Chinese Grand Prix: why safety is crucial in Formula One

FIA deputy medical delegate Dr Ian Roberts and FIA medical delegate Alain Chantegret with the F1 medical car

The delighted Shanghai crowd cheered wildly for Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton as he crossed the line just six seconds ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win a Chinese Grand Prix of plentiful overtaking and strategic tension.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Inclement weather — low-lying cloud mingling with Shanghai smog — forced the suspension of all but around 20 minutes of Friday’s three hours of practice because visibility was too poor at the nearest F1-approved hospital for the medical helicopter to land.

With Sunday’s forecast predicting similar conditions, the race found itself in jeopardy — but, as FIA deputy medical delegate Dr Ian Roberts explained to The Phuket News, guarding against the chance of injury must be the sport’s first priority.

“I would say over all of this, whatever decisions are made, the primary concern is the health and safety of the driver,” he said. “Yes, it’s very difficult sometimes to decide, but the primary thing is always the driver.

“We know it disappoints people that there’s no session, but however unusual a major crash may be, there is always that probability, and we wish to cover all of that.”

A medical response to a crash comprises three stages: the first is reaching the scene of the accident on the track, the second is returning the affected driver to the medical centre, and the third is evacuating him to a predetermined hospital in the case of a serious injury.

“When we’ve made that initial assessment [of seriousness], we get to the medical centre,” Dr Roberts said.

“If it’s not serious, then fine, the driver is cleared to return; if it’s very serious, there’s an ongoing resuscitation. Even before we’re there there’ll be a decision as to the mode of transport to take the driver to the local hospital. All of this is predetermined.”

The predetermined part proved the rub on Friday, with the Huashan Hospital, the closest with the requisite neurosurgical facilities, inaccessible by helicopter and too far away to satisfy regulations that would enable access by ambulance.

Given the advanced state of Formula One’s modern medical response and the rarity of serious injury, some punters called for the race to be run regardless — but this could never have been an option in the search for a solution.

“It looks like a small hospital; it’s not a small hospital,” Dr Roberts said of the trackside medical facilities. “There are limitations to what can be done, but we do the essential and move out.

“We insist on X-ray and ultrasound so that assessments can be made and if necessary, an intervention can be carried out. They’re the lifesaving and life-preserving techniques.

“[But] there’s always a danger of trying to do too much, and that’s not sensible.”

Dr Roberts and the FIA’s permanent medical delegate, Dr Alain Chantegret, soon found resolution by arranging for neurosurgical staff from the Huashan Hospital to be on standby at a closer medical facility just a 10-minute drive from the circuit, thereby satisfying the regulations and allowing the grand prix to go ahead.

“Circuits need to occupy a specific space in certain areas, and you won’t always have a hospital nearby,” Dr Roberts concluded. “There has to be a balance of risk, there has to be a balance of acceptability.”

That constant assessment of risk is the key function of Dr Roberts and Dr Chantegret, and though the pair rarely earn a mention when things are running smoothly, it’s their attentiveness that enables Formula One to continue racing even in unusual circumstances like those that interrupted Chinese Grand Prix weekend.

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