I was not at the San Marino Grand Prix when Ayrton Senna died. Instead I had driven to Nice in order to catch the ferry to Corsica where I was to spend the week with Ford’s WRC team. Having listened to the tragedy unfold on Radio Monte Carlo, I telephoned Keith Wiggins. Owner and team principal of Pacific Grand Prix. He had been one of Ayrton’s mechanics in the Rushen Green Racing Formula Ford team, and they had remained on friendly terms.
‘He has died,’ was Keith’s brief update. ‘I just spoke to Bernie.’
The events of that day changed many lives and careers in Formula One. Coming 24 hours after the loss of Roland Ratzenberger, it became a pivotal moment in the history of our sport.
The ramifications of that weekend reached far beyond Grand Prix racing, of course, as the work undertaken by the FIA to help prevent a reoccurrence spread across the world of motor sport and even came to influence the cars we drive today. If you want to know more, read Max Mosley’s excellent autobiography which chronicles the lessons learned and the way in which Ayrton’s death produced a step-change in safety culture.
That evening I could never have known that elsewhere in Nice was a four year old boy who would follow his family’s passion for motor racing and, twenty one years, three months and seventeen days later, become the first driver since Ayrton to die as a result of injuries sustained in a World Championship event. In so doing, Jules Bianchi’s death has ended a hiatus in Formula One’s catalogue of tragedies.
Bianchi is the 33rd driver to die as the result of injuries sustained during a Formula One World Championship event. However, that only tells part of the story because drivers such as Elio de Angelis, Patrick Depailler, Jo Siffert and Ricardo Rodriguez lost their lives in tests and non-Championship races. In that regard we should also, at least in the opinion of her family, include Maria de Villota whose testing accident in July 2012 caused head injuries which may ultimately have led to her premature death only 15 months later.
As with Ayrton and Roland, the outpouring of grief over Bianchi’s death from across the world of Formula One has been both extraordinary and genuine. It has been headline news, and reminded a new generation of drivers, team personnel, media and fans that Formula One remains inherently dangerous.
The risks have only been mitigated by the technology, systems and processes which evolved after 1994. Much of the responsibility for that lies with a dedicated team of professionals, not only within the FIA, but also at FOM. Often criticised for awarding contracts to new, purpose-built venues which can appear bland, FOM works closely with the FIA to ensure that tracks meet the best safety standards and have the medical infrastructure in place to deal with even the most serious injuries.
Whilst Formula One has moved to a much better place, the rest of motor sport has continued to provide us with all-too-tragic reminders that motor racing is dangerous. Dan Wheldon, Henry Surtees, Allen Simonsen; you can start a very long list without going back too many years.
What Bianchi’s death has done, however, is to remind everyone in all branches of motor sport that safety is not something you can deliver at a point in time and then move on. It is a relentless and unending battle to manage risk in an activity which is as dangerous whether you are driving a 100cc kart or a 200mph Formula One car.
It can only be hoped, therefore, that the loss of this great young talent, prompting the world of Formula One to unite in its grief, will ensure that Jules Bianchi’s legacy will be similar to that of Ayrton Senna. That his death will lead to a redoubling in efforts to keep safety central to the way in which the sport evolves, and that the continuous improvements which result from incidents such as these bring us a closer to a time when all of motor sport will protect its participants whatever the scenario.
Motor racing will always involve risk, but it is how we collectively manage those risks that determines whether everyone can go home to their families at the end of each day. In maintaining their focus on safety the FIA, FOM, GPDA, teams and circuit owners can pay the best possible tribute to Jules Bianchi, and ensure that his family is among the last to suffer an ordeal such as this.