The Bianchi accident
Jules Bianchi was engrossed in a long-running battle with Marcus Ericsson’s Caterham at Suzuka. Both were driving exceptionally well in low-grip conditions in cars with very little downforce. Ericsson had recently made a breakthrough, a change in the Caterham’s brake-by-wire system giving him the pedal feel he’d lacked all year. Besides which, he was very much at home around Suzuka, a place where he raced often in his junior career (he won the Japanese Formula 3 title in 2009). He’d had a trying rookie season, but now at last he was beginning to show he deserved his place in F1.
Prior to that breakthrough he wouldn’t normally have been expected to be dicing with Bianchi, a junior Ferrari driver whose pace was well established and who was in a car that was generally a shade faster than Ericsson’s.
But around Suzuka, maybe not – and the Frenchman had a fight on his hands.
On Thursday Bianchi had been asked how he felt about being a contender for a Ferrari drive and he’d replied that he felt very much ready for it. On Saturday he learned – along with the rest of the world – that there was no longer a vacancy at Ferrari, for it was going to be filled by Sebastian Vettel. The team hadn’t confirmed as much but, speaking of his departing talisman, Red Bull principal Christian Horner had said, “Ferrari has made him a very attractive offer.”
Naturally Bianchi was disappointed, but Ferrari still valued him as a long-term prospect and the word was that a deal had been agreed in principle to place him at Sauber next year. But for now there was a race to be run, a season to be completed. His superb drive at Monaco had yielded the two points – Marussia’s first in five seasons – that could be the team’s lifeline, placing it above Sauber (ironically) and Caterham in the championship for constructors.
As Bianchi pitted for a fresh set of intermediates, Ericsson jumped ahead of him, only to then stop himself, putting the Marussia back in front – by four seconds. But the Caterham was definitely faster and, a couple of laps after pitting, Ericsson passed Bianchi on track and pulled away – initially at 1sec per lap.
As the rain returned on lap 39, Bianchi trailed Ericsson by about 12sec. Ericsson headed to the pits for full wets, Bianchi stayed out on his inters and was now 12sec in front but lapping a second or so more slowly on his less deeply grooved tyres. But now the rain had eased again. Bianchi was going to need to come in soon for his inters were almost finished – but so probably was Ericsson, because with rain no longer falling those wets would quickly overheat. This was going to be super-tight. In the race’s remaining nine laps, was Jules going to be able to hold him off? Every fraction of a second was going to count.
Adrian Sutil went off when directly behind Bianchi, having not long ago pitted. Next time through Jules will have registered the double waved yellows. Lift off – but no more than required; can’t be gifting Ericsson big chunks of time.
The right-rear wheel gets out of the dry groove, the extremities of which have become fuzzy from the rainfall. A snap of oversteer, correct it. The wheels have now found the dry again and the car snaps back the other way before he can get the lock off. He’s heading off, in a straightline across the gravel – and there’s a tractor reversing into his path.
At the next race, in Russia, FIA race director Charlie Whiting spoke of what could be learned from the accident. “One of the most important things is that it is probably better to take the decision to slow down away from the drivers. It’s better to try to put in place a system where it’s much clearer to everyone how much we think cars should slow down, and that’s what we’re working on.”
Asked if Bianchi had slowed, he replied. “He did slow down, but it’s a matter of degree. Some slowed down much more than others.”
That’s because some had big margins of advantage to play with, were not threatening their position by slowing any more than required by a regulation that has always been interpreted subjectively.
A system that automatically slows cars to a target speed through such scenes will likely be in place at the start of next year. It will reduce the need to use the safety car considerably. Recovery vehicles will probably be fitted with metal skirts to prevent cars submarining beneath them.
These are all great developments, but how tragic that it took this to bring them about.