Sunday in Suzuka was one of those days you always have in the back of your mind as a motor racing journalist. The danger, the risk… it’s why the thrill is so high. It’s why the rewards are so great. It’s why the fear is so real.
You are always aware that something can go wrong. You just have to live in the hope that it doesn’t.
But when it does, and it will, there is a responsibility incumbent upon those with the privilege and distinction of being granted access to the paddock, and credentials to report on such a situation, to do so carefully and diligently. For the most part, it was an honour to class myself an F1 journalist alongside my colleagues on Sunday. For the most part.
The circumstances surrounding Jules Bianchi’s accident were confusing on the ground. We’d seen Adrian Sutil’s accident and knew that he was out of the car and safe. But then the safety and medical cars both emerged and concern began to creep in. It was the announce crew on NBCSN who, in my immediate arena, picked it up first, suggesting that it appeared something was underneath the crane carrying Sutil’s stricken Sauber. At first I worried we had a repeat of Canada 2013 on our hands.
But then came the realisation. Bianchi’s timing data showed he had stopped in the same sector as Sutil. The glimpses of red and black livery against the crane, the frantic reaction of the marshals and the refusal of the cameras to zoom in tight on the scene started to give clarity to suggestion.
I moved towards the Marussia hospitality unit, from whence worried faces emerged, just as the images of the ashen faces of their colleagues on the pitwall were broadcast to a global audience. But nobody could or would tell us anything.
The combination of these factors allows you the information you require. My producer, Jason, and I discussed it and drew the only conclusion we could at this point. It was something gravely serious.
You speak to who you can. You find your trusted sources. You find someone who you know, knows. But in a situation like this, until it is official you cannot state the things you know to be true, as fact.
The words you use when reporting must be chosen carefully. “I understand,” “I believe,” “it appears.” In truth, you can only really deal in fact as it has been officially transmitted through official channels. The rest is supposition and in cases like this, immensely dangerous.
And so the pieces of the puzzle are built, and the full picture starts to emerge.
I have no idea how other broadcasters handled the situation, but I was incredibly proud of the way NBCSN reacted on Sunday. In the post-race interview pen, which had been moved inside the FIA hospitality unit on account of the weather, I was also tremendously proud of my fellow TV crews from around the world. Every now and then, in search of the all important quotes, it can become a brawl. Elbows out, animal instincts setting in, only the need to be first with the words that will form the headlines the next day.
But pretty much all of those inside that media pen have been around a while. We all knew what we were looking at. Despite its smaller than usual nature, I’ve never seen an interview pen conducted with more respect. There was no jostling. Room was made for everyone. There was no crowding. Questions to drivers were kept to a minimum. Speculation had no place. There were no inappropriate enquiries. Certainly, that was true of the group in which I placed myself.
Perhaps it is because we look these guys in the eye everyday. We have one on one access to each of them four times a weekend. With some of them, you could see it in their eyes. You could hear it in their voices. Regardless of professionalism, regardless of consideration for the incident, as a compassionate human being you should be able to recognise a person’s emotions and act accordingly. I hope we did so.
The FIA’s Head of Communications and F1 Media Delegate Matteo Bonciani entered the room and gave us a short statement. We repeated it on-air verbatim.
Jules Bianchi had been taken, unconscious, to the local Mie University Hospital by ambulance, as the weather conditions were considered too poor for the helicopter to take off.
In situations such as this where information is so limited, it is critical that whatever official information is given is completely accurate. In this case there were two small but, given the importance placed on every word when so few have been given, crucial inaccuracies.
The first was the hospital itself, as Bianchi had in fact been taken to Mie General Hospital / Medical Centre in Yokkaichi. The second, and of vital importance, was the reason for the use of the ambulance. As Bonciani gave the statement, the medical helicopter was taking off behind him, thus immediately calling into question the very statement given.
In actual fact the ambulance, we now understand, had been used for medical reasons rather than for any meteorological factor. Had this one simple fact been corrected immediately, a lot of the confusion and fallout post race would have been eliminated. The press who chose to dwell on the use or otherwise of the helicopter might instead have been lauding the fact that the time between the point of impact and Bianchi’s admission to hospital was, I believe, less than 45 minutes.
As we went off air, the paddock had one of the strangest vibes I’ve ever experienced. The pack-up was in full swing as the expectation that the typhoon would hit remained in clear focus. With no news on the condition of their beloved Jules, the Marussia boys walked around trance-like. TV crews tried to make sense of the situation. Interviews were conducted.
There was no hysteria. Just shock. And hugs.
I walked around the paddock, bumping into people who seemed to just want to talk. Drivers, ex and current. Officials. Team members. Everyone was numb and yet needed to talk, compartmentalising the many aspects, trying to make sense of it all. Eventually we went back to the media centre. What more could we do? Some, at the behest of their editors, had the unenviable task of acting as ambulance chasers and were already en-route to Yokkaichi to sit and wait for news outside the hospital. But we sat tight and waited at the track.
Eventually the news came in the form of a statement, carefully worded by Bonciani and Marussia’s Head of Communications Tracy Novak who stood, staring straight ahead, her mind no doubt cast back to Duxford and poor Maria. It was read out once for print media and once for television crews. It stated Bianchi had suffered a serious head injury and was undergoing surgery before he would be moved to intensive care. All further updates would come from the team.
But already voices were being raised. A small group at the back of the media centre rounded on Bonciani demanding Race Director Charlie Whiting give a press conference. There were questions that needed answering, they jabbed. There was responsibility to be apportioned. And when would they be allowed to see the incident? When would a replay be shown? It was vital that they see it. Their haughty tones wafted down from their ivory towers, built upon the sandy pillars of arrogance and inexperience. Care and compassion in the search of the truth had been replaced for the vocal, selfish few with sensationalism and ego.
Those of us who have been in this game for more than two minutes are only too aware of the reason replays are not shown of incidents such as this. More pressingly, at this juncture, we are also only too aware that the issue of responsibility comes later. Much later. After detailed analysis. This was the wrong time to be picking this particular fight. And all for a small number of outlets who, given the time difference, weren’t even on deadline.
So why the urgency? Why the need for answers?
To assuage the thirst to be first. To please their twitter followers. To get that scoop on social media and claim the plaudits for the counting seconds until the next shred of information is released. It’s something of which I sit here and admit with deep embarrassment I have been guilty myself in the past. Sometimes, we just need to take a step back.
Sunday was a lesson in the responsibility inherent in being one of the lucky few to be granted a credential to report on this sport. It is a privilege, not a right. And the onus should be on the search of truth. Because, particularly in moments such as we experienced on Sunday, and despite living in a modern world where social media has led to an overwhelming clamour for news NOW… being right is more important than being first.
Could the media management have been handled better? Of course. And lessons will have been learned. But when you are a team of one man, responsible for communicating to print, web, TV and radio, perhaps the FIA should permit their Head of Communications a larger team.
With time, the clamour for answers over the incident itself will become more appropriate than it was on Sunday night. Indeed, it is understood that Charlie Whiting has been tasked to conduct a thorough investigation by FIA President Jean Todt. We must allow him to do his work.
For the here and now, because I know I will be asked, I must say I side with Lauda and Mosley in their belief that procedures were followed correctly. But as Jacques Villeneuve argued, that does not mean that those procedures do not need to be looked into and that the sport must make itself open and amenable to change. Full course yellows, safety cars for every incident… there is now a very clear argument for this to become the norm, as it is in many other forms of motorsport. Do I think a canopy would have helped? No I do not. In fact, in this instance, and from what I have seen and been told, it might even have hindered Bianchi’s extraction.
These arguments will come and they will be heard… in time.
Answers are being sought and answers will be given.
But right now, the only people with any right to ask for them are the family of Jules Bianchi.