Massa’s accident leads to F1 soul-searching

Felipe Massa remains in hospital today, nearly 24 hours after being hit on the head by a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s suspension during qualifying. Instead of taking his position on the grid, he’s in a medically induced coma in intensive care with family and friends by his bedside.

Of course it’s a serious injury and he’s not out of the woods yet, but everything’s looking cautiously optimistic. The AP newswire got hold of a hospital spokesman talking about Felipe suffering a ‘life-threatening injury’ which is true, but the way the reporters then spun it (variously reporting him to be in a “life-threatening condition” or having had “life-threatening surgery” which are both very different things) caused alarm to concerned fans around the world. Fortunately the key words from the medical update appear to be “serious and stable” instead which are altogether more reassuring.

The medically induced coma sounds frightening, but it really is standard procedure after a head injury and especially after any brain surgery, where there’s a risk of the brain swelling up during the recovery period. Since the brain is encased inside the hard skull, there’s no space for it to swell into and so such swelling can cause disastrous damage – hence the doctors induce a coma to allow the patient to rest and allow his body’s natural defences to deal with the injury in the calmest, least stressful way. It also stops the patient from feeling any pain of course. All around, it’s the best approach and completely standard.

The brain scans (one last night, one today) are to check the progress of the swelling and also to rule out any bleeding – which would require immediate surgery to deal with before it added to the pressure within the skull. The medical update this morning reports no complications – which means no bleeds and no increase in the rate of swelling of the brain – but the fact that they’re now looking at a 48 hour induced coma suggests a fair amount of existing swelling which the body will need time to cope with. Still, all things being equal and without further complications, it’s about as good as you could hope for after such an accident.

It’s hard to believe that Massa will be back in F1 for the next race despite the forthcoming 4 week summer hiatus. In fact, I’d be mildly surprised if he came back to racing this season, but F1 racers are hardy creatures who make phenomenal recoveries so you never know. The bigger concern is whether the accident leaves any lasting impairment that stops him racing for good – and the injury to his eye (yesterday’s surgery is reported in some sources as being to clear bone fragments from the eye socket) may be more relevant to his long term career than the skull fracture in this regard.

So after all this, just six days after the dreadful death of 18-year-old Henry Surtees in F2 from a similar accident involving debris hitting the driver’s helmet – should we be worried about the safety of the sport?

In one respect we can actually see F1’s incredible safety improvements proven by Massa’s accident: the fact is that we have here a driver who lost consciousness at over 150mph and went off without significant braking with an open stuck throttle in a straight line into a wall – and suffered no noteworthy injuries from it. Can you imagine any other scenario of such a violent accident where someone would escape so lightly? All the serious damage seems to have been done from the initial impact of the spring on Massa’s helmet, but after that all the F1 safety measures – the car’s design, the monocoque, the run-off areas, the HANS device, the medical recovery procedures – worked brilliantly.

So is there anything we can learn from and do about the cause of the accident, the intrusion of the debris into the cockpit in the first place? Should we have windscreens, or fully cover/enclose the cockpit in some way?

Lots of such improvements have already been introduced since the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994. Look back at the 70s and 80s and you’ll be shocked at how high up the drivers sit in the car. These days you can hardly see them, with the cockpit built up so high around them that the driver’s helmet appears a part of the car’s bodywork more than part of a person. The chances of anything precisely coming up and finding its way into the narrow space that’s left are minute.

But just because the odds are minute doesn’t mean it won’t happen – Massa’s accident proves that. The chances of winning the lottery are fourteen million to one and yet someone wins it most weekends. So is the risk too big? Can anything be done to minimise it still further? Or do we accept that racing around at speeds of nearly 200mph always carries some level of risk of some sort no matter what you do? The only way of being sure of completely eliminating the risk is to not race at all. But that shouldn’t allow us to be complacent, or stop us from using a horrible accident like Massa’s as a reality check to see if there isn’t more the sport can do.

No true F1 fan watches the sport to see people get killed. It’s not a blood sport like some Roman gladiatorial contest. But equally if F1 was safe and easy then anyone could do it, and we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the bravery and the talent of the drivers who genuinely put their lives on the line for their passion. Sometimes it’s important to be reminded of that so that we don’t take it (and them) for granted.

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