“We didn’t know any better in the old days,” the great Denny Hulme once told me. “Now we’ve got the most incredibly hygenic circuits you have ever seen. Some people criticise them. They say it’s terribly boring motor racing. Yes, compared to the old Nürburgring it is… but it’s better than going to a funeral every Tuesday morning.”
Today in Nice the world said farewell to Jules Bianchi. He had a short and sadly tragic life. His is a story of potential that will never be fulfilled; of talent that will never be rewarded; and yet, lest we forget, it is a story that has happened many times in the history of the sport. In my generation I think particularly of the young Stefan Bellof, but there have been dozens of other young men who rolled the dice and lost.
Death in sport is rather a new concept for a lot of people in the F1 paddock and one gets the feeling that many don’t quite know how to handle it. The older folks have seen it before, not just at Imola in 1994, but at many race meetings, far and wide. By the time I was Bianchi’s age I had seen four or five deaths at races. It happened more back then, but I am not old enough to have lived through the really bad years as those in their 60s and 70s today had to do.
And yet, let us keep things in perspective. The trials of previous generations who lived through wars remind one that we are fortunate in the modern age. The school I went to had World War I memorial boards. One day I stopped and counted the names.There were 600 of them and it struck me that this was the same number as my entire generation in the school that day. That shook me. We like to think that those who die young do not die in vain, that the world learns from such terrible waste. As Laurence Binyon famously wrote of his generation: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them”, but you cannot help but wonder.
In the end, there is no point in trying to find reason in all of this, nor even to take comfort from flowery words and phrases. The only value is that we learn from what happened and try to makes sure that it does not happen again.
Assuredly, at some point or other, circumstances in F1 will come together to kill again. We never know when that might be. You cannot make motor racing 100 percent safe. What has been achieved in F1 in the last 30 years is extraordinary, but we must never forget that every time a driver steps into the cockpit of a racing car, they are at risk. They accept that and, if not, they walk away. They have the choice. Big accidents still happen – and always will – but today the consequences are different. The drivers are unhurt after an accident that would have killed them 40 years ago.
That has happened because of advancing technology and a willingness to learn and do things differently.
In medieval times, people felt helpless in the face of the harshness of life and they sought solace in the romantic ideals of chivalry. They wanted to believe in pure and untainted actions and be inspired by them, even if they knew deep down that the world was a cynical and nasty place. At times like this, I like to hope that this lesson will be learned by the brilliant, positive and passionate people of the Formula 1 world. I hope that adversity will teach them to race like the heroes that they are, not like ruthless, money-grabbing rats, willing to do anything to get to the top. And when I think of this, I remember an evening in Brazil in 2008 when Lewis Hamilton beat Felipe Massa to the World Championship. I was proud of the sport that day, proud of the two men.
So let us move on in a positive way, remembering the shooting star that was Bianchi, and trying always to learn, to inspire and to do things in the right way.