Friday 10 October 2014

Matters to emerge from the best and the worst

Perhaps it is fitting that at a time of extreme we are witness to the very best and the very worst. And so it has been since the unfortunate events at what turned out to be the conclusion of the Japanese Grand Prix last weekend, with the result of Jules Bianchi in hospital and what awaits as yet remaining unclear.

The F1 community has come together
in support of Jules Bianchi
Photo: Octane Photography
But from somewhere within this harrowing and regretful matter as I said the very best of F1 was displayed. What often can appear a highly disputatious sport really came together in support of Bianchi, his family and his team. Moreover the community of F1 fans around the word united similarly and moreover devised many touching ways of demonstrating collective messages of hope and goodwill.

Yet some sadly went rather beyond. Of course as noted last Sunday on this site after the Suzuka race it is in large part human nature after a shock and a trauma to seek answers, seek resolutions. But a few inauspicious actors exhibited the behaviour in an unattractive fashion - stirring up a hornet's nest of recrimination and reaction. There had to be fault, and culprits, and pronto. Something - maybe lots of things - had to be changed on the same timetable. This too even though the FIA investigation into the matter had barely begun and the establishment of facts remain at a similar stage.

And while it's easy at such moments to blame the new media (and don't get me wrong it has contained a few culprits) in some cases the established fourth estate have been just as guilty, if not more so. I noticed one article, and from a British 'quality' broadsheet newspaper, which appeared to take a scatter gun approach to what could have been at fault, including - curiously - suggesting that this year's low noses were a factor.

It got worse too, with Will Buxton, Kate Walker and others noting that for many the desire to be first well and truly trumped the desire to be accurate. Guns were jumped. False postures were adopted. Speculation was reported in the guise of fact with only the most thin of riders. Again this wasn't monopolised by Johnny-Come-Latelys - as an example the BBC reported the false claim that Jules Bianchi was breathing independently. For the rest of us - in seeking clarification of Bianchi's condition - it at various points felt a little like wading through thick jungle with no idea what around you was benign and what harmful.

We can nevertheless be content that the sport's best is what appears to be prevailing in the days since, continuing this weekend in Sochi. And of course - while it's often disquieting that it takes the worst to happen to jolt movement in how things are done - it is absolutely correct that lessons that can be learned from such an incident should be.

Nevertheless I maintain as I did on Sunday after the race that there are a few red herrings out there: the race start time; the fading light; the lack of a safety car when the weather worsened prior to Adrian Sutil's initial off. I maintain also that the greater use of safety cars when recovery vehicles are in front of the barriers seems the most pressing resultant priority for examination.

The accident at the start of the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix
sharpened focus on the 'closed cockpit' debate
Photo: Octane Photography
But the whirlwind debate has given new momentum to some additional issues that at least deserve our consideration.

One is the not-new matter of closed cockpits. Many drivers, team members and others have referred to it this week as something that can, perhaps should, be done. And as I said it's not new, as from around 2010 the FIA Institute had been investigating such solutions, including covering the cockpit totally with a canopy or else adding some kind of roll structure in front to protect the driver's head from objects such as wheels that fly from that direction. Come 2012 Charlie Whiting called the introduction of something of this ilk an inevitability.

It was easy to see why, as in this modern age of supreme safety it is the exposed driver's head in the cockpit that appears the outstanding weak point. Almost like the final frontier. And it is the accidents wherein things go close to the driver's exposed head that really make us wince. Felipe Massa's head injuries sustained from flying debris in Hungary in 2009 was one such case as was Henry Surtees's tragic death in a similar incident in an F2 race days earlier. Then there was Romain Grosjean's flying Lotus getting oh-so-close to Alonso's cockpit in Spa at the first turn in 2012.

And as we've found out this week with immaculate timing that the forward roll hoop idea was blocked two years ago by the teams, for reasons which at least included among other things aesthetics.

But I can't help but wonder if herein by solving one problem the risk is run of creating a load more. To take the cockpit canopy idea, will it make driver evacuation after an accident, or in a fire or when fuel or something else unpleasant gets into the cockpit, more difficult? If the car rolls will these become even more troublesome? And what if the driver needs medical attention urgently, will the presence of a canopy add seconds, which could be vital, before medical intervention can commence? And with the roll structure idea, could they add to dangers by impeding the drivers' vision, and what are the chances of the structure collapsing into the cockpit in an accident? If you recall the God-awful butterfly wings that sprouted on cars, next to the cockpits, in 1998, those were banned overnight on the basis of exactly that fear. These questions would need to be answered.

Then there's the fact that it's not at all clear the extent that such an addition, whatever its general merits, would have helped in Bianchi's specific case. It appears that Bianchi's injury is one consistent with a deceleration rather than something hitting him on the head, while it has been reported also that a canopy would have hindered the extraction. Closed cockpits may have their justifications but we shouldn't consider them a cure-all either.

Footage of Bianchi's accident in Suzuka has also since appeared online. I haven't looked at it, but from what I've heard second hand one thing that strikes is the speed at which Bianchi left the track, which led some to speculate on the extent that Bianchi had paid heed to the caution flags out for Sutil's car being recovered. There of course always seems something rather distasteful about, implicitly or otherwise, blaming the guy lying in hospital. Further the evidence that the footage offered I assume will only be limited and indirect.

Are drivers paying enough heed to yellow flags?
Photo: Octane Photography
But Gary Hartstein for one is right to highlight the general cultural rut that the sport has got itself into on drivers slowing for yellow flags. In F1, as in most forms of motorsport, double waved yellows mean slow down and be prepared to stop. It almost always means marshals on the danger side of the barrier, possibly on the track, as well as maybe including recovery vehicles too. But in practice, and not just in F1, there is no set or agreed amount that you have to slow down by and simply slowing down by a tiny amount even if it is by a mere tenth of a second or two over an entire sector often seems enough to escape sanction. James Allen reported that F1 engineers have confirmed that a scant split-second lift from the throttle is sufficient. And of course if the track conditions are worsening - multiplying the dangers - you're not going to be setting personal bests anyway.

It certainly seems something the sport needs to tighten up. Both in prevention and - via the stewards punishing transgressions - in cure. For an example, you'll recall the British Grand Prix of last year; exploding tyres and all that. Less well recalled is that the victor Nico Rosberg during the race set a record sector through a double-waved yellow zone again with nothing between him and working marshals. And nothing happened.

As for prevention, Jacques Villeneuve suggested putting out the safety car out for every accident or stoppage on track, as broadly is the case in American racing. It would solve a lot of problems, but with it alter the sport fundamentally. Indeed rather like an Indycar race you suspect that with this approach any sort of strategy planned in advance would be near-impossible. Perhaps more of a meeting halfway can be achieved, with a few, including Gary Anderson, speaking of speed limits in yellow flag zones, perhaps of 80 or 100km/h, akin to using the pit lane speed limiter for Le Mans-style 'slow zones'. We're already able to police minimum delta times for safety car periods indeed. I understand that the technology exists for the speed limit to cut in automatically...

Within the footage mentioned there apparently was another red herring. I was told that at the marshals' post next to the original Sutil incident waved double yellows were present for the most part but were replaced with a green shortly before Bianchi left the track also, and before the Sauber, the recovery vehicle and the marshals had been cleared to behind the barrier. This led some to suggest that the apparent inappropriate message may have been a contributory factor in the accident. But if what I have been told is true then the flag marshal did absolutely as they should. Green and yellow flags refer to the zone the follows that marshal post in the direction of cars' travel, up until the next post. They do not refer to what is before (and I know this as I am someone who has myself been on flag duties as a marshal on occasion). I'm told that the marshal waved yellows for as long as Sutil's car and the attendant marshals and the like were past their post, then changed it to a green once everyone was in front of it. Which is by the book.

It wouldn't be the worst thing more generally to keep in mind throughout this period wherein the sport devises how it will respond to what happened in Suzuka, that things aren't necessarily what they appear on first viewing.

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