From Senna to Bianchi: 21 years of F1 Safety
This week, a young talent would have celebrated his 26th lap around the sun. Jules Bianchi, with immense talent and a world of promise ahead of him, passed away three weeks ago following 9 months in a coma.
The youngster, part of the Ferrari Drivers’ Academy, was said to be one of the best talents they had seen in a while. Mentored by two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, Bianchi spent the past year at Manor-Marussia. Several sources, however, said he had been poised for a seat at Ferrari prior to his tragic accident at Suzuka in 2014.
Racing in typhoon-hit Japan, drivers’ visibility at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix was seriously hampered. Sauber’s Adrian Sutil crashed at a turn, and his car was being cleared away after he walked away from the wreckage.
One lap later, Bianchi, driving at that same turn, went at high speed into the parked crane, knocked out immediately. He would never regain consciousness.
His passing marked the first death as a direct result of a Formula One race since that tragic summer morning in Italy in 1994 when F1 lost its greatest icon of all time, Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna.
Unlike Bianchi’s death, Senna’s was most likely caused by automobile issues. The most widely-accepted theory for his accident is a serious steering column failure, but famed F1 engineer Adrian Newey, who designed the Williams FW16 Senna was travelling in, said it was impossible to know whether this occurred due to the accident or caused it.
The weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix had been marred by accidents even prior to Senna’s. Rubens Barichello, who was being mentored by Senna, was driving in practice for Jordan the Friday of that race weekend, and had a significant crash at Variente Bassa after hitting a curb at Imola. He was knocked unconscious almost instantly, with Senna rushing instantly to check on him before returning to the race himself.
Senna was not the first casualty at that race. During qualifying, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger of Simtek Racing had his own steering fail completely, crashing with speed into the concrete barrier at the Villeneuve corner. Senna was greatly affected by the Austrian's death, and spoke to colleague Alain Prost the morning of the race (and his own death) looking to make introductions to Formula One to make the sport safer.
Drivers had proposed at the time the reinstatement of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association leading improvements to the sport, and Niki Lauda, who had suffered his own big accident 18 years prior, suggested Senna lead the group, which the Brazilian was due to do following the subsequent Monaco Grand Prix.
Safety measures were put in place in the immediate aftermath of Senna’s death.
Analyses were run at Tamburello and all of Imola to ascertain it was not track design that had caused or contributed to Senna’s passing.
Following this, significant changes were effected to the structure of cars and tracks.
Among the track design changes instituted were more crash barriers and turn changes, including the one at Tamburello where Senna perished.