Moments in Time and Tragedy

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I was out grocery shopping one afternoon when I got in line with all my items, pulled out my phone to open Twitter, and was notified of a horrifying accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the one that would claim the life of Dan Wheldon in the 2011 IndyCar Series finale. When Greg Moore perished at what was then known as California Speedway twelve years earlier, I was trick-or-treating with my mother. I wouldn’t even know that Greg Moore was dead until I read about it in a magazine in a barber shop a few months later. I had seen the last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, but when I was told, by my mother who watched the race with me, that seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt was pronounced dead after what looked to be a very ordinary collision, I remember still being in the middle of a game of SSX on the Playstation 2 and then feeling so awful afterwards that I shut the system off and just sat alone in my bedroom for a while.

My mother was driving me to see my father out of state when on the radio, the DJ had relayed the news of the death of Adam Petty in Nascar Grand National Series practice the day before. Adam Petty. He was the 19-year-old, fourth-generation heir to the Petty lineage. I knew him only from the game NASCAR 2000. No way could someone that young die at the wheel, I thought. Even my mother was distraught just on that fact alone. And I was once again in a car, driving to visit my father for the weekend, when two months later, Kenny Irwin Jr. died at the same circuit, on the same corner, in a crash caused by the same mechanical failure and in the same exact model of car. It was the damndest sequence.

I remember being asleep when I learned of the grisly accident that claimed the life of MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli. I also slept as Alex Zanardi was nearly killed at the Lausitzring and remembering my 11-year-old brain refusing to accept that he had lost his legs. I slept as Felipe Massa clung to life after being struck in the head by a 60 gram spring at speed five years ago while qualifying in Hungary. Slept when popular WRC co-driver Michael Park was killed at the Wales Rally GB in 2005. I was not asleep after the 2007 Belgian Grand Prix, when SPEED announcer Bob Varsha announced that a helicopter registered to Colin McRae had crashed and killed all four passengers aboard, and then later learned that the passengers were McRae, his son, and two family friends. And I was not asleep – in fact I had just woke up early – to watch the start of last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, when Aston Martin driver Allan Simonsen crashed on lap 2. After initial reports suggested that he was alright, I was devastated to learn that in fact, he had virtually died on impact.

And then, just two months ago, I remember being up on a Saturday night and preparing to watch the Super GT race at Fuji Speedway in August, when word came out that Tony Stewart was involved in a sprint car accident in upstate New York. The accident that claimed the life of young Kevin Ward Jr., in one of the most grisly, appalling, freak accidents that I could imagine. One which tragically brought NASCAR into the front pages of the national news, and for all of the wrong reasons.

If something catastrophically awful has happened in motorsport in the fifteen years that I’ve watched it as often as I could, chances are that if I was lucky enough to have not seen it in person, I can tell you what I was doing instead because the loss or severe injury of an active driver still in the spring of their young lives leaves such a profound, stinging sadness in my heart and overshadows so much else that day.

So, yes, I can tell you what I was doing during the Japanese Grand Prix. I was in bed, under the covers, staying up late, tweeting during the race like so many others – a race that was already a bizarre and eventful affair as the laps wound down. Typhoon warnings, safety car starts, the possibility that the race would be called before full points could be scored, or before a lap was turned at race speed. Fernando Alonso‘s car broke down under a safety car period, to further salt the wounds in what has been a lost final season for the Spaniard at Ferrari. The front-running Mercedes driver for most of the early laps wasn’t Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton, it was Bernd Maylander, the veteran Safety Car driver of Formula One.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened on lap 46. I couldn’t sleep until my body literally would not keep me awake because for an hour after an overnight race that ended at nearly 4:00 AM Eastern Time, all I could do was worry, and hope, and shake, and come close to tears because I feared that I would have just seen the first Formula 1 driver fatality in two decades. And when I finally woke up hours later, I woke up with a chill and a dread in my gut, that when I pulled up Twitter on my phone, I would learn that Jules Bianchi, the driver who sustained severe head injuries on lap 46 of the Japanese Grand Prix, had passed away from his injuries. Instead, I woke to the news that he was alive, but in critical condition.

It’s been nearly 72 hours. Bianchi has suffered a devastating head injury that has zero margin for error in terms of recovery. Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond suffered this same injury many years ago while filming for a segment of the popular series. Hammond is one of the very fortunate ones, because a diffused axonal is nearly impossible to treat – and it leaves 90% of its victims unconscious for the remainder of their lives.

And after being unable to avoid watching the gruesome and sickening footage of Bianchi’s high-speed impact into the counterweight of a large crane that was retrieving the stranded car of Adrian Sutil in turns 5 and 6, before Bianchi’s Marussia MR03 spun side-first and actually went underneath the counterweight, his state-of-the-art crash helmet protecting him from instant death…it’s honestly a miracle that Bianchi is still able to fight for his life right now.

The hours have passed with little word about any change in condition. A grim retelling of the events of ten months earlier. Michael Schumacher spent nearly six months unconscious after a skiing accident at much lower speeds. Months that began as weeks, weeks that began as days, that began as hours. Hours pass for Bianchi, and his chances of returning to the cockpit of a race car dwindle with every hour spent in critical but stable condition in a Japanese hospital. His chances of just being able to live a normal life begin to dwindle as well.

And as these hours pass, I begin to recall other moments. Not those moments of tragedy that I had recounted in the opening paragraphs of this essay. I recall the moments, the milestones of Bianchi’s career. A career that, hopefully, will not be truncated after Suzuka. A career that has seen Bianchi fight and scrap for his place in the Formula 1 paddock.

Five years ago, as I lamented in the disappointing comeback of Luca Badoer at Ferrari – I may have written a few words on it – and in the feature, I had mentioned briefly the commentary from then-BBC Sport commentator Martin Brundle, that the opportunity to drive for Ferrari in place of the injured Felipe Massa should have gone to Bianchi. At the time, I’d never even heard of Bianchi, who had just turned 20 that year. But perhaps in retrospect, Bianchi probably should have been appointed to Ferrari – at the very least, after Badoer’s turn at the wheel had ended. He was absolutely dominant in the Formula 3 Euro Series, the top Formula 3 championship at the time, the forerunner to the current European Formula 3 Championship. Nine wins, twelve podiums, six pole positions from twenty races. He dominated the 2009 campaign, finishing well ahead of two of his teammates, and later, two other rookies from the 2013 F1 season: Esteban Gutierrez, and Valtteri Bottas. Promotions from Formula 3 to Formula 1 weren’t uncommon back then. It was a promotion that was more than earned on merit, if such a promotion were to have been offered.

After this Sunday, I was reminded of something that NBC Sports F1 statistician Sean Kelly had tweeted just moments before the crash, a near-tragedy at the same track that involved the aforementioned Brundle. During the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix, Brundle – then a driver for McLaren – had spun off at the exact same corner as marshalls were trying to remove the stricken Footwork of Gianni Morbidelli, resulting in one marshall being struck and breaking his leg. As Brundle recounts, the idea that he could have died in the accident was a very real possibility. In the twenty years since Ayrton Senna‘s death at Imola, three track workers have been killed in separate incidents, the most recent being Mark Robinson at the Canadian Grand Prix just last year. Kelly had hoped, ultimately in futility, that something like the Brundle/Morbidelli incident would not be repeated.

Bianchi was undeterred by missing out on a potential F1 debut four years ahead of schedule, and would later spend the next three years in GP2 Series and Formula Renault 3.5. In two seasons of GP2, he was third in the championship both times. The four drivers that finished ahead of him in those two seasons already account for one win and fourteen podium finishes in Formula One – split between 2010 champion Pastor Maldonado, vice-champion Sergio Perez, and 2011 champion Romain Grosjean. Despite that, he was frustrated to win just once in GP2 in two seasons, and switched over to the latter series for 2012.

I can remember being so engrossed in what was such a captivating 2012 Formula One season, the fight between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso that went all twenty rounds, that I really had no time to pay attention to what Bianchi, now the test driver for Force India but still a top prospect of the newly-established Ferrari Driver Academy, was up to in a thrilling fight for the Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship. It began with a disqualification in the opening race, continued with three victories, five poles, and eight podium finishes, and then ended with a controversial collision in the final race that handed the title to Robin Frijns, with Bianchi just losing out on an elusive title at that tier of single-seater racing. Nearly two years later, Frijns is a forgotten champion that is surely desperate to undo the latest post-2012 career blunder of his and get out of his nominal testing role at Caterham F1 Team, while Bianchi has been projected as a future star in Formula One since his arrival in 2013.

In the winter months of that year, I can remember where I was, too. Force India now had a vacancy with Nico Hulkenberg moving to Sauber. After several positive tests and already having served with the team as a tester, it seemed a certainty that Bianchi would get the open seat next to Paul di Resta. Instead, Force India turned to the more experienced Adrian Sutil, back after a year of Formula One exile, but a driver with a much lower ceiling after over 100 Grand Prix starts without a podium finish. After losing out on the Ferrari drive in 2009, after the back injury in 2010 that could have easily hampered the rest of his season and affected him into and during 2011, after just barely losing out on being crowned champion amongst a stacked 2012 World Series by Renault class, this surely had to have been the death knell for Bianchi’s Formula One aspirations.

Bianchi was passed up for the same man who was the most visible witness to his accident this weekend. There’s a powerful photo on the internet of Sutil, now a driver with Sauber, standing in stunned disbelief, hands on hips, facing away from the camera, transfixed on the scene of medical crew doing everything in their power to extricate Bianchi from his car and keep him alive.

And then, a light appeared from out of the darkness of F1’s back-end of the grid. Marussia’s first choice to replace departing veteran Timo Glock, Brazilian GP2 vice-champion Luiz Razia, could not come up with sufficient funds to continue with the team. Bianchi, with the backing of his sponsors and Ferrari, was nominated in his place. On his first day with the team, he was already outpacing rookie teammate Max Chilton. As the 2013 season went on, Bianchi only recorded a best finish of 13th, in the controversial Malaysian Grand Prix. Yet in terms of intra-team statistics, Bianchi’s 2013 campaign had to have been the best rookie season without a point scored since Fernando Alonso’s 2001 rookie season with Minardi. He outqualified Chilton 17 times out of 18 with an average margin of nearly six-tenths of a second, finished ahead of him 14 times out of 16, he spent 786 laps ahead of his rookie teammate compared to 209 laps behind him. Bianchi became the new leader of Marussia, a centerpiece of the team’s renewed fight to finally advance up the pecking order. When some had seen his renewal at Marussia for 2014 as a disappointment, I saw it as a chance for the team to build itself around him and improve.

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Which brings me to what I was doing on May 25th of this year: Not watching the Monaco Grand Prix. I know, I’m sorry. I was at a convention in Atlanta. I was having a good time seeing friends, going to panels, connecting and focusing on some of my other passions outside of racing – like voice acting, and cosplaying, and video gaming. But damnit if I wasn’t determined to watch the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday morning. And to my shock and sadness, none of the lounges in any of the convention hotels had the race on the TV. So, I decided to not check Twitter that day. I had the race DVR’ed just in case something like this happened. By the time I got home I had already made the mistake of opening Twitter once and stumbling upon a tweet by my friend Alice Wakely, a frustrated commentary that turned into a major spoiler. Something about Jules Bianchi being penalized. “Penalized from where? A top-10 finish? No way,” I thought.

And sure enough, I watched the race on the DVR, followed Bianchi’s march to the front, then shared my friend’s anger and disbelief over his five-second penalty – internally I’d cussed up a storm when it happened – and as attrition mounted and late-race mistakes advanced him further up the running order, Bianchi still finished in 9th place with the time penalty. Finally. Marussia scored a point, and Bianchi had now etched his name into the championship standings. As the result was declared official, I was reminded of the joy I felt as a Minardi supporter when Mark Webber finished fifth on his F1 debut. I was reminded of the pandemonium that I seemed to experience on my own, jumping up and down and screaming in the grandstands of Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Zsolt Baumgartner took the team’s final points finish in a race with a full field in 2004. It was not only a due result for Marussia, it was an overdue result for one of the teams and drivers for one of F1’s newest batch of teams. HRT had folded already, and Caterham are now on the verge of that same fate. Sure, Toro Rosso operates in the same facilities in Faenza, Italy, but Marussia were now beginning to embody the spirit of the original Minardi team. Namely those early-2000s teams under Paul Stoddart, who had a supremely talented driver like Alonso or Webber spearheading the team, and a well-funded also-ran helping to keep the team solvent (just in case anyone still thinks that that is a brand new phenomenon to Formula One).

The year had gone on, and Bianchi had put in more and more giant-killing Q2 appearances for Marussia, continuing to lead the team by driving at the limits of his very limited machinery as he had done the year before. And with talks of Fernando Alonso potentially leaving, or Kimi Raikkonen potentially being told to head home after a dismal 2014 season, the speculation was ramping up. Would Bianchi finally inherit his destiny with Ferrari in 2015? Bianchi seemed unsure of his F1 future a month ago, he wasn’t sure if he or Marussia would even race next season. And I remember thinking, “Not a chance. He’s too good to be lost in the shuffle, and now people are aware of his talent.” If Marussia could no longer afford to keep him and Ferrari didn’t have a place for him, there were still other options. Sauber needed a driver like Bianchi to help rebuild their own struggling programme, the way that they needed Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld back in 2001.

Honestly though, I’d prefer Bianchi sitting out a year due to a lack of funding over what’s happened this weekend.

Instead, as the worry and panic set in at Suzuka, I remember what Will Buxton said in a recent article blasting troubled GP2 Series driver Sergio Canamasas, saying that he had been fortunate never to have called a race where a driver lost their life, but worrying that he may soon have to. As I heard his normally excitable voice begin to tremble in anguish as he relayed information from the pit lane in Suzuka to the NBC Sports announce team in the United States, I began to fear that his worst fear was about to be realized, and not for the reasons he’d feared a month ago.

I remembered that Marussia, who began life as Virgin Racing, had as their technical director a man named Nick Wirth, who twenty years ago started up a Formula One team called Simtek, and then three races into their maiden season, dealt with the unthinkable tragedy of losing rookie driver Roland Ratzenberger at the awful San Marino Grand Prix weekend of 1994. It was a blow from which the team probably never recovered as they folded just twelve months later.

And then I began to recall those other moments of tragedy in recent years. The feeling of sheer terror that I felt early that morning was the same feeling I felt on an October afternoon as I pretty much waited for IndyCar to announce Dan Wheldon’s death. It was the same feeling I felt as Michael Schumacher fell into a coma shortly after Christmas. I was too tired to cry my eyes out, all I could do, as I and so many fans, fellow drivers, commentators – virtually all of the motorsport community – could do in that instance, was hope beyond hope that Jules Bianchi would not be lost.

It had been twenty years, damnit. And that’s still twenty years too short between driver fatalities in one series for my liking. The prospect of just the racing career of a bright young man being prematurely snuffed out is a glum prospect in itself. For his life to end would be heart-shattering. The Bianchi family has already experienced enough tragedy in this sport – grandfather Mauro Bianchi, a three-time sports car champion, was nearly burned to death in a fiery accident. Great-uncle Lucien Bianchi, a former winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Ford in 1968, died testing at the Circuit de la Sarthe the next year, twenty years before Jules was born. Their collective loss as a family nearly parallels that of the Allison family in NASCAR, or the Rodriguez brothers of Mexico. It would be too much for the descendant of the Bianchi lineage to suffer at the cruel hand of fate.

What I’m hoping for the future is a full recovery. I want to recall where I was when Bianchi woke up. When he got back in a race car, maybe an F1 car. I want to recall where I was and what I was doing, and hopefully that would be watching his first race victory in Formula 1. And I am not alone in hoping for that.

Bianchi has already been the ultimate underdog all season. He must continue that fight for his life. And this victory would be even bigger than the two points picked up in Monaco, that’s for damn sure.

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