Formula One, Pro Cycling, and Acceptable Risk

Safety is one of the core tenets of our modern civilization. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety ranks 2nd only to physiological needs of the human body. Psychologically then, any threat against our protected modern lives – however statistically unlikely – stand out from more silent killers. Terrorism, airplane crashes, and other calamities are examples of prime fodder for heavy news coverage.

It may not be headline news, but within the span of 24 hours this past Easter two professional cyclists died in separate racing incidents. Daan Myngheer, age 22, dropped off the back of a race and suffered a heart attack during the ambulance ride to the hospital. Antoine Demoitié, age 25, was hit by a race motorbike closely following him and several other riders as they crashed together. Neither were well-known in the cycling before their passing but race vehicles, particularly motorcycles, have been in the spotlight for colliding with riders numerous times during races in the past several years. From le Tour to one-day classics, errant race motos and cars have hit riders, often at the front of the race.

Meanwhile in Formula One, safety has been in the forefront after what proved to be a fatal crash with a recovery vehicle for Jules Bianchi, age 25, during the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014. That 2014 edition of the race was held in very wet conditions, enough so that the race was stopped once for the conditions to improve before being resumed, only to be red-flagged and not restarted after Bianchi’s accident. While Bianchi was the first F1 driver to die from injuries sustained during a race in 20 years, he succumbed to his neurological injuries after months in a coma and hence the impact on the sport was less traumatic than the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, which saw the deaths of both Roland Ratzenberger and three-time world champion Ayrton Senna.

F1 drivers pay tribute to Jules Bianchi at 2015 Hungarian Grand Prix
F1 drivers pay tribute to Jules Bianchi before the 2015 Hungarian Grand Prix

Formula One and bicycle racing are opposites in many ways, but both boil down to the spectacle of men and their machines pitted against each other to find the ultimate truth – who stops the clock first. Ideally the track/course would contain only the competitors but the athletes and their cars/bikes don’t exist in a vacuum and the presence of some vehicles is necessary to operate the race safely. . In cycling motorcycles are used to close the course ahead of the riders and in the absence of unlimited resources are often required to repass the race to close off other sections of road. Tractors and other lifting equipment are used to recover crashed/broken down F1 cars from the circuit, often under caution flags to slow racing cars. How these support vehicles are managed speaks to the priorities of the sport and the overall perception by the powers-that-be of the acceptable risk for competitors

In response to Jules Bianchi’s fatal accident and the deaths of Justin Wilson and Henry Surtees in other open-wheel series F1 is considering the use of a ‘halo’ around the driver’s cockpit to deflect large objects such as wheels. This ‘halo’ wouldn’t have saved Bianchi from the deceleration of hitting the tractor, as admitted by accident report, but majority opinion in the sport is that ‘something has to be done’ to improve safety. Arguably the accident could have been prevented by not allowing the tractor on-track in those typhoon conditions, or having stricter caution flag rules, changes that have since been implemented. By comparison there’s little than can be done to alter the formula of bike racing. What will likely be implemented are stricter controls on the number of motorcycles in the race.

Scuderia Ferrari trial a variant of the proposed 'halo' system during pre-season testing
Scuderia Ferrari trial a variant of the proposed ‘halo’ system during pre-season testing

What’s unanswered is that question of what is the acceptable level of risk in these sports. Deaths in pro cycling are not routine but injuries that take riders out of competition for months occur in what feels like every race. Before Bianchi there were 20 years without a driver fatality in F1 and drivers walk away from even the most violent crashes. If pro cycling is acceptable, is it reasonable to expect zero deaths going forward in Formula One?

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