Formula One appears to be in the process of getting itself in to a truly bizarre situation, not really a catch 22, but a difficult conundrum. And it’s all to do with safety.
We’ve been seeing it coming for years, and it reached an apex on last year with the spectacular first lap incident, caused by Romain Grosjean, at the Spa grand prix. The accident itself wasn’t particularly serious in terms of speed or g-loading – the intrinsically linked barometers of crash severity in motor racing – Kubica’s accident in Canada or Perez’s Monaco shunt were far more serious by any scientific measure. But, these were accidents of motor sport caused by pushing a bit too hard, or just plain getting it wrong.
The problem we’re seeing now is the accidents that have involved, in particular, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado this year are borne out of a shifting attitude in drivers that, combined with the incredible safety in Formula One, is creating an equally incredibly dangerous situation for everyone on the track.
It’s a strange contradiction, but the safer Formula One becomes the more dangerous it gets.
The sport has now reached a stage at which it’s practically impossible to hurt yourself, or more importantly, those around you. Grosjean knew that if neither he nor Hamilton backed out and the two came together as he tried to squeeze him against the wall, the chances are that both would escape without serious injury. Of course, they did, but Alonso still nearly ended the weekend minus a head.
And here’s the problem. Safety in the sport has mitigated all but the most serious injury: death. Drivers have got used to seeing cars taking off, flipping, piling into a wall at 140mph and the Mark Webber behind the wheel simply hops out, completely unscathed. Because of that, there will be no wake up call, no broken arm or broken leg to remind the drivers of the consequences of driving like an idiot and taking the ‘you decide if we’re going to have an accident’ approach at completely inappropriate moments. A move that used to be reserved for hairpins and chicanes is now regularly being employed in 160mph kinks near concrete walls.
It’s looking more and more like there are only two kinds of crashes that can take place in Formula One: bruised but fine, or dead. With that in mind, the first reminder for a driver about how dangerous the sport can be will be when he kills a colleague.
The question is, how serious is that accident going to be? Will we lose one driver, or three? Will we lose two photographers and a marshal, or 150 spectators?
The job of the racing driver is to push the limit, everywhere. The best drivers are the ruthless ones, those who don’t give an inch, and gamble with what’s acceptable and what isn’t. The problem is that, at the moment, they’re gambling with monopoly money – if they lose it all, they don’t actually lose anything at all. Until ‘That Accident’, of course.
The difficulty is that you can’t deliberately make a sport more dangerous, and the fact that people still do drugs and smoke is proof that telling people they shouldn’t do something won’t stop them from doing it. The only way to go, it seems, is stiffer and swifter penalties for dangerous driving, but that wouldn’t half make F1 boring.
Perhaps the FIA should have broken Grosjean’s legs instead of banning him? I’m sure Bernie will know someone who can make that happen.