Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Simran Kanthi
“How? How, today, can we see a crane not even in the gravel, on the race track while we are still on the track? I don't understand that. Obviously, I got scared, obviously, if I would have lost the car in a similar way as Carlos [Sainz] lost it the lap before, it doesn't matter the speed, 100, 200 [kmph], I would have just died.”
Pierre Gasly was clearly simmering with fury as he spoke to Sky Sports after the eventual conclusion of the Japanese Grand Prix - a race which had seen him encounter a recovery vehicle on track when he was speeding to close up to the other cars following the deployment of a safety car after incidents on lap one.
It was a scarily familiar sight at Suzuka and a scarring one that brought back the wrath of horrible memories. Only eight years ago during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, Jules Bianchi tragically crashed into a tractor-type vehicle at the same track - an incident that proved fatal. Bianchi's father Philippe posted his furious reaction with an image of Gasly's onboard on Instagram with the caption: “No respect for the life of the driver, no respect for Jules' memory, incredible.”
The fact that such a vehicle was again allowed on the track with cars circulating at high speed in wet conditions and poor visibility in 2022, is a serious cause for concern indicating that lessons still haven't been completely learned.
Gasly was incensed upon returning to his AlphaTauri garage, telling the pit wall, “I could have killed myself.” His shock at the sight was also made evident on his team radio, where he said, exasperated, “What is this tractor? What is this tractor on track? This is unacceptable. What has happened? I can't believe this!”
There was a sense of fear shared by the drivers, with Lando Norris and Sergio Perez both promptly taking to social media to voice their discontent during the extended red flag period caused by adverse weather.
Footage of Gasly going past the recovery vehicle quickly gained traction on social media, and it eventually became a topic of significant discussion across the various broadcasters too. It is only right that an FIA investigation into the situation is officially set to ensue.
But, in the more immediate aftermath of the incident, the only comments made by the FIA were, “As conditions were deteriorating, the Red Flag was shown before Car 10 passed the location of the incident where it had been damaged the previous lap.”
It was an ambiguous statement, to say the least, and one that made little sense at the time and still is difficult to comprehend now. By the time Gasly passed the recovery vehicle, a red flag had been thrown. But footage would suggest that the red flag came in mere seconds before Gasly reached the scene of Carlos Sainz's accident, which had necessitated a crane to remove the stricken Ferrari car.
The FIA's defence of the recovery vehicle being deployed appeared to be that under red flag conditions, it was safe to do so. However, this argument was flawed by the fact that the recovery vehicle had already been in position when the rest of the field passed by behind the safety car before the red flag. It was immediately evident that the FIA had themselves in deep water.
And, even before acknowledging the incident, the FIA appeared more preoccupied with investigating Gasly hitting a stray Rolex advertising board displaced by Sainz’s contact with the barriers. It spoke volumes as to where their priorities lie.
An issue raised was that Gasly was potentially going too fast towards the scene of a crash under safety car conditions - he was trying to re-catch the field after losing his front wing as a consequence of the aforementioned contact with a stray advertising board.
After the race, Gasly claimed that he was a whole nine seconds under his target delta time, though he was penalised by the FIA for speeding under the red flag (which was an offence said to be committed after he passed the location of the recovery vehicle). The fact that he was only investigated for speeding after passing the accident scene was an indictment that he was adjudged to have done nothing unlawful that compounded the surprise of his encounter with the recovery vehicle.
Still, the 'blame game' that some entered was ludicrous. Even on Sky Sports' coverage, it was pointed out by Paul di Resta that he thought the main reason for Gasly's terror would have been the speed at which he approached the recovery vehicle. But Gasly driving excessively fast and a recovery vehicle being on the track while cars, somewhat spread out, were still circulating, were two separate incidents. Di Resta's comments were wholly disingenuous.
Quite rightly, speaking to Canal Plus, George Russell said, “It's not the Pierre Gasly incident, it's the incident of the FIA bringing the tractor on the track.”
Not in any scenario should a truck-like vehicle be allowed on the track with drivers unaware and still lapping at high speeds. On Sunday, the whole situation was made even worse by the fact that drivers had been complaining about low visibility due to the soaked track surface and rainfall. On Gasly's onboard camera, the poorly-lit recovery vehicle only came into view as he was about to pass it. It comes as no wonder that he was so startled and shaken up. Later, more footage emerged - this time from an onboard camera on Sainz's car. Adding to the unnerving presence of the recovery vehicle on the track, there was a marshal shown to be assisting the effort of craning the Ferrari away. While this was happening, Gasly's car was shown to be passing the scene.
In no way can the FIA come out of the predicament in a good way; they either didn't have control over their safety personnel, or they wrongly deployed safety personnel and recovery equipment prematurely. It showed disregard for safety or at least extreme irresponsibility.
The reality is that, as was tragically the case with Bianchi, somebody could have been killed, whether a driver by hitting the recovery vehicle or a marshal on the trackside. After all, as Gasly pointed out, only one lap earlier Sainz aquaplaned and lost control of his car at the exact same corner.
On this occasion, there was a fortune in that nothing by way of an accident came as a result of the recovery vehicle being on the track. But fortune is the watchword here. As Sebastian Vettel told Sky Sports post-race, “Today, we were just lucky.”
The FIA has a lot to answer for.