The sad story of Justin Wilson, and just how many more ‘1 in 1 million’ injuries will people tolerate?

In this information age in which we now live, news travels so quickly and travels to people who would never have normally received it as recently as ten years ago.

Public displays of grief were historically reserved for very, very few – Princess Diana is a good example.  It is now 20 years on and with the sheer level of information generally on offer to everyone basically meant the world woke up to the news regarding Indycar driver Justin Wilson as one.

Justin Wilson at 2007 San Jose Grand Prix: credit Allan Hack
Justin Wilson at 2007 San Jose Grand Prix: credit Allan Hack

The big difference is that Justin was a recognised name amongst the initiated, but a comparative stranger to the masses.

As the world absorbs the events surrounding a third single seater driver to die following serious head injuries in 2 years, what will this mean for the sport in general? Given its’ now truly universal exposure, can it continue on with open cockpits as it has since people started racing cars?

I recently wrote about the modern business world intruding onto the grand old traditions of the sport.  The modern world is now intruding in a different – and more important – way.

Whatever you may think of the now ubiquitous #hashtag effect, it is now a fact of life. I have seen opinion fall both ways over the #JB17 and #CiaoJules campaigns for young Frenchman Jules Bianchi. Whether it allows people to express their sadness, condolence and support better, or whether it cheapens it into a throwaway gesture – like an emotional fashion statement – has caused much, often heated, debate. However, what it undeniably showsis that interactive media is set to have a profound impact on how the sport behaves in relation to these events.

Since 1950 motorsport has had a handful of real watershed moments: The 1955 Le Mans disaster, where 83 spectators and a competitor died when a car crashed the engine entered the crowd enclosure; 1968 saw the crescendo of a dangerous decade with the death of Jim Clark; and in 1994 the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, along with a litany of other serious injuries shocked a world of 3.5 litre V10s with cut down cockpit sides into deep soul searching and a safety overhaul which evolved to several years in the making.

21 years on and the deaths of Maria Di Vilotta, Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson in a 2 year period (the last 2 closer than 2 months together) look set to make another.  Their demises were very different in their nature: Maria Di Vilotta went on to live a full life after her accident until a sudden trauma related to her injury claimed her life; Jules Bianchi (and more significantly his family) endured a protracted and very public ordeal between his accident at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014 and his death last month and Justin Wilson’s was as sudden as it was shocking.  However, what they all have in common is a significant head injury incurred whilst sat in an open cockpit car.

In the single working day since the news about the most recent incident broke, the debate over cockpit canopies has been dusted off for the first time since 2009 when the seemingly luckless Felipe Massa copped a heavy spring in the head in practice for the Hungarian GP. However, of course, his luck held when it mattered most and he made a full recovery. But Henry Surtees, son of World Champion John, had died the previous month after being hit on the head by a wheel in a Formula 2 race.

Felipe is starting to look like a worrying minority.

The FIA (including Charlie Whiting) have issued statements, those skilled with Computer Generated Imagery are already speculating on what a covered cockpit grand prix car could look like and images are all over the internet.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that there were only 3 real sports anymore; climbing, bull fighting and motor-racing. However, in the modern world this opinion is seen as irrelevant and outdated.

The internet age, the sheer profundity of information around and the ability of everyone to take their opinions out of the pub and into the wider public arena via social media is starting to make its presence felt in a significant way. This new democracy has the potential for public opinion to rock the historically insular motorsport community like never before.

Whether it will or not remains to be seen. But interesting times are ahead and it feels like enough will soon be declared to be enough.

Photograph: Allan Hack – https://www.flickr.com/photos/aehack/ – used under creative commons license.

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