Monday, 6 October 2014


What a weekend at Suzuka.

First and foremost, I want to wish Jules Bianchi a full and fast recovery from his monstrous crash that ended the Japanese GP. At the time of writing, the information was that he'd been through the necessary brain surgery and come out the other side okay, meaning he's breathing unassisted. So, for the moment at least, things are looking as positive as they could. Hang in there Jules, we're all thinking of you.

I didn't see the crash itself in the broadcast, just the abrupt safety car, but fan videos have begun to emerge and they're not pretty. I'm not sure if posting this is commitment to the truth or just ghoulish titillation, but nevertheless, trigger warning (you can stop it after the first six seconds though - the rest of it is indeed ghoulish titillation).

If you didn't watch it, suffice to say the cockpit of Bianchi's Marussia went right under the back of the tractor removing Sutil's Sauber, leaving his helmet to take the full impact - an impact that lifted said tractor completely off the ground. No wonder they didn't show it on TV: it's horrifying.

Jules' crash stung me pretty bad personally, because - I'm putting my hand up about this - I was on Facebook at the start of the race, posting impatiently as they circulated under the safety car: "Why does F1 even have Extreme Wet tyres? If the conditions are bad enough to need them, they just red flag the whole thing anyway." Or something to that effect anyway. I may have even called FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting "Chickenshit Charlie," for being so reticent about letting them go. I was a Roman at the Colosseum, howling for the blood to start already.

Except I wasn't expecting blood at all. The go-to example of modern F1 safety is Robert Kubica in Canada, 2007 - he hit the wall with a 70G impact, but as he was stretchered away he was giving the crowd a big thumbs up and cracking jokes in Polish. That's what we've come to expect from F1 crashes, total immunity - so when Bianchi deviated from that, it was chilling.  No driver climbing out, tossing the steering wheel aside in disgust, just ominous radio silence. The medical car deployment, the doctors checking him out and taking him away. No news from the medical centre, just the rumours that Marussia's mechanics had to break down the door to find out what was going on with their driver. It was unheard-of in this day and age; it was terrifying. I was sat on my couch watching the subdued podium ceremony, thinking to myself: "1994 to 2014: has our 20-year run come to an end?" and "Since Dan Wheldon in 2012 something has gone horribly wrong with our sport..."

Walked. Away. (source)

So I'm grateful for the news that Jules is doing fairly well. But I'm not going to join the chorus criticising Charlie Whiting for letting the race run as long as it did. In fact, I still think it should have started earlier - he held off so long it was time for Intermediates by the time they went Green Flag - but it seems clear now that an imponderable like this was what he was afraid of, why he was so cautious. He was thinking ahead. I don't know if the tractor driver broke procedure or not, but it's clear to me this accident wasn't really caused by the weather; it was a freak of probability, just like Felipe Massa's incident in Hungary '09 (incidentally, the most serious F1 injury before Jules). By which I mean, the drivers could spin off and smack their helmets against a recovery vehicle even in the dry. I don't know if anyone else has noticed this, but there was almost no carnage in the 2014 Japanese GP, a wet race at Suzuka: Sutil and Bianchi were the only accidents all afternoon, and they happened barely a minute apart; the only other DNF was Alonso, and he had an electrical problem. Charlie had almost no warning that the conditions at that corner had changed significantly.

"Should F1 do more to guarantee the safety of its drivers," they ask rhetorically? I doubt there's much else they can do. A metre one way or the other and Jules would have hit the tractor with his sidepod and walked away without a scratch; the safety cell built into the Marussia would guarantee it. A smidge less throttle in that corner and he wouldn't have gone off at all - and neither would Adrian Sutil, removing that recovery vehicle from the picture entirely. You can talk about not racing in Japan with a super typhoon coming in if you like, but that's the nature of Japan: typhoon- and earthquake-prone, but possessed of a booming economy and a huge, fanatical fanbase. What are you going to do, not have motorsport?

There's more than just tragedy, after all. (source)

Bianchi's situation removed a lot of the shock from the other stunning revelation of the weekend, that Sebastian Vettel is leaving Red Bull at the end of the year. Apparently he has... not quite a contract, but an agreement or understanding that if he ever left Red Bull he'd join Ferrari, so it seems the quadruple champion will be wearing red next year. Alonso, meanwhile, allegedly has a contract with Honda, who've agreed to pay his salary. Since Honda have a contract with McLaren, that doesn't leave much doubt that he'll be back in Woking next year. But past histories mean Alonso hasn't quite worked out the details with McLaren yet, explaining why Jenson Button's still walking on eggshells - when a team keeps quiet this late in the year, it's because they're still negotiating.

Which leaves Vettel. I wonder if the chicken or the egg came first in this decision? Was this the development that started pushing Alonso out of Ferrari, or did Alonso's disquiet lead the higher-ups to start fishing for another driver? Some may wonder why Vettel would willingly go to Ferrari next year, given they're so far behind Red Bull and Mercedes, but I can come up with a few possibilities just on my own:
  • Money. I know it seems crass, but never discount the possibility that Ferrari just backed a Ducato full of Euros to Vettel's home address and called it done. This is a team that was willing to pay for Alonso, remember, even when they were still obliged to pay Kimi Räikkönen's substantial salary that year. They're not afraid of flashing money to get what they want.
  • Prestige. There aren't a lot of top-level race seats available - McLaren's all but settled, Mercedes aren't gonna change when they're winning, and Williams have Valtteri Bottas to fawn over. Everyone else is more or less a backmarker. Even if they're not especially competitive, however, a World Champion can go to Ferrari without it seeming like a step down.
  • A Fresh Challenge. Like Schumacher a generation ago, Vettel might feel he's done everything there is to do with his old team and sees in Ferrari a challenge he can really apply himself to. After all, Alonso couldn't do it, so how much glory is up for grabs now if he can?
  • Red Bull's Golden Age is Probably Over. There's no doubt Daniel Ricciardo came as a wicked shock, but that kind of talent he probably could have dealt with - if he still had the backing of his team. Mark Webber was easy on that front: no matter how fast he was, he was just a hired hand, not a son of the dynasty. But Ricciardo is also a son of the dynasty, brought up through the Red Bull Young Driver Development programme, and I'm betting it's the no-longer-being-number-one that's what really rankles. Combine that with lead designer Adrian Newey leaving to pursue other interests at the end of the year, and Vettel might just have decided the time is right to leave Red Bull.
  • Sentiment. I know, I know, this one's a bit out there: racing drivers aren't usually sentimental at all, they're hard-bitten and ultra-competitive. They don't care about a team's history, just the quality of their engineering department. Michael Schumacher was once asked about one of the few records he didn't hold, Ascari's nine-race winning streak, and said baldly: "It doesn't mean anything to me." But Vettel is different. He's very aware of the sport's history, likes measuring himself against the greats, and Ascari's record (and his name) would actually mean something to him. Climbing into a Ferrari with that red bodywork around his shoulders and the prancing horse on the nose would mean a lot more to him in 2015 than it ever did to Schumacher in 1996.
Of those, I'm guessing it's a combination of the last two: he's disenchanted with Red Bull, but moving to Ferrari when they're at such a low ebb shows it's something he really wants to do. I have my doubts about how successful he'll be - I've seen nothing from him that suggests he can drive around problems like Alonso or Schumacher, let alone flog himself to work with the team to fix problems - but I wish him well nevertheless. Driving a bad car into race wins it shouldn't have is one of the few things missing from his resume, and it's about time, really.

As long as he doesn't end up like Jules.

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