October 6, 2014

Crashes, Corner Marshalling, and Racing

I haven't posted here in a long time. I am sorry for that, but I feel that in light of the weekend's events a post was needed to not only put my thoughts in order, but also to give a little perspective and context.

Over the weekend there was a lot of racing. There was Petit Le Mans, Continental Tire Challenge, and Formula 1 at Suzuka just to name a few big racing events over this first weekend in October. Each race had it's own special flavor of racing for the motorsports arena.

Lets start with Petit Le Mans. In the Tudor United Sports Car Championship (TUSCC), you have four classes of cars competing at one time. Organized chaos is part of the game. The race drew heavy criticism for having many safety car periods for what in other series would be a local yellow. One instance that comes to mind was when one car pulled off line on the outside of the course due to possibly losing power and having to recycle the computer in the car. Yes you could make an argument that a safety car period is not needed, but I would argue that the car in question was still on the racing surface and was technically in a dangerous area. Was a safety car period warranted? Probably not, the car got going again in quick order but the organizers decided to err on the side of caution. TUSCC has drawn a lot of criticism in this first year for the combined organization of ALMS and Grand Am, yellow flag and safety car procedures is just one aspect. The series knows this, and have admitted as such. The series will have to overcome this to make the racing better in the future. Solutions for this? They could potentially use local yellows more, and wait until a situation arises where a safety car is warranted (cars stopping on the racing surface in an area where it could be collected by another car). The thing to remember is that with multiple classes of car racing on the same surface, things happen very quickly.

Continental Tire is a great series, and has two classes. At Road Atlanta there were a few times when the safety car was deployed, and I would agree that it was well used. One specific instance was when one of the lower class of cars, a Mazda Miata looped it on the last corner into the concrete retaining barrier for the pits on the front straight.

Formula 1 has the pinnacle of open wheel racing, and racing in general, for a very long time. Suzuka this weekend was plagued by a lot of issues. First off, it was known very early on that a Typhoon was heading towards Japan for the last week. There were talks of moving up the race time, but this also proposed a set of logistical issues for fans and the circuit organizers. This may have helped yes, but there had been lots of rain during the day. So much so that F1 decided to forgo the usual standing start and start behind the safety car. While I don't usually agree with safety car starts (I generally feel that it waters the racing down) I do believe that here it was the right call. After two laps, the red flag was displayed and the cars pulled into the pit lane due to the weather. The race would restart behind the safety car shortly after this. The race would continue with very little incident until lap 42. At this point, the rain had began to pick up again. Most cars were still on intermediates which are great when it's not raining hard or there isn't standing water on the track. Teams were pitting at this point to put on more intermediate tires, and I think only a couple took full wets. I can't say I completely agree with this decision, but I wasn't sitting on the pit wall looking at a radar screen to know how long or heavy the rain would be. Nor was I there when Adian Sutil lost control of his car and went into the tire barrier driver's right. Sutil would be ok and unscathed from the incident. Unfortunately, on what I recall to be lap 43 (possible the same lap for Jules) of the race Jules Bianchi would go off in the same location while efforts to recover Sutil's car were underway, and impact with the tractor that had lifted Sutil's car. Bianchi went off at about 160 MPH and impacted with an object which was not really moving. This lead to Bianchi's car being decimated in a huge collision.

Let's stop here and detail what usually goes on when an on track accident occurs starting with Sutil's. When the car went off, the yellow flag is instantly displayed. Typically the downstream station (the corner station prior to where the incident occurred) would also begin display the yellow flag. I believe two stations prior were displaying waving yellows in this case. As Sutil was OK'd by the personnel at the corner station there was no more reason to launch the safety car, but the yellow would be displayed until the area was clear. When a yellow is displayed, procedure dictates that a drivers slow down to a manageable pace that would not put themselves at risk for an accident and not pass another driver in that area. Single yellows denote an area of caution, and double yellows typically mean that a safety car has been deployed and the field should form up. Once past the incident, it is assumed to be back to racing and is usually denoted by not displaying a flag or displaying the green flag.

In the situation, a single yellow (most likely waving) would be displayed for Sutil's accident. Once Bianchi's car went off, this same procedure would be followed until the determination (usually by race control) that the incident warranted the safety car being deployed. In this situation the safety car and the medical car were both deployed in this incident. It was not until after this that the organizers threw the red flag for the race. It was clear the race would not resume.

So, in the shadow of this tragedy many different people are calling for a review of standards regarding incidents and driver safety. I would like to point out, that the last driver to lose his life in F1 was Ayrton Senna in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. With that said, racing is a dangerous sport. The crash at the Daytona 24 hours with a Daytona Prototype and a GT car showed, incidents can go from something we have taken for granted with drivers being largely unharmed to a driver being hurt very quickly.

As for the incident with Bianchi, I can't say there is any one single instance or person to place blame on for the incident. Yes, the race could have been moved up Sunday or run Saturday, the safety car could have been deployed sooner, the race could have been cancelled, or any other host of options. But I cannot say with certainty that an incident of any caliber could have been avoided in the race.

What I can say, is that perhaps it is time to have full time corner marshals who flag for these professional racing organizations so that there is consistency for these matters. I know it has been tradiation to involve the nation's corner marshals, but I think it is time to move from this to professional flaggers. Unfortunately, this renews another discussion of closing the drivers cockpit being closed, but after having seen this incident from the amateur video posted of the actual crash (this was not televised but has been posted elsewhere) would not have helped in this instance due to the height of the Bianchi's car and the tractor, as well as the angle of impact of the car.

In this instance, I think that the race coordinators and stewards made good calls with what they had on hand. I cannot say that I would have done anything differently from my perspective having flagged for different organizations at the club level. Radio calls and hand signals are important. Being clear and concise in situations where people could be possibly injured is important.

In closing, I pray for a speedy recovery of Jules Bianchi who is currently fighting for his life.

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