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Anthony Rowlinson

A bitter loss, so keenly felt

Formula 1 arrived in Budapest teary-eyed, emotional, raw. The week before the race, many drivers and other members of the F1 fraternity had attended the funeral of Jules Bianchi in Nice. Several acted as pall-bearers. And if the solemn scenes on the Côte d’Azur were not on the scale of mass public lamentation witnessed after the death of Ayrton Senna, the sport’s last racing-related driver fatality in 1994, still there was a sharp pang of loss within the F1 community at Jules’ passing.

Seeing pictures of Bianchi’s grief-stricken father, Philippe, finally having to acknowledge the loss of a beloved son after nine months of hoping he might miraculously emerge from his coma, was a reminder of the terrible price motorsport can exact on those unlucky enough to experience its darkest side.

Thankfully, those days are far more infrequent now and immediate changes to some of F1’s race procedures in the wake of Bianchi’s accident at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, such as the introduction of the Virtual Safety Car, have helped make it still less hazardous. But the risk of death, to put it bluntly, endures, and that elemental fear factor remains one of the magnetic draws of motor racing for those bold enough to participate.

This doesn’t mean that F1 drivers (or any others racing in myriad categories worldwide) are cavalier thrill-seekers, careless of their lives, ignorant of their mortality. To a man, they welcome safety improvements such as the helmet visor strip introduced following Felipe Massa’s freak accident at the Hungaroring in 2009; or circuit modifications such as those made to the heavily revised Mexican GP track (see page 72), that minimise the chances of an accident ever happening.

At the very same moment, however, every racing driver on earth feels a sense of heightened existence from guiding a fast machine to its limit: all will tell you, it’s a thrill like no other. Test pilots, BASE jumpers, big-wave riders, freeclimbers... they’re all addicted to the adrenaline rush of performing at the very edge of possibility. Gilles Villeneuve would talk about “squeezing the fear” when he raced, in a much more perilous F1 era; James Hunt would routinely vomit from nerves before a grand prix start. And while the sport’s immediate dangers are less apparent now, that aspect of taking on an epic challenge, looking it in the eye and staring it down, hasn’t changed. It’s what Formula 1 is.

Romain Grosjean spoke eloquently on this topic at the pre-Hungarian GP Thursday: “It’s in our nature to take risks,” he said, “and when you drive, especially a Formula 1 car going so quickly around a corner, you need to be 100 per cent in the car and not thinking about what could happen if… It’s a dangerous sport and [Jules’ death] was a hard way to remember that. But when the helmet is on and the visor is closed, it’s racing 100 per cent. That’s what we have always done and it’s what racing drivers will always do.”

Any comfort, then, such as it may be offered, is this: Bianchi died chasing his dream; doing what he loved.