Race Weekend Central

Formula 1 Friday: The Shadow of Danger Looms Large Once Again

A couple of incidents that marred the feel of a great Grand Prix in Valencia became all too prescient once again as news filtered through of a horrific crash suffered by Marussia test driver, Maria de Villota, at a seemingly innocuous straight-line aero test this week.

Formula 1 has been incredibly fortunate that incredible improvements in safety have meant that the last fatality faced by the sport was that of Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Of course, there have been a number of injuries sustained by drivers in that time (though latterly very few) and a catalogue of spectacular crashes that in previous years would have resulted in far more critical circumstances (not least Mark Webber’s crash in Valencia itself in the 2010 season) but the current crop of drivers have never had cause to truly consider their own mortality and the genuine threat of danger that comes with sport that continually balances on the finest of margins.

There are no finer exponents of finding that critical performance edge across the sport’s history than the McLaren team, but this season the line between finding the extra few tenths of a second and embarrassing failure has also been most awkwardly exposed in their pit stops.

With much talk of how Ferrari have seemingly developed a wheel gun that takes one less turn to attach a wheel, allowing them an advantage, it was to McLaren’s great delight that they managed to turn around a four-wheel change in the quickest time recorded at Valencia – the car was stationary for 2.6 seconds.

Flushed with success, Hamilton’s subsequent stop showed the flip side of the coin as the new swivel jack failed, dropping him from third position to sixth. Such are the fine margins between success and failure in this sport – and such are the very things that keep this sport the domain of the brave.

Marussia themselves are one of the three “new teams” of the sport, having joined the championship alongside HRT and Lotus (now Caterham) in 2010 – lured in by the promise of a budget cap to the sport which never ultimately materialized.

Either way, the battle to become best of the new teams can be as intense as that at the sharp end of the field, and so it was that the team hauled team and test pilot De Villota to Duxford Airfield to run a series of straight-line aerodynamic tests along the long runway.

De Villota is the daughter of ex-F1 driver Emilio and one of very few females involved in high profile positions within the sport (along with Susie Wolff, test driver for Williams and Monisha Kaltenborn, CEO of the Sauber team). It was to be De Villota’s first run in the Marussia, and as such there was perhaps more interest in the test than would normally be the case for an aero run.

It appears that at the end of one of the runs, De Villota slowed the car down in preparation for it to be wheeled back into the garage, when the car suddenly accelerated again, pitching her into the tailgate of one of the stationary transporter lorries.

Although the “why” of the crash is yet to be revealed, it would seem suspicion is focusing on the “anti-stall” device in the car. Regardless, De Villota lost her right eye in the incident and remains in hospital with critical head and facial injuries.

Perhaps because of the severity of the injuries, alongside her gender, the incident genuinely appears to have registered amongst the competitors ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix, with some genuinely shocked and concerned tweets and messages from Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to name but a few.

It might surprise some of the readers over the pond, but despite the utterly devastating death of Dan Wheldon during the Las Vegas Indy event, in terms of subsequent driver “behavior” and the questioning of mortality, this incident may have a more profound effect. This is one of their own, in the supposedly safe confines of an F1 car.

The IndyCar series has always been seen by the F1 crowd as fundamentally unsafe (particularly prior to the advent of this season’s ICONIC/aero package) – traveling in such close confines at 225 mph-plus on an oval has led to the likes of Michael Schumacher saying he would never cross series as it’s too dangerous.

As a result, and due to the fact that IndyCar has had a significantly higher fatality/serious injury rate in recent times, although Wheldon’s death was a terrible, tragic shock, perhaps to the F1 fraternity it wasn’t a surprise. This incident however has been and as I mentioned at the beginning of the piece, it puts the spotlight on to driver behavior such as witnessed in Valencia, specifically from Jean-Eric Vergne and the seemingly serial offender, Pastor Maldonado.

For those that didn’t see the race Vergne took Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham in the mid part of the race, down what ostensibly serves as the main straight at the track. As he drew ahead he “chopped” Kovalainen in an act of aggression borne out of stupidity, frustration, inexperience – call it what you will, it was the act of a man who didn’t fear consequences. After the race, Vergne claimed he was turning into the corner.

The second incident was perhaps less clear cut, but a fast-charging Maldonado was catching the McLaren of Hamilton at the end of the race, a Hamilton whose car was crippled by failing rear tires. There was no doubt that Maldonado, had he remained patient, would have taken Hamilton and third position. Hamilton in contrast, was always going to be taken, so perhaps should have ceded the position more easily.

However, the two decided to enter into an ill-advised battle which ended with Maldonado spearing into the side of Hamilton and pitching the McLaren into the wall, ruining both races.

Both Maldonado and, indeed, Hamilton have previous when it comes to crossing the line between aggressive and foolish, and the fear has been voiced by those around the paddock that one day soon this kind of disregard for safety would come back to bite the sport in the most unpleasant fashion. As it happens, the bite has come upon someone innocent of any such crime, but serves as a stark reminder that the sport we so love still has the capacity to bare its dark teeth.

Back to the actual racing itself, this weekend provides us with what should be a great event at my home race, the British Grand Prix. Red Bull seem to have made some significant advances unlocking the potential of their car, though the high speed nature of the circuit favors the characteristics of the McLaren.

Moreover though, this being good old England, the forecast is for rain across the weekend – there’s no better leveler. Tune in, enjoy, but be safe out there.

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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