Formula 1

Jules Bianchi crash prompts FIA to consider slow zones

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The FIA is considering implementing 'slow zones' as Formula 1 begins to learn from the events proceeding Jules Bianchi's horrific crash at the Japanese Grand Prix.

The Frenchman remains in a critical but stable condition in a Suzuka hospital after hitting the back of a recovery tractor in the rain-hit race last weekend.

Related links

Jules Bianchi incident highlighting both sides of F1
Bianchi confident of future with Ferrari
Sochi set for subdued F1 debut

Details revealed

At a press conference in Sochi on Friday more details were revealed about the nature of Bianchi's accident. 

The Marussia driver lost control after over-correcting an initial slide at the bottom of the hill sending him straight to the site where Adrian Sutil's car, that had crashed the lap prior, was being recovered by marshals.

The area was already outlined by marshals waving double yellow flags signalling that men and machinery were on the circuit and drivers should slow down and even be prepared to stop.

While Race Director Charlie Whiting confirmed Bianchi had slowed down approaching the zone, he would not say whether he felt the Frenchman had slowed sufficiently.

Matter of judgement

The topic of how much a driver must slow while travelling through a yellow flag zone has been keenly talked about in F1 for many years, former world champion Mika Hakkinen was famous for waving his hand when going through such a zone to try and prove he had backed off while driving past.

But in recent years thanks to the much larger run-off areas at modern circuits, when a car does hit the barriers or breaks down and requires outside help to be removed, the amount of space between the racetrack and the area marshals were working has been greatly increased.

This means when a driver approaches a section of track where men are working there is almost less of a need to back off to a much reduced speed as there was just a decade or so ago.

At Suzuka, however, a much old-school layout remains with gravel traps at most corners and not as much space between track and tyre barriers.

Indeed where Bianchi crashed is one of the smaller areas of run-off on the circuit as 130R, a corner itself that requires an extended amount of run-off, is located just over the fence.

A page from Le Mans' book

The idea of a 'slow zone', that is now being considered by the FIA, originates from endurance racing and particularly the Le Mans 24 Hours as, particularly on a big circuit, simply sending out the safety car would still leave a few minutes where cars were not at a restricted speed going through a yellow flag zone.

Each circuit has a number of marshal posts and the idea is the post before the yellow flag zone holds up a board warning a driver to slow to a dictated speed and then once they have passed the recovery scene they can travel at full speed again.

Where F1 wants to adapt the idea is that the speed is controlled electronically by the ECU which is standard in all cars and can be accessed by the FIA.

Therefore reducing the speed would happen automatically and require no driver input at all.

Certainly the introduction would end what, as I've mentioned, is a long standing point of debate in F1.

A meeting of teams and the FIA to consider the idea is scheduled for Saturday and could potentially be implemented as soon as the United States Grand Prix if the process isn't too complicated.

Questions

There is, however, a few things the FIA must consider when implementing the idea.

Would a 'slow zone' be used in every case of a yellow flag? Most times the caution flag is waved for merely a few seconds as a driver runs wide or spins off without hitting anything, if there was no imminent threat to a marshal or the car off the circuit would there be the need to disadvantage those just behind passing through?

What would the restricted speed be? It is likely that the speed used would be the pit-lane limit which in most cases is 80 kph, however, given it would be governed by the FIA, on a wide open circuit like Bahrain or Shanghai could the speed be a little higher than say at Monaco or Singapore?

Finally, in order to try and not disadvantage those drivers caught up, would the restriction come into effect on the whole track?

Unlike the Circuit de la Sarthe, a 13-mile monster, F1 races on relatively short circuits with Spa-Francorchamps the longest at just over four miles, so whereas at Le Mans a driver could make up a few seconds around one or two laps, in F1 four or five second lost with a brief slow zone could ruin strategies in races or disrupt qualifying laps.

But if the whole circuit was under the same restriction then no such advantage is lost or gained.

100% effective?

Overall if those few questions can be easily resolved, the 'slow zone' does look an effective way of resolving the key factor that was behind Bianchi's crash, but a slow zone may not be as effective in 100 per cent of situations.

Certainly given the weather conditions at the time of his incident, the chances of slowing down an aquaplaning car even electronically are very small.

Perhaps the best example would be the 2007 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring where a lake turned up at turn one within a few minutes, if cars are upto 150 mph+ before the point where they need to slow down, if machinery and marshals were on track an out of control car could still pose a risk to the men on track and/ or hit the tractor on the circuit.

In this case some changes are being made, while tractors will still be used, protective skirts are to be added to prevent a car going underneath as Bianchi's Marussia did and the communication between stewards in Race Control and marshals on track re-evaluated.

Unwelcome reminder

As I mentioned in the article earlier in the week (which you can find in the related articles section), Bianchi's incident served as an unwelcome reminder that while F1 has made huge leaps in safety over the past decade or so, it and motor sport in general remains dangerous and potentially life threatening.

Certainly it has thrust the spotlight back onto the topic of safety and the procedures used to ensure it, and if nothing else, the sport owes it to Bianchi to make sure learns from his horrific experience.

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