MONACO, France May 27 – Formula One is heading out of the sunny glitz of Monaco and into the shadows of a courtroom following the news on Thursday that the family of Jules Bianchi are taking legal action over the death of the driver after injuries he sustained in the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014.
Bianchi, who was 25, died in hospital in Nice on 17 July 2015, nine months after sustaining severe head injuries at Suzuka. But this is the first time the sport has been taken to court in such circumstances.
The eventful morning practice session was under way around the tight streets of Monaco when it was revealed that Bianchi’s family were taking legal action against the sport’s governing body, the FIA, his former Marussia team and Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Group.
“We seek justice for Jules, and want to establish the truth about the decisions that led to our son’s crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014,” his father Philippe said.
“As a family, we have so many unanswered questions and feel that Jules’ accident and death could have been avoided if a series of mistakes had not been made.”
Bianchi’s car struck a recovery vehicle that was preparing to tow away Adrian Sutil’s Sauber, which had come off earlier. The recovery vehicle, it may be claimed, represented a danger to other cars.
But at Monaco former drivers feel the Bianchi family may be misguided. The three times world champion Sir Jackie Stewart, the sport’s leading campaigner for greater safety, said: “It is very sad for his family – and one can only feel great sympathy for them. But I do not think taking legal action is the right path to go down. This can only extend their grief. It will not make the pain go away.”
“Looking at the incident, the most important consideration is that double yellow flags were being waved. That means, under the regulations, the driver must slow down to such a speed that he can stop immediately should that be necessary. But he was travelling very much faster than that, and that is what caused him to go off the road.”
Stewart added: “All drivers know there are risks. This is not ping-pong. Motor racing is dangerous. There is always the chance of a freak accident, and that has to be accepted.”
The Northern Irishman John Watson, five times a grand prix winner, said: “I would be interested to know what they hope to achieve by doing this. There are problems on racetracks from time to time and you are required to slow down to go through that zone at a reduced speed.
“There is always an inherent risk, which you’ve got to accept. There were extenuating circumstances. Maybe we should move on. The guy lost his life. Sad, awful. But I don’t think this serves any purpose, frankly.”
There was a “no comment” from the FIA press spokesman. Jean Todt, the FIA president, is expected to be trackside this weekend. Bianchi was managed by Todt’s son, Nicholas.
Graeme Lowdon, the president and sporting director of the former Marussia team, that went into administration at the end of 2014, said: “I have always been, and always will be, fully supportive of Jules’ family.” Both he and John Booth, the former Marussia team principal, have been in contact with the Bianchis on a number of occasions since the accident and since his death.
At an FIA press conference on Thursday afternoon some of the sport’s leading players, Paddy Lowe (Mercedes), Monisha Kaltenborn (Sauber) and Eric Boullier (McLaren) were asked about the court action, but declined to comment.
In the paddock, a place well used to litigation, there was an absence of surprise. One senior figure, who did not want to be named, said: “I expect the family will go after everyone. But I don’t think they will get very far. The bottom line is that he was going too fast and lost control, even though yellow flags were being waved.”
When Mark Donohue, the American racing driver, was killed during practice before the 1975 Australian Grand Prix, his heirs sued the tyre makers Goodyear and the carmakers Penske. It took a decade but an out-of-court settlement was reached in the appeal of a $9.6million verdict.
That was in the killing fields of 1970s F1. The sport became a great deal safer and Bianchi was the first driver to be killed on track since Ayrton Senna in 1994. Following Suzuka, an FIA accident panel produced a 396-page report and further safety measure were introduced.
On Thursday Renault’s Jolyon Palmer and Williams’ Felipe Massa crashed in the morning session and in the afternoon Sebastian Vettel damaged the rear wing of his Ferrari when he hit a barrier; Manor’s Rio Haryanto also crashed. There was another incident in the morning when Nico Rosberg clipped a drain cover, which then smashed into Jenson Button’s front right wing, also puncturing the tyre.
The first session was won by Hamilton, followed by Rosberg. But there was a surprise in the afternoon when Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was fastest, followed by the Mercedes pair.