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By Zoran J. Segina
Last weekend, Jules Bianchi and Bradley Morales both suffered serious head injuries which are likely to change their lives forever.
Jules, a twenty-four-year-old from Nice, was involved in a severe car crash when he lost control of his race car in the rain soaked Dunlop Curve on lap 42 of the Japanese Grand Prix at the Suzuka racing circuit in Japan. He was traveling at more than 100 mph when he slid underneath the tractor involved in clearing another race accident that had happened two laps earlier in the same place.
At the time of the accident, Jules was a highly trained driver with years of racing experience and in perfect physical condition. He wore a helmet, a fireproof driving suit, and was strapped into his seat by a five-point racing harness. His car was an MR 03, a single seat open wheel Formula One chassis custom built to precise specifications by Marrusia racing team from Banbury, England. It’s powered by a Ferrari six-cylinder hybrid engine, with more than eight hundred horsepower, capable of developing speeds of over 200 miles per hour. Jules was surrounded by a protective racing cage made of the most advanced carbon fiber and titanium technology available. His fuel tank was wrapped into a crash-resistant and fireproof material and the MR 03 had built-in fire suppression technology.
Seconds after the accident Jules received medical help which probably saved his life. A dramatic moment when the top of his car got sheared off was documented on multiple cameras. Jules’ speed has been recorded down to a tenth of the mile and every aspect of the accident will be analyzed by millions of people for years to come. Two days after the crash, people have already started voicing their opinions that the Formula One racing should be made safer, despite the fact that driving through seventeen curves of the wet Suzuka Circuit for two hours at an average speed of 137 miles per hour is inherently dangerous. Jules knew of the danger, and despite all the precautions he took, made a mistake that nearly cost him his life on Sunday.
Bradley, a sixteen-year old from Laguna Niguel, was also involved in a severe accident when he lost control of his cousin’s 1995 BMW sedan on a dry and wide section of the southbound lanes of the Interstate 5 freeway, between Sand Canyon Avenue and Alton Parkway near the 133 toll road in Irvine, California. Unlike the racing accident, Bradley’s crash was not documented by anyone. At approximately 2:15 in the morning, the BMW veered to the right, went off the freeway, up an embankment, and eventually climbing atop a concrete retaining wall. One does not need be an accident reconstruction expert to realize that a 3,000 pound sedan does not climb a twenty-foot wall unless it travelled very fast.
At the time of the accident, Bradley was not a highly skilled driver. He did not even have a driver’s license. He took his friends for an evening at the Knott’s Scary Farm in Buena Park. At two in the morning, he was likely tired. Bradley wore ordinary clothes and did not wear a seat belt.
The car was a four-door sedan by BMW, an E36 body, nineteen years old, older than any of its occupants. At its prime, it was a powerful and well-built vehicle with either a four or six cylinder engine, and easily capable of being driven at over 100 mph. The BMW also had an advanced metal cage designed to protect its occupants in an accident, and seat belts, but only for four, not six. Like all 3-Series sedans, this particular model had been thoroughly tested by the factory, and has been used by tens of thousands of satisfied customers. But after nearly two decades of service, was it regularly inspected?
Bradley was not surrounded by a carbon fiber racing cage, but by five of his buddies from Laguna Hills High School and Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, packed tightly inside the car. Seconds after the accident there was no one around to offer any help. The force of the impact nearly sheared off the top of the car, and the scraping over the concrete likely cut the fuel lines. There was no fire suppression system aboard the BMW. Its fuel system, while state of the art for this model, was not built to Formula One specifications.
The BMW burst into flames. Even if the five youths inside remained uninjured by the smashed roof, the shock of the accident would have left them too dazed and disoriented to successfully escape the burning wreckage. Minutes passed before anybody could help them. Unfortunately, the carbon monoxide and the heated gases in a chemical fire offer but a precious few dozen seconds to survive. Bradley, not wearing a seat belt, was thrown out of the car. With a fractured skull, he had no way to help his friends inside the BMW. By the time firefighters extinguished the flames, two Jennys, as well as Matthew, Alex, and Brandon, were burned beyond recognition.
Unlike the Suzuka event, the I-5 crash will fade into oblivion for most people with the next few news cycles. It will not be analyzed by the millions. It will not be talked about for years. There are no multiple videos evidencing the accident. In fact, the California Highway Patrol has asked for witnesses to help them reconstruct what happened. Jules was a famous celebrity racer recognized by millions, on the cusp of the world fame. Bradley was an excited kid who tried to impress his friends.
What if all of us devoted more time and effort to analyze the accident on I-5 than to the one in Suzuka? The Friday night crash was far more serious and deadly. What happened to Jules was a result of confluence of events so unlikely that they may never happen again. Bradley taking his relative’s BMW on Friday, and packing six kids in a space designed for four had tragedy written all over it before he even started the engine.
Can a teenager be taught to drive fast? On that very same Friday, while Bradley was planning his outing to Buena Park, Max Verstappen, three days shy of his seventeenth birthday, drove a Torro Rosso Formula One car on the Suzuka circuit, and left ten of his fellow competitors behind. But Max, like Jules, underwent years of training, and did not invite his friends for a ride. Next year, the Dutchman will become a full-time Formula One driver for the Torro Rosso team—but he will have to be driven to the racetracks, because he’s too young for a driver’s license.
If only before that fateful Friday, somebody had talked to Bradley; talked to him about the dangers involved in driving (and why you probably shouldn’t drive without a license in the first place). Taught him that, even if he was tempted to take his cousin’s nineteen-year-old BMW, he shouldn’t have packed the car with two extra people. And if he could not resist their pleas and took them along, the driving characteristics of the overloaded BMW would dramatically change. And at two in the morning, after an evening of excitement, his reflexes would be impaired. And because two of the passengers would not have seat belts, he should be driving with extra care. If he had heeded any of these warnings five kids might be with their families today.
Let’s not waste any more ink and time on the risks of Formula One. How about focusing all of our efforts and media coverage to the safety of teenagers driving old borrowed cars on I-5? Or any other road? Because Jules and Max are driving the safest racing cars on the planet.
It wasn’t always like that. Between 1953 and 1982 Formula One claimed thirty-three racers, on average one fatality every year. It was considered as a part of the sport. But then those affected by attending too many of their friends’ funerals decided to do something about it.
With Jules recovering, one statistic still stands: Despite hundreds of races, and thousands of miles driven at seemingly insane speeds, the last two racers to die in Formula One cars was in May 1994—twenty years ago. A year before the BMW was made, and three years before Bradley was born. Can we work on creating the same statistic for all our teenagers and their friends attending Halloween parties? Or any other event.
As a show of our respect for the Melos. And the Sotelos. And the Morenos. And the Campos. And the Bahenas. And in memory of their wonderful and promising sons and daughters who tragically are no longer with us.