Bianchi in intensive care, late F1 race start questioned | October 6, 2014

Several drivers complained about visibility during the race - started late in the afternoon.

Several drivers complained about visibility during the race – started late in the afternoon.

Jules Bianchi has undergone an emergency operation in Mie General Hospital, following his crash at Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix. Some F1 figures questioned the call to start the race so near dusk, with a typhoon inbound.

Marussia driver Jules Bianchi was admitted to hospital, still unconscious, suffering a “severe head injury” after his crash in Sunday’s Grand Prix at the Suzuka circuit. The 25-year-old crashed into the back of a recovery vehicle, which was next to the barriers trying to remove the car of Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same corner one lap earlier.

“The driver was removed from the car, taken to the circuit medical center and then by ambulance to Mie General Hospital,” FIA press officer Matteo Bonciani said in a statement. The Suzuka circuit is in Mie prefecture in Japan.

“The CT scan shows that he has suffered a severe head injury and he is currently undergoing surgery. Following this, he will be moved to intensive care where he will be monitored.”

Bianchi’s father Philippe told France 3 television that “we will need to wait 24 hours to know any more on his condition.” French sports paper L’Equipe on Sunday cited a Ferrari spokesman as saying that the operation was complete and that Bianchi was breathing unaided.

Fading light, forecast storms

Adrian Sutil, who crashed at the same corner one lap before Bianchi, said that the fading light had made it difficult to spot wet patches on the track.

“In the end, when it got dark, you couldn’t see where the wet patches were and that is why I lost the car and it really surprised me,” Sutil, who was still standing at the scene when Bianchi crashed, said after the race. “It [Bianchi’s crash] was the same as what happened to me – he had aquaplaning but just one lap later.”

Lauda said starting the race behind the safety car was the right call

Weather forecasts for Sunday afternoon’s race were always dire, with the onset of Typhoon Phanfone clearly predicted. Nevertheless, the race started at 3 p.m. local time, around two-and-a-half hours before dusk, meaning any delays were always likely to leave the drivers on track with fading visibility.

The Mercedes team’s non-executive chairman, three-time retired world champion Niki Lauda, conceded that the crash was “foreseeable,” given the start time and the weather: “They could have started the race at one, but I don’t take these decisions.”

Lauda also said, however, that he did not believe the FIA was wrong to have started the race, which began behind the safety car because conditions were deemed too difficult for a racing start off the grid.

Brazilian driver Felipe Massa, who visited Bianchi in hospital, said he was “screaming for the race to stop” over his car radio when the rain returned in the latter stages.

“I was screaming on the radio five laps before the safety car that there was too much water on the track,” the Williams veteran of more than 200 Grands Prix said. “It was dangerous.”

The race was red flagged (stopped early) with nine laps to go after Bianchi’s crash. Most Formula One races start earlier in the afternoon, but races held in Asia or Australasia have long been staged as late in the afternoon as possible – an attempt to make viewing times more sociable for Europeans watching on TV.

The Singapore Grand Prix circumvents this problem by holding the race at night under floodlights, but traditional venues like Australia and Japan – whose fans spend most of the year tolerating a race schedule based on European time zones – have been reluctant to move their own home event into the night hours as well.

The compromise, in recent years, has been ever-later afternoon start times. F1’s global viewer figures have been on the wane, not least because of the 2013 transition of live race coverage to pay-TV stations in key markets Britain and France.

Raikkonen: Is it ever safe?

Other drivers warned against overstating the role played by the conditions. Massa’s Williams teammate Valtteri Bottas described Bianchi’s incident, at the same spot where Sutil had just crashed, as “a really, really unlucky situation,” noting that Suzuka is a particularly challenging circuit in the wet.

His countryman Kimi Raikkonen acknowledged that the conditions were “tricky,” but no more than usual in heavy rain.

“Was it safe? Is it safe ever? You cannot say,” Raikkonen said. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter.”

Race-winner Lewis Hamilton also said afterwards that “for me personally,” conditions weren’t that bad. However, Hamilton had at one stage – when running second behind teammate Nico Rosberg – radioed in to his team to say: “Tell Nico not to do anything dramatic because I can’t see him.”

Despite dozens of heavy crashes and near-misses over the years, Formula One has not suffered a fatal race-weekend accident since the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. At that ill-fated event, Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying on Saturday, and Brazilian three-time champion Ayrton Senna died in the race on Sunday. A young Rubens Barrichello, just starting his 18-year F1 career, survived a horrific crash on the Friday as well. This tragic weekend prompted the sport to redouble efforts – already well underway – to improve safety.

However, Bianchi’s Marussia team lost its former development driver Maria de Villota in 2013. The Spaniard had lost an eye and suffered severe head injuries in a crash in testing in 2012; she died just over a year later after cardiac arrest, believed to be linked to her past injuries.

The spotlight is unlikely to be removed from some of F1’s more commercially-driven practices in the coming days; the somber grid is packing up ready to fly off from Japan – weather permitting – for the inaugural Russian Grand Prix at Sochi.

F1 earns a meaningful chunk of its revenues through so-called “sanctioning fees,” paid by a race venue or circuit in return for hosting a race. This has pushed the series to far-flung, often politically problematic, venues in recent years, including Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Russia, China, and – as of 2015 – Azerbaijan.

msh/kms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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