Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi is in critical condition after a crash at Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, and I’m wondering, again, why I’m a fan of auto racing.
According to media reports (here and here) Bianchi’s Marussia left the track at Turn 7, the same location that Sauber’s Adrian Sutil crashed a few laps earlier, with just nine laps to go in what would be a rain shortened race. Bianchi’s car collided with a tractor that crews were using to move Sutil’s car. Bianchi, 25, underwent surgery and was being moved to intensive care, where at the time of this writing, his condition was listed as critical.
At its best, racing for me has always been about watching drivers put their considerable skills to the test; about technologically advanced machines that might, just might, make their way to my driveway someday; about high drama and minute details that could spell the difference between winning and losing. And even from my earliest days of being a teenaged fan, and before I began writing about the sport, racing drivers seemed to be colourful characters. Not just jocks, but people who had real opinions and weren’t afraid to express them. People like Jacques Villeneuve, Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe to name just three.
Then, someone gets seriously hurt, as happened this weekend. Or worse, as happened this summer and has, unfortunately, happened many times before. People are mortal. Race car drivers are mortal. And sometimes bad things just happen to good people.
But there’s more to it than that. Incidents like the Bianchi crash raise more questions than answers and make me, and probably others, question why I watch auto racing and why I’m interested in it. Why do I give my tacit approval of the risks that racers take? Part of the answer is that I still believe that there should be a place for risky behaviour in the sanitized, controlled world we often find ourselves living in. Yet it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for a sport knowing that something terrible could happen at any moment. Still, for some, and I’ve counted myself among them, that’s precisely why they go to races or watch them on TV.
As Road & Track‘s Marshall Pruett points out auto racing is facing a battle for relevance, apart from any concerns around its inherent dangers. Racing fans are getting older and fewer younger people are interested in the sport; TV viewers are down. I suspect that when non-fans hear about another racer being injured they might wonder why the sport still exists at all.
Am I being too pessimistic? Maybe. But it’s better to consider questions like these instead of not acknowledging them at all. As fans, we owe at least that much to people like Jules Bianchi.