THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY AGE NEWSPAPER ON SEPTEMBER 27
Daniel Ricciardo’s mood was as dark as the sky that had spent the past 90 minutes dumping buckets of rain on the Suzuka circuit.
It was last year’s Japanese Formula One Grand Prix, and Ricciardo had slithered through the treacherous conditions in his underpowered Red Bull machine to find himself in sight of an unlikely podium finish. But nine laps from the end of the 53-lap race, the red flag was thrown, the race stopped, and Ricciardo was fourth. Frustrated by coming so close to a top-three result in such difficult conditions, his initial response was – atypically for Ricciardo – anger. But then the reason for the stoppage filtered through. There’d been an accident. A bad one. There was a serious head injury to a fellow competitor, Jules Bianchi. A replay of the incident was shown once, and no more. And Ricciardo’s mind started racing.
“Initially I was confused as there’d been a red flag, and I thought it was for weather rather than for any accident,” he tells The Sunday Age in an exclusive interview at Suzuka 12 months on.
“When the team told me there’d been an accident, that it was Jules and that it looked bad, I was confused because I didn’t see anything, which probably speaks for the visibility.
“I’d been fighting for a podium when the race stopped, so when I got out of the car, I was a bit pissed off. But there was a split-second change of mindset when I learned what had happened. Something like a podium just didn’t seem very important anymore.”
As information and misinformation swirled in the gale-force winds that pre-empted Typhoon Phanfone’s arrival onto the Japanese mainland that night, Ricciardo found himself – unusually so soon after a race – alone.
“I got changed out of my race suit and had some time to myself, and I had all these questions,” he remembers.
“You’re scared to ask too much as you don’t want to hear something you don’t want to hear, but you still want to know what the situation is. When I heard that he was unconscious and things didn’t look too good, that was when it hit home that it wasn’t just a normal racing incident.”
It was anything but. Formula One, through advances in safety, circuits with better run-off areas and more sophisticated medical facilities, and a healthy dose of sheer good fortune, hadn’t endured a driver fatality since Ayrton Senna perished at the San Marino Grand Prix two decades earlier. But luck conspired against Bianchi.
The Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil had crashed at Suzuka’s seventh turn, and trackside marshals and a crane were brought inside the barriers to retrieve the car. But a lap later, Bianchi aquaplaned off the circuit at the same corner at over 210km/h, and as the marshals scattered, his Marussia car submarined under the crane, his head taking the impact.
Bianchi spent seven weeks in a nearby hospital at Yokkaichi in an induced coma with a diffuse axonal brain injury before being transferred to his hometown of Nice in France. But he never regained consciousness, his nine-month battle for survival ending on July 17 this year.
Driver deaths were an inevitable part of F1 in its earliest days from 1950, but today’s generation of pilots were largely immune to loss. There had been enormous accidents with miniscule consequences – Mark Webber ended up with little more than a sore ankle after a terrifying backflip in 2010 in Valencia that would have likely been a fatal accident even 10 years previously – but the loss of drivers at the wheel seemed to be part of the past.
It took a freak set of circumstances to drag death back into F1’s present, but it didn’t make Bianchi’s loss easier to stomach. The Frenchman was a Ferrari Academy driver, on loan to the backmarker Marussia team, but in line to drive for the Prancing Horse in years to come. A bright future for a popular driver was extinguished in a millisecond.
Ricciardo was devastated. When he first moved to Europe at the age of 17 to pursue his motorsport dreams, Bianchi was one of the first young drivers he came across. They trained at renowned driver fitness facility Formula Medicine in Viareggio in Italy together, and hit it off immediately.
“We were the same age, and we got on really well from the start. We trained pretty hard, but we also liked to indulge afterwards with some good Italian food,” Ricciardo remembers.
“I hadn’t been in Europe long and didn’t know too many people, and he was really good to me. He was racing the French Formula Renault Championship and I was in the Italian championship, so we exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch.”
As they successfully made their way through the various junior formulas, Ricciardo with Red Bull backing, Bianchi tethered to Ferrari, Formula One seemed a certainty. Ricciardo got there first, cutting his teeth with the backmarker Hispania team from 2011, while Bianchi stepped out for his first race in Australia with Marussia in 2013. They stayed tight, shared laughs, and always got along. And then came Suzuka last October.
Ricciardo admits now that he didn’t know how to react when Bianchi was repatriated to Nice last November. For the past two years, Ricciardo has lived in Monaco, just half an hour away. Once he waited for the initial media circus surrounding Bianchi’s return to France to subside, Ricciardo wanted to go to his friend’s bedside. But every time he made plans to visit, something inside of him, something he couldn’t put his finger on, stopped him.
He’d learn some new information about Bianchi’s health, and talk to fellow F1 driver Felipe Massa, who lives in the same Monaco apartment building and was close to the Bianchi family. He kept putting it off. After July 17, it was too late.
Ricciardo stops short of using the word ‘regret’ about not going to Nice, but still struggles to articulate his feelings two months on.
“I thought about it a lot, and a big part of me wanted to see him,” he eventually says.
“But every time I thought about going to visit, I was in two minds. I knew it was going to make me upset and I was thinking about his family as well, and didn’t want to impose on them. They’d already been through so much. I just didn’t know what to do in that situation as it was something I’d never been through. There’s no right or wrong answer, and there’s no way to know whether I did the right or wrong thing by not going. I still don’t know now. I think I’ll never know.”
Ricciardo and a smattering of his fellow drivers attended Bianchi’s funeral four days later, and then fronted up for the Hungarian Grand Prix that weekend, pausing for a poignant minute’s silence before the race where they placed Bianchi’s racing helmet on the grid and surrounded it with their own. Those who knew him best were distraught. Massa, in tears, lined up in the wrong grid slot for the race and tumbled from a top-10 start to 12th place, his mind elsewhere.
“If you’re talking about what the best way is to prepare for a race, it was pretty horrendous, but we all felt as drivers that it was the right thing to do,” Ricciardo says.
“The whole week was a massive emotional rollercoaster – the race was Sunday and the funeral was the Tuesday – so your emotions were spent. We’d already got a lot of emotion out that week, so in a way the race was a chance to focus on something else and release the stress that had built up.”
Bianchi was known as a hard-charging driver – he’d scored the only points for the Marussia team in its brief history with a series of robust overtaking manoeuvres in Monaco last May en route to finishing ninth – and Ricciardo was determined to honour his friend’s legacy in a way Bianchi would have approved.
Red Bull has laboured through a largely anonymous 2015 season, its lacklustre Renault engine seeing it regularly trounced by its Mercedes and Ferrari-powered rivals, but the tight and twisty Hungaroring circuit meant its comparative lack of straight-line speed wasn’t as much of a disadvantage. But Ricciardo’s superb third-place finish was partly down to the track layout, and mostly earned by turning his grief into laser-like focus. It was his first podium finish of the year, and his emotions were plain to see, a hastily-scribbled message to Bianchi on his cap visible as he hoisted his trophy skywards, his glassy eyes barely holding a bursting dam of tears.
“The race in the end for me felt like a release, and I was aware of that during it,” he says
“It was hard to say how it was different, but it just felt different to any other race I’d done.
“In the last 18 months or so, I’ve ramped up my racing intensity and aggression anyway, but there was something that little bit extra that day that I wanted to really go for it as a way of paying my respects to Jules and not having any regrets. A lot goes through your mind, and I vowed that whenever I got in the car from then on, I’d put it all on the line and do it justice, because I had that choice to do that. He didn’t.”
At Suzuka a year on, Ricciardo admits Bianchi’s death has altered his mindset about life, not just sport.
“Losing Jules has given me some thoughts about how we live our lives, how you want to live your life from here,” he says.
“If you want to do something, you do it now, you don’t wait for things. You can’t.
“When things like this happen, they change your perspective. You ask yourself a lot of questions in the quiet moments about what you do, but I’ve never doubted the sport itself or whether I still want to do this. It’s something I’m still 100 per cent committed to. Maybe even more than ever.”
Ricciardo: Closed cockpits sooner rather than later
Since its inception, Formula One cars have been characterised by their open cockpits, but Daniel Ricciardo believes that could soon change.
A year after Jules Bianchi’s tragic accident at Suzuka, and just weeks after former F1 driver and IndyCar racer Justin Wilson was killed after being struck in the head by debris from a rival’s crashed car in the United States, the subject of closed cockpits has gained renewed traction amongst F1 drivers, and Ricciardo believes changes will be made while he’s still driving in the sport.
“We’ve talked about it in the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers’ Association) meetings, and it’s been an ongoing discussion for over a year, actually before Jules’ death,” he says.
“It has to be a driver-driven thing. If it’s safer to put a roof over our head, then why don’t we do it? I love some of the risks of this sport – the street circuits, the fact you can put it in the wall if you get it wrong. But we’re not any less for having a roof over our heads. It doesn’t change the speed of the car, and if we crash, the impact is still the same. If it prevents anything else happening, then for me it’s a no-brainer. Why wait for another (incident) if there’s something we can do?”
Former F1 racer David Coulthard, who took the place of Ayrton Senna at Williams after the Brazilian’s fatal accident in 1994, says the sport has to move with the times.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see anyone get injured, but crashes are part of the visual attraction of the sport in the same way a Hollywood action movie without explosions and car chases isn’t going to work,” Coulthard says.
“But we have to live for our time. You can never walk away from something that could be avoided in the future by not taking an action. It would be a shame if we continued to allow the possibility for the ‘freak’ accident when it happens more than once, as we’ve seen with Jules, as we’ve seen with Justin.
“To knowingly not change something when we could would seem to me to be neglecting the opportunity to protect and to save lives. I would embrace anything that makes it safer.”