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Driver safety in Formula 1®: Part 1 – Bianchi’s accident and its effects on safety

Driver safety in Formula 1®: Part 1 – Bianchi’s accident and its effects on safety
Wednesday, 09 November 2016 By Anthony Indaimo , Jacopo Pistone

A number of ambitious and talented young drivers in Formula 1® are increasingly being criticised by more seasoned current and former Formula 1® champions for taking unnecessary risks. In particular, the young Max Verstappen's way of defending has been the centre of discussion for a great part of the current season, notwithstanding that he is a very talented driver.1 Given the new generation of drivers coming through the motor sport ranks, it is important that they and their managers remain aware that, whilst there are clearly inherent risks, those involved in managing and organising Formula 1® races have continually strived to improve driver safety.

Against this background, this two-part article examines how safety and risks are managed in Formula 1®. Part 1 (below) looks at past driver incidents and how both the Governing body and Commercial Right Holder in Formula 1® has reacted to them. It also examines the likely consequences the recent Bianchi family legal action against various parties may have on Formula 1®, the regulator, the teams and the drivers. Specifically it looks at:

  • Background to the Jules Bianchi accident and the findings of the FIA’s investigation into the incident;
  • Background to the accidents of Mark Donohue and Ayrton Senna;
  • The new safety measures introduced in Formula 1® after Senna’s death at Imola
  • The impact of Bianchi's accident on safety in Formula 1®

Part 2 of the article (available here) moves on to examine how liability for motor sports accidents is assessed under common law. It highlights why assessing liability in Formula 1® racing is peculiarly different to other sports and how Formula 1® has managed the inherent risks of competing in the pinnacle of motor racing (where 1000ths of a second really do make the difference) through the adoption of "best practice" contractual terms between the team and a driver and through bespoke insurance policies.


The Jules Bianchi accident

On 5 October 2014 on lap 43 of a very wet Japanese Grand Prix, Jules Bianchi lost control of his Marussia MR03 Ferrari in Turn 7 and struck a crane that was recovering Adrian Sutil's Sauber. Sutil had crashed in the same corner one lap before. Bianchi suffered life-threatening injuries to his head and was air lifted to hospital by air ambulance. Nearly a year later, on 18 July 2015, Bianchi sadly died from his head injuries after his parents made the heart breaking decision to turn off his life support machine. The Bianchi family no doubt believed that it had no choice but to initiate legal proceedings in order to, amongst other things, better understand what happened in the hope of preventing a similar situation occurring again, as stated in their solicitors' press release on 26 May 2016.2

In response to the Jules Bianchi accident, the world governing body for motor sport, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (the “FIA”) appointed a 10-man panel (the “Panel”) to examine all the evidence and other information relating to it. On 3 December 2014, the Panel issued a 396-page report with recommendations for improvements. It is important to note, that the full report has not been released to the public but rather only a 2-page summary3 (the “Summary”) of the conclusions and recommendations has been published. The Summary highlighted various aspects that the Panel believe contributed to the accident but concluded that none of them alone caused it. 

The Panel's findings indicate that the semi-dry line at Turn 7 was narrowed significantly by water draining onto the track and flowing downhill along it. That is why, according to the Panel, both Sutil and Bianchi lost control of their Sauber and Marussia respectively at this point of the track. Importantly though, Sectors 7 and 8, which included the part of Turn 7 where Sutil's car was being recovered, were subject to double yellow flags. Under a double yellow flag regime, the driver has to reduce his speed significantly, not overtake, and be prepared to change direction or stop.4 The Summary appears to indicate that Bianchi did not slow down sufficiently to avoid losing control at the same point on the track as Sutil. It further highlights that if Bianchi had adhered to the requirements of double yellow flags then neither competitors nor officials should have been put in immediate or physical danger.

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Written by

Anthony Indaimo

Anthony Indaimo

Anthony is a partner in the corporate team at Withers LLP.

He focuses on cross-border corporate, commercial and corporate finance transactions involving the acquisition and disposal of businesses and shares for both private and public companies, joint ventures and capital raising with a particular emphasis on the sports, technology and brands sectors, especially those involving the US, UK, Italy and Asia Pacific.

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Jacopo Pistone

Jacopo Pistone

Jacopo is a trainee in Withers' Corporate practice. He advises on share sales and purchases, joint ventures and a broad range of commercial agreements, with a particular emphasis on luxury brands. Jacopo is a supporter of AC Milan and a dedicated follower of Formula 1.

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