. That mass audiences will not accept death live on their television screens. Nor for people to perish in the name of a triviality such as sporting entertainment.
It wasn’t always this way of course. For decades indeed death in motor sport was thought a regrettable, but inevitable, part of the game. Self-preservation was strictly the driver’s business said the conventional wisdom, and the driver chose to do it knowing the risks and by extension the possibility of death in action. Some motor racing catastrophes, such as the Le Mans disaster in 1955 and Jim Clark’s fatal crash in 1968, had their reverberations but broadly speaking when a driver was lost the sport after a period of mourning quickly returned to what it had been doing before pretty much as it had been doing before. As intimated too the danger was thought part of the attraction. Stirling Moss captured the contemporary view: “In my era if it was too hot in the kitchen, fine, don’t come in the kitchen. What I’m saying is that if you make racing safe, you obviously lessen the challenge…”
But at some point the world changed, or at least F1’s place in it did. It’s not clear when but it became glaringly apparent after Imola in 1994
On the previous occasions of death in F1 race weekends 12 years earlier the reaction broadly conformed to the time-honoured one described. Tragic, regrettable, but the race goes on.
But after Imola the reaction – and recrimination – instead was of a very different type and scale and extended well beyond the F1 circus’s perimeter. Much of it, especially Senna’s passing of course, led news bulletins and filled front pages. And strident talk of a ‘killer sport’ abounded – “In the name of sport”, shrieked the Daily Star in a banner headline set between photos of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, “these young men were killed giving us thrills”. But it wasn’t confined to the red-tops, the usually sober L’Equipe following Karl Wendlinger’s accident two weeks later in Monaco stretched a photo of the rescue operation across its front cover with the headline “Arrêtez ça!”
Of course that then it was Senna – a global star even among plenty of those who’d never seen a motor race – was part of it. Conversely, and while it’s easy to forget, part of it too was that it wasn’t just about Senna either as in the early part of 1994 season there was a succession of bad accidents and plenty of the other ones had bad consequences of their own. It leant a sudden sense that suddenly no one could walk away from an accident in F1 unharmed.
We don’t wish to see anyone get hurt, but it [danger] makes things a little more exciting
– Kimi Raikkonen
But there were other, wider, things too. Part of it was that even in the intervening 12 years the sport’s following and coverage had grown almost beyond comprehension. To give one example in Britain at the start of the 1980s generally only the British and Monaco Grands Prix would be live on television while the BBC’s regular highlights programme for each race started only in 1979. Come 1994 just about all of the European rounds, plus a few non-European ones, were live on the BBC and having every qualifying session and race live on British TV awaited not too far in the future in 1997. Even in the specialist journal of Autosport compare the number of its pages taken up by F1 at the start and the end of this period and the two are hardly recognisable. And a consequence of this is that casual society had much more of a view into proceedings – the sport no longer existed in its own bubble.
The growing involvement and influence of sponsors, manufacturers and other investors, mindful of their brand and the PR impact of who they associated with, perhaps concentrated minds too. As Jackie Stewart commented some years ago on the possibility of such people withdrawing their bounty from F1: “the decision won’t come from their trackside personnel, but from the Board of Directors. There’s no racing passion there. It will be a straightforward and cold-blooded decision.” We can debate all day too the extent that the priorities of the society that F1 exists in shifted also. Whatever was the case though, the FIA President Max Mosley – one who came from the previous generation and held its values outlined – admitted he was “stunned” by the reaction.
And as a result he had to move – within 18 months or so the chassis, engines and even the circuits had changed, changed utterly. Many in hindsight thought there was an overreaction indeed. Certainly to this day we do not know why simply so much went awry in that short period – Gerhard Berger indeed probably was by far the closest in saying that it was merely “a horrible coincidence”. But everything must be judged within its zeitgeist and at the time there was intolerable pressure not only for the sport to act but to be seen to act.
But we can give too much weight to external factors. It is clear that one way or another within the sport we have changed too. Safety clearly is at the forefront of F1’s decision-makers’ minds and as something that they feel is right for its own sake rather than something they feel the need to do solely to appease those on the outside. Same goes for fans too. And you know what? It’s hard to argue anything other than they’re absolutely right to do this. As ultimately they act to spare us the exasperating cruelty to all concerned from the loss of a fine young individual and the wrenching waste of talent that we’ve all had to contend with in recent days. And in this case too followingBianchi’s crash there has rightly been an attempt to learn what lessons can be from the incident – most notably with the introduction of the Virtual Safety Car as well as the moving of start times of ‘eastern’ races to an hour sooner so that races don’t nudge the time that it is due to get dark.
Some F1 drivers have been saying in the days since that they too accept the personal risks just as Moss and his contemporaries did. One assumes Bianchi did also and he of course came from a family that knew what it is to lose someone to motor sport. Some indeed such as David Coulthard have said that the level of risk correlates with the level of pleasure. But as the sport has discovered it’s not just about them. No man is an island entirely of himself.
And if at this point you’re suspecting that concern over safety might be related to some sort of dilution of a racer’s spirit, it’s worth reflecting that Gilles Villeneuve – probably the most perfect embodiment of a pure racer of F1’s recent decades; almost certainly the bravest in that time – was also one vocal on safety matters and on the need to negate unnecessary additional risks. The mesmerising Jochen Rindt was similarly-minded and indeed many reckon that he was set to quit for the reason of self-preservation at the end of the 1970 season that he sadly was never to see. Certainly the relationship between the driver’s persona and the attitude to risk is not a simple one.
And this is the inherent contradiction within F1. That pretty much from its inception danger has been a part of it. But that certainly these days and in the place the sport has got into the ultimate logical conclusion of the danger is not tolerated. That’s indeed what FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting seemed to indicate was the sport’s aim recently: “We need to make sure there is that element of danger, but that no one gets hurt, that’s really our function” he said.
But as Edd Straw for one pointed out the two things are irreconcilable. “Sadly, you cannot have risk without the consequences of it,” he said. “Embrace the risk that others are taking and you also embrace the consequences.” After all risk without the consequences at least being possible isn’t risk at all. So those wishing a more dangerous sport are by definition agreeing to a greater probability of instances such as that we have all just gone through. To say otherwise is bogus.
In this as in many things many have declared the end of history of F1 and fatalities. And none have been proved right. Even in the twenty plus years without a death at a race meeting and the considerable safety strides there still were times that the worst was only just dodged. One thinks of Romain Grosjean flying near Fernando Alonso’s cockpit in the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix; Mark Webber somersaulting through the air in Valencia in 2010; Felipe Massa in Hungary in 2009; Robert Kubica in Canada in 2007. Even Alonso and Raikkonen’s cars being piled on top of each other just recently in Austria.
Sadly, you cannot have risk without the consequences of it
– Edd Straw
But that’s it. The safety efforts minimise the chances of a fatal accident happening. But life is volatile and motor sport especially so, and some things are unforeseen – there will come times that the circumstances come together and the worst will result, as tragically it did with Bianchi. That’s how risk works.
And as is also the case with most things choices in this are not black and white, rather it is a case of where you place yourself on a scale. One of risk and reward at either end if you will. And in this case the reward being racing thrill. Where you think the sport should place itself is a matter of judgment of course, though as we’ve outlined one example of already in recent years it’s been common to hear lament that the sport had placed itself too far towards the risk averse end of the scale.
This with rather galling cruel fate included during the delay in heavy rain to the start of the very same Japanese Grand Prix in which Bianchi’s accident took place – I’ll admit that I was among those complaining then. There are at least at some level similar motives at play in the recent push from the Strategy Group to tear chunks off F1 cars’ lap times, like it is an end in itself for the sport, as well as perhaps in making the cars harder to drive. But as Straw further argued there often is a need for risk aversion. At the very least hopefully next time we are confronted with apparent absurd risk avoidance we’ll give a bit more consideration to the possibility that those in charge may have the possibility of the worst that could happen somewhere in mind. That the apparent paranoia might be healthy.
If nothing else surely the sport has enough to offer that the thrill can remain and indeed be promoted without the need inadvertently or otherwise to crank up the danger level? As Ian Parkes wrote in recent days: “Is this what is genuinely needed to bring the excitement back to F1? Has it become so sterile it is prepared to up the risk factor to such a level?”
Speaking purely personally I watch F1 for thrilling racing conducted by incredible-skilled individuals. I watch for the drivers’ personalities to be expressed in and out of the car. And even though I’m not technical I watch also for advanced cars that push the boundaries of what is known. The thought that some of those competing might hurt themselves or worse doesn’t add to the attraction at all.
Whatever is the case I dare say that were the racing good and there were several credible contenders for victory heading into every weekend, and the sport otherwise healthy in terms of its financial sustainability and the like, we’d be hearing very little about what the stopwatch says or about notions of ‘risk’.
As Joe Saward reported Denny Hulme once reflecting: “We didn’t know any better in the old days. Now we’ve got the most incredibly hygienic circuits you have ever seen. Some people criticise them. They say it’s terribly boring motor racing. Yes, compared to the old Nürburgring it is…but it’s better than going to a funeral every Tuesday morning.”
The likes of Hulme learnt the lessons, and the hard way, so that we don’t have to. It would be sad if we needed equally harsh lessons to remind us of it.