Although nobody is drawing any parallels right now, the ongoing discussion about the halo driver protection system and F1's dwindling popularity have something in common.
F1 owes a lot to Ayrton Senna. He was certainly no saint when he was alive, but after his death he has become one. The dreadful, freak accident at Imola in 1994 was worldwide news. It was the equivalent of Lionel Messi falling to his knees and dying of a heart attack on the football pitch. Ayrton was given a state funeral and Brazil came to a standstill. The world took note that F1 was indeed a dangerous sport if it could claim it’s very brightest, most talented star. The fact that it was a freak accident will have passed most people by.
There have been two major films about F1 in the last few years – Rush, was about the 1976 duel between James Hunt and Niki Lauda and included Niki’s almost fatal accident at the Nurburgring. The other was Senna about Ayrton’s career. Both films relied heavily on the fact that death was never far away and ultimately claimed Ayrton’s life. That was the hook.
You can’t imagine someone making a film about Hamilton vs Massa in 2008, or the Brawn team’s success of 2009, or Schumacher’s domination from 2000 onwards.
Senna was the last driver to die in an F1 race. Jules Bianchi may have sustained a fatal injury in the Japanese GP of 2014, but the cars weren’t racing, they were circulating under double waved yellows. It is not part of Charlie Whiting’s circuit safety plan to have cars lapping at speed when there are recovery vehicles they could hit. And that’s what happened. Again, it was an extraordinary incident, a freak accident.
So, in effect, since the fateful San Marino GP of 1994 two marshals have been killed while grands prix have been going on at full chat, no drivers.
If you look at the risk of injury that F1 drivers face compared to other sports they are already pretty safe. Events in the Rio 16 Olympics have shown that cyclists risk career-ending injuries almost every time they go out on the bike. The women’s road race showed shocking pictures of Annemiek van Vleuten crashing while in the lead, but there were also injuries in the velodrome and the sight of a pile-up in a bunch sprint at the Tour de France is a terrifying thing to behold.
If you google French rider Laurent Jalabert’s name the suggestion ‘Laurent Jalabert crash’ comes up. Jalabert was a French national hero and he and a Dutch sprinter hit a gendarme who had stepped out on the finishing straight in a sickening accident on the 1994 tour. Ironically during Mark Webber’s F1 career the worst injury he sustained was probably when he broke his leg on a bike.
Taking it a degree faster, what about riders on the TT in the Isle of Man? These are riders doing crazy speeds on normal domestic roads, with all the immovable walls and trees and minimum run-off that you would expect to encounter in rural towns and villages. It may not have the cachet of Moto GP, but attendances since 2010 have been rising. Figures confirmed for 2015 show 42,000 people attended. In 2010 it was 30,000. Unsurprisingly the TT and road racing has its fair share of fatalities, but the Isle of Man course is little changed, that is part of its intrinsic appeal.
Although far safer than the TT, Moto GP has had its own high-profile casualties, the most prominent of which was Marco Simoncelli in a 2011 race at Sepang, where he collided with Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi. Both Moto GP and the TT are conspicuously dangerous.
F1 seems less so. Fernando Alonso can barrel roll his McLaren MP4-31 and reduce it to its component parts at the 2016 Australian GP and step out of the car. Severely shaken, but nothing – barring a small rib fracture – seriously broken.
That is thanks to a system of crash tests built up over the years by the FIA to make F1 cars the safest they’ve ever been. Introducing a halo won’t necessarily make them impregnable, but they will be safer still. Safer than motorbike racers, Tour de France riders, jockeys, three-day-eventers and rally drivers.
Anyone who’s read this far in the article – on a specialist F1 website – is likely to be interested in F1 whether it’s dangerous or not. We have invested time in the sport we love. But there is a risk that the safer and more tame it becomes, the less glamorous and exciting to the fringe sports fans. The ones who tell me, “Yeah, I like F1, but I only watch the starts.”
The warning signs erected around all motor racing circuits state ‘Motor racing is dangerous’. That’s the appeal to many people. The 2017 rules will help bring a little of that sense of danger back. The halo, though an incredibly worthy project, will only add to the further estrangement of thrill-seeking sports fans.