Formula 1 is to adopt a 'virtual safety car' for 2015 in response to Jules Bianchi's horrific crash at the Japanese Grand Prix nearly two months ago.
The Frenchman lost control as he slowed through a yellow flag sector, crashing into the back of a recovery tractor in worsening conditions at Suzuka back in October, and remains unconscious after suffering a Diffuse Axonal head injury. He is now continuing his slow recovery in a hospital in his hometown of Nice.
The issue of how much a driver slows through a yellow flag zone has been a topic discussed in F1 for years, famously Mika Hakkinen used to raise his hand as he went through the section of track to indicate that he had indeed backed off, however, in the wake of Bianchi's accident the FIA has now intervened in an attempt to assure all cars slow down sufficiently to protect the safety of themselves and the marshals on the circuit.
Two solutions tested
Two ideas were tested, the first was the virtual safety car, or VSC, that has now been given the go ahead, the other was the use of slow zones, introduced for the Le Mans 24 Hours and used at other endurance races, where drivers were forced to slow to a set speed through the section of track an accident had occurred in.
While they were deemed effective in the WEC, in F1 drivers had concerns over potential huge differences in speed if a slow zone was in a high speed section of circuit and a high probability of penalties for drivers who failed to slow in time because of a lack of track markings to indicate the start of such a sector.
The other issue was that of fairness. If a slow zone was used for less than a full lap then some drivers would gain massively on those forced to slow down, whereas with the virtual safety car the limit applies to the whole circuit not just the area around the crash.
While there was some concerns drivers could be distracted while staying to the speed limit under a virtual safety car, after consultations with the teams it will be introduced for 2015, with further trials done during pre-season testing to iron out any problems and to give the drivers more experience.
Some concerns remain
Overall, the virtual safety car does seem to solve of drivers going too fast through a sector but it still doesn't solve one of the key issues with the Bianchi crash.
The decision-making process has to be quicker. In the 10-15 seconds, perhaps more, that it would take to deem a crash scenario necessary of a simple yellow flag, a virtual safety car, a full safety car period or even a red flag, many more cars could have passed without any guidance on the speed that they have to travel.
I think back to the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix where a drainage issue caused many cars to spin off in quick succession at turn three because in the wet the issue of aquaplaning means two or more cars could have the same crash in quick succession. In the case of Suzuka there was a good half a minute or more between Adrian Sutil sliding off and Bianchi having the same accident.
There also has to be the consideration that Suzuka is now very much an anomaly in terms of safety with gravel traps at most corners and a much smaller area between track and barrier than at most modern circuits.
If the incident had been somewhere like China or Malaysia, where wet races are always possible, Sutil would have been further off the track and Bianchi would have had more time slow the car down and react to a possible collision.
Motor racing will always be dangerous
One thing that stewards and race director Charlie Whiting try to ensure is the safest race with the least interruption. Many believe in Japan they got it wrong and Bianchi's crash may have been a result of that; the virtual safety car works to neutralise a race and should be effective in a good percentage of incidents. Yet its the small percentage of crashes like that in Suzuka that will continue to make F1 and motor racing dangerous and nothing can be done about that.
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