How did it happen and what comes next?
SUZUKA, Japan – Formula One drivers and team bosses have called on the FIA to respond after a recovery vehicle came onto the track during the Japanese Grand Prix while Pierre Gasly was still driving on a soggy Suzuka Circuit over 200 km/h. An investigation will now be launched to understand how such a dangerous situation could have unfolded, with Gasly later telling the media that he was only two meters away from being involved in a fatal collision.
The incident drew comparisons to Jules Bianchi’s accident at the 2014 Japanese GP, when he crashed into a crane in a gravel pit and suffered severe brain damage. He died the following year from his injuries.
The FIA has long made safety changes following lessons learned from crashes and near-misses, and F1 drivers are under heavy pressure to see a similar reaction after Sunday’s race.
The incident happened during the second round of the Japanese GP on Sunday after a chaotic first lap. All 20 riders started the race on intermediate tires – typically used when conditions go from wet to dry – but at the start of the race conditions deteriorated significantly.
Carlos Sainz, who was racing in third place, aquaplaned on the straight after the hairpin at Turn 11 and crashed heavily into the barrier near Turn 12. The impact caused a part of the billboard was ripped from the barrier and dropped onto the track, which Gasly then rammed after being blinded by spray from other cars. With more spins and Alex Albon’s Williams coming to a stop at the side of the track following contact with one of the Haas cars, race control called a safety car.
As Gasly had damage to the front wing of his car, however, he returned straight to the pits as the rest of the cars caught up with the safety car. When Gasly returns to the track alone, he drives faster than the safety car to catch up but in a time delta displayed on his steering wheel. The delta time is set to ensure drivers are able to catch up to the train of cars behind the safety car, but is set high enough to ensure they do so at a safe speed. In very wet conditions, however, this still meant that Gasly regularly exceeded 200 km/h (120 mph).
At some point during lap two and once the safety car collected the field of cars minus Gasly, a flatbed truck and crane were deployed to the track to clear Sainz’s car. The safety car guided 17 of the cars past the recovery vehicles, although some drivers were still surprised to see the crane and truck on the right track.
When Gasly ran into the recovery vehicles, he was driving at 200 km/h, with footage from his dash cam showing how close he was approaching and how poor visibility was. An on-board camera still working on Sainz’s car also showed the surprise of the stewards who were already working on preparations to lift the Ferrari onto the recovery vehicle.
“We have a delta lap time to meet and I was nine seconds slower than the delta lap time, so I’m catching the queue and then I saw him at the last minute, and when I see him , I’m doing 200 km/h”, Gasly explained. “I tried to slow down but not erratically because if I hit the brakes I would have lost the car and ended up in the crane.
“I went two meters to the right, two meters from death today, which in my opinion is not acceptable as a racing driver.
Gasly’s in-car footage also shows the race was red-flagged moments before he met the recovery vehicles, although he only had one lighted sign to warn him ahead of the venue. of the accident and that it only turned red when it approached. Once the red flags were shown, the race was suspended and all cars returned to the pits.
How did it happen?
Asked by ESPN, the FIA did not explain why the recovery vehicles were on track, other than to say a full investigation would take place.
Article 2.6.1 of the FIA’s International Sporting Code states that “no marshal or vehicle shall enter the perimeter of the circuit without the authorization of race control”, suggesting that recovery vehicles should not have be there without the knowledge and authorization of the FIA race director, Eduardo Freitas.
It is normal for marshals and recovery vehicles to enter the track in safety car conditions, although usually in dry conditions and after all cars have joined the queue behind the safety car. The idea of having a safety car is to allow a break in traffic for the marshals to work on recovering a vehicle and each marshal post has a line of communication with the clerk of the course and race control to ensure this is done safely.
Still, given the severity of the conditions, it’s unclear why recovery vehicles were allowed onto the track before Gasly had had a chance to catch up with the peloton or, quite simply, the race had been suspended by a red flag. As Gasly said after the race: “We were all in the pit lane a minute later. Risking my life for a minute, I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Another concerning factor was that the crews had not been informed of the presence of the recovery vehicle on the track, so there was no way to notify the pilots by crew radio. Television camera footage had failed to detect their presence and no alerts were given by race management, which prevented the drivers from being alerted to what was happening at Turn 12.
What happens next?
Understanding how a recovery vehicle was left on the track in these circumstances will be the main focus of the investigation, with any lessons being applied to race control regulations or procedures in the future. The obvious comparisons to Bianchi’s crash in 2014 mean everyone in the sport knows how bad Sunday’s near miss was.
“It needs a full investigation because after the Jules Bianchi tragedy it’s something you never want to see again,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “I’m sure the FIA will carry out a full investigation, but recovery vehicles like this should never be on the track when cars are moving.”
Another question is whether the race should have been allowed to go ahead with a standing start instead of a safety car start. Once the race resumed two hours later, she did so behind the safety car, which was also an option for race control before the initial start.
“I think at the start should we have started the race from a standing start or should we have started behind the safety car?” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said. “I think behind the safety car would certainly have been safer, and safety should always have come first.
“Why do I say that, because as soon as we started, a lot of riders, obviously most of the riders on intermediate tires who were the fastest, but then very little grip, very little visibility, and maybe by starting behind car safety, that would give you at least a few laps to understand the situation, to have feedback from the drivers before deciding to start.
“I think at the beginning it was a critical point. The second one, definitely the crane, having the crane on the track while the cars are driving, we said that [was] very dangerous. This shouldn’t happen. So overall I think this is a bad situation that still needs to be fixed. This can’t happen anymore.”
The drivers were particularly disappointed with the situation as the subject had come up during their briefing with Freitas on the Friday before the race after a recovery vehicle went out on track a week earlier in Singapore when the drivers were behind the safety car on slick tires in wet conditions. conditions. Mercedes driver George Russell, who is also a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, said a complete overhaul of the way vehicles are handled in recovery should be considered, particularly in wet conditions.
“There’s no circumstance where we’re happy to see a tractor on track,” Russell said. “We talk a lot about Pierre [driving too fast] but that is unimportant. There were 17 other cars on the runway and none of us passed that tractor and saw much of what was going on because obviously you had to get out of the jet to get a clear view and then you lined up with the tractor . Especially in wet conditions, in wet, intermediate or dry conditions, there is no circumstance in which to have a tractor [on track] is acceptable.
“In our opinion, it’s quite simple: no tractors on the tracks. And if you need a tractor on the tracks, let us know.”