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The sport that walks a fine line between danger and entertainment

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The sport that walks a fine line between danger and entertainment
Jul 19, 2015, 9:21 PM

The death of Jules Bianchi yesterday, following his accident in the Japanese Grand Prix, has again raised the subject of how motorsport treads a fi...

The death of Jules Bianchi yesterday, following his accident in the Japanese Grand Prix, has again raised the subject of how motorsport treads a fine line between the thrill for drivers and fans alike of the risk and danger involved in the sport and on the other hand the need to keep the drivers safe.

Professionals working on the safety side of the sport are asked about this all the time and always highlight the fact that the drivers in F1 are probably safer than anyone else working out on the track as the cockpit safety has improved so much over the years, as have safety measures like run-off areas and deformable barriers.

On the flip side there are former drivers and others who feel that F1 in particular needs to have more of a feeling of danger about it, that the sport has become too sanitised by the run-off areas and the feeling that everything is too much 'under control' in the races.

Juan Manuel Fangio once said “There are those who keep out of mischief, and then there are the adventurers. We racing drivers are adventurers; the more difficult something is, the greater the attraction that comes from it."

It remains the best quote for explaining the mentality of a racing driver and Bianchi, like all his peers, would have identified with it entirely. It is what attracts many fans to the sport; man mastering machine, the driver risking all to dance a fine line between glory and disaster.

There have been some huge accidents in the USA recently in both NASCAR and IndyCar, where the debate about entertainment vs danger is currently raging.

The narrative of motor sport, as a technology driven business, is one of constant improvement. The cars constantly improve, the engineers find new hacks and work-arounds for every conceivable issue and safety is as much a part of that as anything.

The professionals working in the sport see no contradiction in the strategy of making F1 cars up to six seconds per lap faster in 2017, while at the same time not compromising safety. F1 cars were at least that much faster ten years ago and the cockpits, crash structures and track infrastructure were all less safe than they are today.

Charlie Whiting

Speaking at the recent FIA Sport Conference week on a panel discussing this very subject, F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting underlined this point,

“Think of [the crash] in Canada last year involving Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa. Entering the last lap they had a big accident, tyre barriers went everywhere and the cars were very badly damaged, but the drivers emerged unscathed and I think that’s what everyone comes to see.

"We need to make sure that there is that element of danger but that no one gets hurt, that’s really our function.”

Bernie Ecclestone, meanwhile told BBC 5 Live today that "fans do not come to see crashes, they come to see good racing."

The sport's desire for constant improvement does however have some side-effects and there is a general feeling that there are many modern F1 'improvements' which need to be reversed; particularly those where the engineers are seen to be "controlling" the drivers.

Massa Rosberg

There are far too many rules and regulations in F1 today, an often cited reason for fans to "turn off" the sport. But often these come about because the teams constantly seek clarification on rules and this leads to endless refinements, which make the sport seem over-regulated. Whiting uses the example of 'unsafe release' from pit stops. It's a serious safety issue as there have been some scary near misses and even at the regulated 80km/h, an F1 car would make a mess of a mechanic unfortunate to be hit by it.

The rule used to say simply that teams may not release a car unsafely, leaving the decision on what is unsafe to the Race Stewards. But teams wishing to avoid falling foul of that made endless requests for clarifications so that now it has developed into pages of guidance and over regulation.

The debate will continue, although it's clear that the lessons from the Bianchi accident have been learned and the Virtual Safety Car, which was used for the first time briefly in Monaco and then fully at the last Grand Prix in Silverstone, has ensured that drivers slow sufficiently at a danger zone to avoid a repeat of what happened with Bianchi hitting a mobile crane off circuit.

It's an improvement, although you could argue that situations like Suzuka 2014 - like Martin Brundle's horrific accident at the same circuit 20 years earlier - were so clearly dangerous that something like that should have been thought of before, given the constant process of improvement in F1.

Jules Bianchi

Meanwhile in a moving tribute today, Luca di Montezemolo, who was chairman of Ferrari when Bianchi was signed to the Young Driver Academy Programme and who sanctioned moves for him to drive as a reserve for Force India and then a race driver for Marussia, was in no doubt that had Bianchi not suffered the accident he would be racing a Ferrari in the near future,

"Jules was one of us; part of the Ferrari family," said the former Chairman, "and he was the driver we had chosen for the future, once the collaboration with Kimi Raikkonen had finished.

The Suzuka incident took away from us a first rate person; reserved, quick, very educated, very close to Ferrari, who knew how to interact with the engineers. In short we lost a driver with a certain future."
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Series Formula 1
Tags innovation