Balancing safety and profit: the dilemma of high-octane sports industries

fig1Though more than three months have now passed since his accident in Suzuka, 25-year-old Jules Bianchi remains unconscious in hospital. He can now breathe unaided, and he has recovered enough to be able to be moved to a hospital in Nice, near his family, but it’s difficult to say how much he can be expected to improve in the future. With hopes once so high for this talented young driver, it’s no surprise that questions have been raised about safety in the sport and in motor sports more generally. Could the crash have been prevented? To what extent is it possible to make racing safer without destroying what makes it exciting?

What caused the crash?

The FIA report into the crash, released last month, identified speed as the primary cause of the problem, suggesting that at 126kph, Bianchi had no hope of being able to control his car on the wet track surface. Questions remain in relation to this, however. There is no established safe limit in these situations, so advice given to drivers may be inconsistent. Fans have also asked why the race wasn’t stopped earlier. The obvious answer is that cutting the race short (which, of course, ended up happening anyway) disappoints both fans and sponsors, and doing it often would risk a significant loss of money. This might seem mercenary, but if you’ve spent much time close to the people who manage the tracks, the crews and the support teams, you’ll know that most people don’t earn a great deal and profit margins are often tight. Without enough fan and sponsor support, the sport can’t survive.

Investing in safety

Once we acknowledge that a healthy profit margin is essential to a healthy sport, the question becomes: what portion of that profit should be invested in making the sport safer? Formula One is already a lot safer than most people realise (and many rally fans will tell you it’s too safe, with drivers in those races also reporting that they’re excited by the element of risk). No driver has actually died in F1 since Ayrton Senna. While he was president of the FIA Max Mosley was instrumental in improving the safety of Formula 1 and through lobbying the EU in Brussels brought about change in general road safety for all. The Jules Bianchi crash was ‘a freak accident’, says Max Mosley in a recent interview, and other commentators have noted that one is more likely to die at the wheel of a car when driving in rush hour traffic. Force India’s Sergio Perez, however, says he wants clear answers as to what lay behind the tragic accident.

How far would you go?

One thing we can all think about in the aftermath of this tragedy is how much we would be prepared to see the sport change to make drivers safer. Is there a point at which we would lose interest? One option being considered is the use of closed-cockpit cars, but would that damage an important sense of connection between the drivers and the fans? Ultimately, if we think the risk is too high, we can all vote with our feet (or TV viewing choices), but we must also keep the accident in perspective if we are to be fair to the sport Bianchi loved.

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