Archive for July, 2012

F1: Plane crashes are not caused by a single factor

July 16, 2012

Maria de Villota’s unfortunate accident while doing a straight line test for the Marussia team has led to a lot of speculation around its causes, with questions being raised around driver experience and the safety standards of such tests. This is a serious debate given that the incident, which involved hitting a stationary truck, resulted ultimately in the loss of Maria’s right eye, arguably the biggest injury sustained while driving a Formula 1 car since the death of Ayrton Senna on May 1st, 1994.

Two weeks after the incident, the Marussia team issued a statement in which car failure was ruled out as a contributing factor to the crash. This “it wasn’t me” attitude has not been extended to explaining the location of the truck and how it came in the way of a moving F1 car, although to be fair no one has really looked seriously at safety standards and potential hazards of straight line tests, which tend to be done in places like airfields instead of proper racing circuits.

The scenario of driver error remains a possibility, with the potential for some embarassing scenarios such as Maria being caught by the car’s anti-stall system due to her lack of experience with such devices and powerful single seaters in general.

It is still too early to establish the exact causes of this tragic accident although, just as with modern plane crashes, it’s unlikely that one single factor was at play. If in-season testing was better regulated (this doesn’t mean a return to unlimited testing), Formula 1 cars would only be driven in racing circuits meeting international safety standards. If the funding model for teams was fair, Marussia wouldn’t need to employ a driver purely due to financial reasons. And the handling of these mighty powerful machines should arguably be left to drivers with a superlicense that have shown to be competitive in GP2, FR3.5 and other similar championships. Maybe one of these factors is a non-issue in this instance but it’s very likely that most of them were part of the problem.

Safety in Formula 1 has been a trial and error process in the past, at times too reactive. On the other hand, the sport has shown an irritating propensity to investigate things that don’t have to be investigated. Sometimes freak accidents happen. But in this instance there are enough open questions to justify a proper look at the incident. And possibly to change a few things.