As with the Stewart/Ward situation, there are plenty of opportunities to second-guess what happened.
When NASCAR driver Tony Stewart’s dirt-track sprint car struck and killed fellow racer Kevin Ward, Jr., a 65-second amateur video that has since been viewed tens of millions of times became the focal point for Monday-morning quarterbacks trying to amateur-analyze the tragedy.
With the Jules Bianchi crash Sunday morning in the Formula One race at Suzuka in Japan, a similar amateur video, 23 seconds in length, is bound to do the same thing.
The video seems to go up, then be removed quickly. One copy that is up at this writing is here.
Beware though, it is hard to watch. Think about whether you really want to see it before you seek it out.
The video was focusing on the recovery efforts of Adrian Sutil’s car, which had slid off the track and hit the old-fashioned shielded tire barriers. Sutil was not going very fast, though, and emerged unscathed. In the video, a tractor was backing up into an entrance between the tire walls with Sutil’s car hanging from a small crane, and safety workers were following, keeping the dangling car straight.
At the nine-second mark, Bianchi’s Marussia streaks into the frame, contacts the rear of the tractor, and continues for a few more feet.
There is a regular TV cameraman under a tent, literally 20 yards away, sees it coming and turns his camera toward the approaching car, but it is traveling so fast there is no way he can follow it.
Tractor tires a foot in the air
By the 10 second mark, the tractor’s rear tires are a foot in the air as the Marussia spears underneath the rear of the tractor, almost at a 90-degree angle. The impact from the car moves the tractor to the right about five feet, causing it to drop Sutil’s car. By the 12-second mark, it is all over ... In the video, the camera shakes because the photographer is obviously so stunned at what he has just captured that it takes a moment to re-train the camera on the scene.
We see an orange-suited safety worker, holding a strap taut that is attached to Sutil’ car, fall flat on his back as the cable goes slack as Bianchi hits and moves the tractor, and Sutil’s car falls from the forklift-like attachment serving as a crane.
The crane is actually the type that Caterpillar calls a do-it-all “site preparation tractor,” similar to its model 586C. Weight of that model without attachments: a whopping 38,450 pounds – over 19 tons, and the one in the video looks to be of a comparable size. So for the Marussia to move it several feet with a glancing rear impact, which flattened the tractor’s huge right tire, speaks to the velocity of Bianchi’s car. The entire roll hoop and air box was sheared away and the rear of the car was simply flattened, and when the car came to a stop, the highest point was the top of Bianchi’s helmeted head. In the very similar Caterpillar model, the 350-horsepower diesel engine is hanging in the back, so Bianchi struck a very heavy, but fortunately movable part of the tractor.
Two amazing aspects of this ... One that Bianchi survived at all, and two is that a half-dozen safety workers weren’t cut down.
Also, had the tractor not been there, and Bianchi somehow plunged through the opening between the tire wall, there’s no telling how the crash would have ended. It may be just as bad or worse. Obviously, where he crashed was not a spot that Suzuka designers expected an F1 car to end up.
So – like the Stewart/Ward, Jr. video – millions of viewers will speculate about what could have prevented the crash. Expect them to fall into three categories:
Number 1: Red-flag the race, or at least put out the safety car. Conditions were undeniably terrible, but were they bad enough to stop the race? It’s tough to make that call from thousands of miles away. But if Sutil hydroplaned in that spot, then Bianchi did the same despite having what appear to be healthy treaded rain tires on his Marussia, could at least that corner not be run under the green flag? Indeed, in the video, you can see the turn marshal, up in tower 12 mere feet from the crash, gamely waving the green flag, even after Bianchi crashed.
Number 2: Have cranes large but maneuverable enough to be able to pluck cars way from the wall, then over it, and still stay behind the barrier. We see it in many street races. At some tracks, it would be especially difficult and expensive, but this is Formula One.
Number 3: Leave Sutil’s NEC car where it was. There were just a handful of laps remaining, and it was essentially out of harm’s way.
Again, easy to second-guess a very experienced crew, and it is possible that, like the Stewart-Ward tragedy, it could be judged a legitimate freak accident. Which may come as little consolation to the family of Jules Bianchi, as the 25-year-old fights for his life.