As public attention shifts from the US Grand Prix – won in the final stages by Max Verstappen – to the Mexican Formula 1 Grand Prix, which takes place on Sunday, it’s imperative that systems are in place to prevent operational decisions that put drivers at risk.
Positive safety improvements must be introduced that enter the history books alongside the ‘Halo’ head protection system to help save drivers’ lives and avoid serious injury in motorsport.
We saw Fernando Alonso’s car take off on Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas but the car was generally fine despite the impact – it shows how far the sport has come in terms of driver safety.
But last week the Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix was the subject of shocking scenes, just over eight years to the day of Jules Bianchi’s fatal accident where he collided with a recovery vehicle and later lost his life.
While racing in torrential rain with poor visibility at Suzuka this year, an aquaplaning incident saw Carlos Sainz crash into the safety barrier on lap one.
French driver Pierre Gasly was caught up in the aftermath of Sainz’s crash, damaging his car’s front wing and forcing him to return to the pits.
Returning to the track as Gasly passed the scene of Sainz’s accident for a second time, a tractor could be seen trackside, close to the racing line.
The incident caused understandable outrage.
Formula 1’s Deja vu
It appears that during the second lap of the race, a tractor was allowed to enter the circuit to retrieve Sainz’s stricken vehicle. The problem with this decision was that not all the cars had caught up with the safety car. Gasly was still making up ground following his pit stop and needed to pass the recovery tractor at sufficient speed to allow him to catch up with the rest of the drivers behind the safety car.
The race conditions and circumstances in which the tractor entered the race circuit bore a chilling resemblance to those in which Jules Bianchi was catastrophically injured in 2014.
More fundamental is the concern that race organisers and those responsible for operational decisions have not learned crucial safety lessons to prevent a tractor from coming trackside during the race and the risk of catastrophic injury this presents to drivers and marshals.
It remains unclear whether the race director had given permission for the tractor to enter the circuit before Gasly had caught up with the safety car, even though by the time he was passing the recovery of Sainz’s vehicle, the race had been red-flagged.
The strong sentiment and concerns Gasly, Sainz and others expressed after this incident are easy to understand.
The FIA is right to have swiftly launched an investigation, concluding at the end of last week that a tractor should not be deployed unless all cars are aligned behind the safety car.
The FIA also emphasised the importance of careful consideration of the weather conditions and location of the cars before race control takes the decision to allow a tractor to enter the circuit.
The FIA has immediately introduced measures to ensure drivers are made aware when a recovery vehicle is on the track.
Regrettably, this does not detract from the fact that Jules’ family had to witness such chilling scenes again.
Jules Bianchi’s father, Philippe, immediately spoke of the lack of respect for his son’s memory. The incident provides a further opportunity to reinforce Jules’ legacy by ensuring that under no circumstances can a tractor or recovery vehicle be trackside while drivers continue to pass the scene of an accident.
Formula 1 is bigger than ever, but the sport must keep safety at its core if it’s going to continue thrilling fans into the future.
Chris Deacon is a Partner, International Injury, at Stewarts Law and has previously represented Jules Bianchi’s family