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7 Oct 2014

As I sit here at my computer set to write this piece I do so with a heavy heart, as I've been warring with myself about writing anything at all.  The accident suffered at the hands of Jules Bianchi on Sunday transported me back to the feelings I had of helplessness, shock and despair as a 13 year old boy, watching the scenes unfold at Imola.  Formula One in the wake of that incident has done much to quell the dangers faced by the sport, however Jules' accident is a stark reminder that things must continue to improve.  I must point out that this post won't look at the crash itself, as although I have seen the horrific footage that emerged, it would be extremely distasteful for me to pass judgement without all the facts.  What I do want to look at though are the circumstances that led to the accident and objectively suggest where F1 can learn from what happened.

Aquaplaning

I'm sure you have heard of the term but for those that don't understand it, aquaplaning is when the tyres contact patch no longer supplies sufficient traction to adhere to the roads surface, owing to, too much liquid being present.  In the case of this incident, Suzuka's topography creates localized rivers that run across the tracks surface, making it difficult for a driver to see and will trigger a decision making process, whereby the driver has to decide how to regain control.  For anyone that hasn't suffered aquaplaning, you find the car initially understeers as the front tyres lose grip, forcing the car offline, which causes you to lift out of the throttle, and then oversteer can become a problem as the rear tyres lose adhesion.
Adrian Sutil's exit from the track before the Bianchi incident was also caused by aquaplaning with the Sauber driver arriving into the corner rearwards and brushing the barrier as he tried to swing the car around.

Scene of the accident
As we can see at the scene of Sutil's accident the marshal is waving double waved flags, signifying to the drivers there is an incident they must be aware of, slow down and be prepared to stop.  At this point the stricken Sauber is beyond marshaling point 12.
As the marshals have hoisted the vehicle onto the recovery vehicle and are clearing the scene, the marshal who's post (12) is now placed after the stricken car begins waving a green flag, signifying that beyond that point the drivers are free to return to racing speed.  (New evidence has come to light that changing to a green flag may have happened too early: http://somersf1.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/green-flag-gate-suzuka.html)

As we know the visual flags waved by the stewards aren't the only warning that drivers receive of an impending situation with the dash system also providing the driver with warnings.  This means that Jules should have entered turn 7 with the yellow lights flashing on the dash, although it appears from the F1 app tracker that Jules was still well above 150km/h through turn 7 (the reliability of this data can be called into question and so I only offer this information under warning that the official data could conclude otherwise).

Depth perception at speed becomes more difficult, add to that the conditions and difficulty level of driving a Marussia and we have to call into question a green flag being waved just after the Sutil crash site.  Don't get me wrong the marshal as I've proved above was doing his job correctly, but does that mean the protocol he followed in the first place is correct?  If like me as a youngster fuelled by speed your driving on the road was a little less reckless you may have (like me) sped up on the approach to a increased speed limit sign.  Come in honesty we've all done it, those extra few yards at a higher speed mean you're gonna get there a bit quicker..  I try not to do it these days, those speed limits are there for a reason and you're probably speeding out of an area that had that speed limit in place for a reason (built up area etc).  I'm not saying that Jules did that but the glimpse of a green flag as you round the exit of a corner could have the same aforementioned effect.  (Again not to be considered conclusive, just moreover an observation based on experience)

Team radio

Talking to my best friend last night and he also raised an important question, "Could the team tell him with the new radio restrictions?"  Well the simple answer is yes as it is in regard to safety, the more complicated question is: what could they tell him without giving him driver training?  This is where grey areas form and like my friend alluded to what if he wasn't told in the right way in case the team thought they'd incur a penalty.  I don't know the answer as I haven't heard the team radio and so I'm not going to continue to speculate on the matter, however I did think it pertinent to raise owing to me being asked.

Track safety and driving standards

Formula One has been at the forefront of many changes to safety throughout the years, but that doesn't mean that it should abate owing to a job well done.  The car's are rigorously safety tested to ensure maximum safety for the driver with quantifiable improvements still being made.  Furthermore track safety has also improved significantly over the last couple of decades, with improvements still being made.  The recent changes made at Parabolica (Monza) for instance didn't go down very well with the hardcore Formula One fans. They believe the challenge of driving the machines is being diluted, but as I have stated before it is a necessary evil, lowering the risk taken by the drivers as they step over the cockpits threshold.

Another positive move is the use of TecPro barriers, but owing to cost their use is sporadic at best, only seen as a vital component in previous crash hot spots.  I have made comment twice already this season, first in Germany when Lewis Hamilton speared off the circuit, owing to a brake failure into a tyre barrier which lines a short run off section.  Then again a race later when in Hungary, Kevin Magnussen found himself side on, in a tyre barrier at turn one.  In both cases the drivers got up and walked away without too much kerfuffle but it could have been much worse, with head impacts a real problem in open cockpit sports.  Now that's not to say I'm for or against cockpit canopies either, what I'm saying is that there is a product out there that is safer than a tyre wall but owing to cost we retain a product that is more prone to separation when deformed by a race car.  Yes I know the tyre wall did their job in both cases, but moreover in Kevin's crash the severity could have been worse.

The other thing that has bugged me for years and becomes a prevalent topic owing to the latest incident is the machinery used to extract vehicles from the circuit.  Motorsport (not just Formula One) spend millions on the vehicles that drive around circuits like Suzuka.  The vehicles you see around circuits like Suzuka used to recover vehicles however are simple machinery, the type you would see on the local farm or construction site, with no real design consideration given to the environment they work within.  That said, having rescue machinery on track whilst under racing conditions is also a sore subject, especially when there is no real protocol to what speed a driver must retain under a double waved yellow condition.  This is a situation whereby Formula One can learn from WEC, their 'Code 60' procedure retains racing speed around the rest of the track but instead of the normal double waved flag scenario of the driver lowering their speed, they slow into the zone and utilise the pit limiter, with no overtaking.  Just as in WEC it should retain a suitable race pace outside of the zone but enable the marshals to conduct their work.

Safety Car?

Formula One and the race stewards are often lambasted for their eagerness to utilise the safety car, with the amount of flack I see on Social Media is vast.  However as soon as they make what is deemed as an incorrect judgement call all hell lets lose in the other direction and so they are in a no win situation.  For me recovery equipment on circuit should be an instant safety car (without F1 adopting 'Code 60') as in all honesty the stricken car might aswell be left on circuit otherwise.  If you are going to hit something other than a barrier in a Formula One car it is going to catastrophic, however hitting another [stationary] F1 car would be roughly the same weight and so ballistically I'd expect the accident to be less catastrophic than hitting a 10 tonne recovery vehicle.  Hindsight is a wonderful tool but I guess under fading light a safety car would have reduced the race by several laps and this was the initial thoughts of stewards, wanting to retain racing speed as much as possible.

Learning lessons

I have said for many years now that if one of the best drivers in the world can go off the circuit, owing to changing conditions, it is just as likely that others can do the same thing.  The wake up call has already played out on many occasions, with perhaps the best examples being Martin Brundle's eerily similar accident in 1994 at Suzuka, narrowly missing a rescue vehicle collecting another stricken car, but actually hit one of the track marshals.  Then again in 2007, when at the Nurburgring no fewer than 5 cars aquaplaned off the circuit into the gravel trap, all narrowly avoiding a collision with each other.  Wet weather provides a different challenge for the drivers and so why safety protocols aren't different is something that continues to irk me.

Extremely changeable conditions offer a challenge to F1 that differs from most other forms of Motorsport, with the tail end teams suffering at the behest of the weather most.  Unlike in spec series' where only setup divides one team/driver from another Formula One is an evolutionary sport, with prototype cars that change from race to race.  This of course leads to field spread where the wealthiest teams generally dominate owing to superior performance, the greatest equalizer to this is rain.  That in part is due to the premium placed on aerodynamics, with the differing tread and tread depth of a rain tyre making a discernible change to how the air moves around the car.  This invariably has the effect of changing the order slightly with some of the front runners dropping into the clutches of those behind, however for the teams at the back of the grid it invariably worsens their situation.  With the aero balance shifted the car behaves differently, losing downforce and with it the opportunity to load the tyres in the same way.  A loss in tyre load leads to a loss in temperature and in turn pressure, making the car even less predictable, putting an onus on the driver to correct the deficit to retain lap time.  The start of the race in Suzuka highlighted this perfectly with Lewis Hamilton practically begging race control to release the pack from behind the safety car, whilst others still continued to struggle.  This is the challenge of Formula One under wet conditions when you have such field spread as those at the back of the pack are who need protection, although it inevitably looks fine at the front.

I can only hope that the conclusion to this is that Jules is ok and wish him and his loved ones my utmost sympathy.  Moving forward the FIA and those associated with Formula One need to take a step back and learn from this situation, rather than sweep it under the carpet as a freak accident as they have before.  Yes it took a perfect storm for this scenario to play out, but it was an accident waiting to happen. 
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12 comments:

  1. Was waiting for this from you Matt. So thank you, been seeing too many finger pointing pieces on this the last few days which help no one.

    But Code 60 is a great solution to a big problem that F1 should definitely look into. Situation could of been worse had a marshal still been there behind the recovery vehicle.

    A nice middle ground for safety of all concerned and public opinion of safety cars as well fading light.

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  2. Matt. You touch on the standard of recovery vehicles. I don't know if FIA have on staff safety professionals who liaise with other high risk industries to formally analyse and assess the use of such vehicles (oil & gas, rail, construction, etc). So I wonder if there is a hazard assessment (danger) for each vehicle. Then a risk assessment for the actual location and circumstances of use to show that the particular vehicle is the best solution at that point.
    These are normal and required exercise under European Law - a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. Obviously what that means varies, but is often directly related to the magnitude of the hazards that are possible.

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    1. Hi Martin

      I simply don't have the answer to these points but they raise some very vaild points! In terms of culpability the circuit owners essentially shoulder the risk, as they're supplying the equipment, although I'm sure that the FIA must assess all this criteria as part of their track inspection process.

      A procedural investigation most certainly needs to take place and with it an investigation into the suitability of trackside operations and equipment.

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  3. Interlagos 2003, look at Schumacher spinning at 3:45. It was suppose to teach a clear lesson, this race was severely criticized at the time, but no procedure change seems to have been made. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgjbSQm6NsM

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  4. It was a sad event and while we can all reverse engineer a better outcome via a number of ways racing is not a risk free sport.

    What I don't hear anyone talking about is honoring yellow flags. There is little voluntary respect for yellow flags and I would like to see a method of cutting back on the power (perhaps the electronic motor would be disengaged or something similar). Racers are gonna race and while the FIA did crack down on this a little in I believe 2012, we need to do much more than just make sure that someone doesn't set their fast sector thru a yellow flagged area.

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    1. Indeed, that's why I believe the WEC Code 60 solution fits best, as you say saying that you can't drive your fastest sector time just leads to drivers hitting just under that target, which invariably can't be achieved anyway as it was when their car was at its optimum in that stint.

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  5. Nice clear summary and I agree with your sentiments. I've always had great issue with the vaguaries of slowing down for yellows, it seems very open to interpretation. Teams are spending millions to shave thousandths of a second when a driver could lose seconds depending on which side of caution they err through a yellow. This might be prudent in Jules' case where you have a young underrated talent in a lowling car vying for a better drive in a market just opened up by the Vettel move.
    Personally I think we are going to see a lot more safety car from now on which leads me to my second gripe. Why is the safety car slow, I mean I know the SLS they have is on steroids but it is a constant complaint from drivers to go faster. It is more dangerous to be going slow due to lack of tyre temperature/pressure and the negative affect on ride height, certainly a potential factor in Senna's crash. If the safety car has to be a road car then why not a LaFerrari/P1/Koenigsegg 1:1. I fear marketing and money might be at play here to the detriment of safety. It might not be practical to use a last generation F1 car but it might actually give the fans something to enjoy while it trundles around. Once everyone's lined up it's really only a tiny proportion of the track they need to go slow for, they could roll around the rest at 90% pace much safer than now, drivers wouldn't need to swerve or make these braking/acceleration movements, and it might get back to racing quicker. I suppose it might null out a higher proportion of racing laps which might be bad but I think it would be better.

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    1. It is very vague and relies on the compliance of the driver, unfortunately as you say this can be seen as an advantage and often leads to a delta just shy of the drivers optimum.

      I've often wondered about the SC and its design, as you say the SLS is a pefectly adequate road car and pace car for most race series but for F1 it often slows the cars well beyond their capabilities. Bernd has to drive the thing on the absolute limit to retain a pace that is relatively slow pace to the machinary that gives chase.

      I'm quite sure there is some kind of marketing angle as to why it's an SLS being used and not another brand, I'd imagine with Mercedes providing the cars FOC at least. Providing a faster road car may be one solution to retaining decent speed outside of the incident zone, however we must remember that the SC provides assistance in the other support races too. Having something that disapears into the distance or is difficult for speed regulation for the other series' may pose another problem. To that end however I see no reason why F1 shouldn't run an independant SC owing to the extra risk involved.

      That's why we'll never see a single seater used as a pace car as it's all about retaining a sense of proportion around the entirity of the lap seemingly for the FIA.

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  6. Matt,

    I'm sure that FIA will carry out investigations. My worry is as before that resultant Standards and Codes of Practice will still just reflect best current knowledge. In specialist areas they are well capable or developing pro-active risk assessment and control measures; the hybrid power units are a good example. However the output for risk assessment of non-technical areas does not exhibit such imagination.
    Maybe such modern risk management is there and I'm a bit naive, but my experience is that it isn't and the FIA need yet another cultural shake up.

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  7. While in abstract leaving the stranded car behind is a fair point in practice you could just be building a ramp to send the next car over the top of the barriers. while racing webber was launched into the air after hitting a slower car a couple of years ago it would be fine with a straight impact but if launched the car could go anywhere.

    overall they had almost finished moving the car in the time it takes to do one lap. 30 seconds later and we would be laughing at a car that had gon of in the same place rather than worrying about a potential loss of life

    the truth is you can never win after the fact because hindsight is 20/20

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    1. I'm not saying it is the right thing to do, what I'm saying is that a sub 1 tonne car would have had less of an impact than a 10 tonne tractor.

      Hindsight is a wonderful thing but as we have seen similar incidents before I'd have thought we would have learnt from them....

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  8. Many people will use terms such as risk, consequence, hazard, etc almost interchangeably. In my professional world of technical safety in high hazard industries we found the was a need to define them so that they were used in a fixed and understood way. On that basis:
    Hazard - a know level of harm as a result of a defined event
    Likelihood - The probability of frequency of a Hazard being realised
    Risk - The likelihood that a hazard is realised
    Risk Analysis - The definition of the routes of events leading to a risk being realised
    Risk Assessment - The comparison of the results of a risk analysis against a defined acceptability criteria.
    Based on this, when carrying out a risk assessment, if the outcome of the analysis is a sufficiently low hazard or risk, the criteria may mean no further risk reduction is required.
    It can be a bit emotional, but despite the phrase "safety at any cost" it is paralleled by "so safe its out of business"!

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Whilst I'm trying to keep atop of the blog you may have noticed of late that there is less content appearing. For those of you that haven't realised, most of my work has now been moved over to Motorsport.com where I'm working with Giorgio Piola.

I'm still doing the technical image gallery for each GP with the continued support of friend of the site Sutton Images. However, as always my time is limited and so this might not be updated as quickly as it once was, so keep checking back.

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