The Ben Evans Column: Safety First

Robert Kubica, BMW, Montreal, 2007Robert Kubica’s crash in Canada and Ernesto Viso’s horrific shunt at Magny-Cours last weekend highlights the importance of making motor sport as safe as possible. Ben Evans looks at what could be done better.

As somebody who regards Tennis as something enjoyed only by extremely boring people, I have hugely enjoyed Wimbledon being rained out is it usually ruins two weeks’ worth of television.

Watching Sue Barker trying to fill eight hours with inane banter about cream teas for seven days has been my TV highlight of the year.

Wimbledon is so dull at it makes F1 and motorsport in general even more exciting than usual. If the French Grand Prix coincided with any other sporting event it would be banned by Amnesty International on the grounds of excessive boredom.

This year I sadly missed that race as I was busy crashing out of Formula Vee race at Cadwell Park, so the only action I’ve seen from the weekend was Ernesto Viso’s monster GP2 shunt (see video here).

The Viso crash

Viso’s shunt was remarkable for several reasons. Like Robert Kubica’s Canada smash it showed that motorsport is still dangerous, and that when things go wrong at 150mph, they really do go wrong.

It also demonstrated that even in ultra-safe modern autodromes, no amount of safety barriers (admittedly in this case a 3ft concrete wall) will contain a major shunt.

And it proved beyond all doubt that Viso is blind, as the TV clearly showed double waved yellow flags at the Adelaide hairpin a good 20s before the Venezuelan went into orbit. It was every bit as avoidable as the silly shunt between the ISport drivers off the start line.

It has been a year of big accidents in both car and bike sports. Several big name drivers such as Tomas Enge have picked up serious injuries in racing incidents, and the 250cc Moto GP class has seen two absolutely horrifying accidents in practice sessions – the incident involving a local wild card at the Chinese GP in particular was particularly nasty.

Even in the club race meetings I’ve attended there have been some really large crashes.

From the point of view of a driver I discern an increasingly blas??? approach to safety from racing officials. By this I don’t mean crash testing, HANS and the like, instead I mean the on-the-day race management.

Viso’s crash had its roots in confusion over the deployment of the safety car – it’s questionable whether the safety car was even needed as the two ISport cars were well clear of the track. Other incidents I have observed at club meetings could have been avoided by better marshalling and race direction.

Safety car

Mark Webber, Red Bull-Renault, Montreal, safety car, 2007In a race at Lydden Hill in April there was almost a major start line incident because the race director incorrectly followed the ‘Start Delayed’ procedure. Afterwards I tackled the Clerk of the Course over this and the reaction was best summarised as a shrug of the shoulders with the comment ‘this isn’t professional motorsport’.

Fair enough, except that had there been an incident there would have been professional motorsport sized injuries, with professional motorsport sized bills and potentially professional motorsport sized lawsuits.

In the Canadian GP there were a couple of occasions where it appeared the debris could have been dealt with by a double waved yellow flag rather than the safety car. Were the officials erring too much on the side of caution, or trying to engineer a more entertaining race?

Likewise when there is a major incident there often seems to be a lot of confusion over what to do. The red flag used perhaps too sparingly even when a driver appears to be injured – it took two laps for it to appear after Viso’s crash even though the car had landed outside the confines of the track, taken an advertising hoard with it and smashed open a fire extinguisher.

I appreciate that it is difficult for a race director or clerk of the course to stay on top of all the action that is going on during a race, but I am sometimes astounded at how poor the decision making is.

As the Viso and Kubica shunts showed, in any form of motorsport we are always one small mistake away from a major accident. Sometimes I believe that this is forgotten by the race officials, who are so busy pressing on drivers their obligation to safety that they forget their own.

Making it safer

I have lost count of the times in races I have been in where marshals have neglected to show slippery surface flags, blue flags and even yellow flags or displayed them incorrectly. Likewise some of the decisions taken by Clerks of the Course are shocking. I have been in races red flagged because a car was parked in the gravel, while others which have been allowed to continue even though the circuit has been flooded by rain.

Motorsport will never be totally safe, but at the moment I believe that some of the officials who run meetings at all levels are maybe not stepping up to the mark in terms in running races as safely as they could.

I know that this sort of criticism is totally taboo in racing, but it needs to be said, because it is all too easy to blame the drivers, but sometimes it is those in race control who drop the ball and that should be recognised, and some accountability structure put in place around this.

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2 comments on The Ben Evans Column: Safety First

  1. Robert McKay said on 6th July 2007, 16:26

    Totally agree with you. I was stunned, frankly, that Charlie Whiting didn’t think Viso’s crash was deserving of an instant red flag, preferring instead to wait a couple of laps when everyone could see it was a terrible crash. F1 has had a similar problem in recent years of refusing to use red flags, preferring SC’s instead, to try keep races from running over time. When you consider some of the inane nonsense that gets qualifying sessions red-flagged, this doesn’t make sense.

  2. This and a past commentary about the marshalls of Monaco not catching corner-cutters continues to make me wonder how much individual power the flag wavers are given, and perhaps they should be able to exercise a little more individual judgement.

    I agree with Robert about the overuse of safety cars- I now groan at full course cautions in American races where a localized yellow flag will do.

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