Features - Straight Talk
JULY 31, 2015
Too much for the boys!
BY LUIS VASCONCELOS
Jules Bianchi was in everyone's mind when we landed in Budapest, this time last week, and even before the drivers sat in their cars for the first time, they were bombarded with questions about the late Frenchman. A good number of them had attended Jules' funeral on Tuesday in Nice, France, before spending one day home and going off to Hungary and for some, as Nico Hulkenberg told us, this was the first funeral they had attended - not an easy experience for anyone, let alone when you're there to say goodbye to someone so young, with whom you shared a passion and, in a good number of cases, quite a few intense moments on and off the track.
Even cool and collected drivers like Valtteri Bottas admitted, "it was tough to be there, with Jules' family, and it's tough to be answering all these questions, for he was my team mate in Formula Three, so I knew him relatively well." Then, the young Finn added: "The only times I could think of something else was when I had the helmet on and that's why I preferred to be in the car even more than usual during the weekend."
While for the veterans of the paddock the moment was tough but past experiences had hardened us all for situations like this, as we could remember seasons where Formula One would lose one or two drivers on a regular basis, for this generation of Grand Prix drivers this was the first time they lost one of their own at a race they were taking part in. As, thankfully, Formula One has become an amazingly safe sport, we hadn't had any fatalities in Grand Prix racing for over 21 years, but that made Bianchi's accident and his death an even bigger shock for this generation of drivers.
Once practice started, though, the drivers were able to focus on what they were in Hungary for, setting up their cars and trying to drive them as fast as possible, occasionally still having to deal with post-practice questions about Bianchi but, in general, being able to focus on the job at hand.
Then came Sunday and the FIA's decision to hold a one minute silence as a tribute to Jules Bianchi just 15 minutes before the start of the race. That, in itself, would already add a tremendous emotional charge to the drivers at a time they would need to be focusing on what they had to do just a few minutes later, but, trying to do the best to support them, the FIA also invited Bianchi's family to come to Budapest and join the drivers in a circle at the front of the grid, with the 20 helmets gathered at the centre of that circle. And that was the extra touch that made the situation way too heavy for some of the youngsters to handle, as some were clearly too upset to go racing - a situation made even more emotional by the fact the Hungarian National Anthem was played immediately after and being a beautiful but quite melancholic song it added to the drivers' emotions, leaving them with just over ten minutes to put it all behind their backs, walk back to their cars, put their helmets on, get strapped in the cockpits, make the final checks with their engineers and drive off the pre-grid.
On Thursday afternoon a group of journalists got together and wondered how would these 20 drivers react to what they were living through for the first time, once they went racing. The added emotional strain that was forced upon them with the ceremony held in memory of Jules Bianchi was too much for some of them to handle, so we had an aborted start because Massa couldn't even find his place on the grid, terrible starts by a few drivers that had bad reaction time as the red lights went off, a larger number than incidents than we'd seen in any other race this year, penalties for the most absurd reasons - speeding in the pits while following the Safety Car, overtaking before the Safety Car line, etc. - and if that also contributed to some great racing as we had the faster cars coming through the field on a few occasions, it also showed some drivers were not fully focused on what they were doing. Few admitted to it, obviously, as that would be, from their point of view, admitting to a weakness, but some Team Principals and engineers pointed out their drivers were not fully focused, at least at the start of the race.
There's no doubt Formula One should have paid a tribute to Jules Bianchi and should continue doing whatever it can to help the Frenchman's family at this terrible time for them. But the FIA should have found a way to do that without putting the 20 Grand Prix drivers under such emotional stress just before they went racing, and it was more by luck than judgement than none of the many incidents we had during the Hungarian Grand Prix resulted in no more than damaged carbon fibre and a bit of pride...