Sochi, Russia: For years, Formula One has celebrated how much safer the sport has become since Ayrton Senna of Brazil died in a crash at an Italian racetrack in 1994. Measures taken after Senna's death improved safety, and Senna was the last driver to die in a series with a grim list of fatalities that includes some of its greatest champions.
The belief that risks have been reduced to "acceptable" levels, a description used by Max Mosley, the former leader of motor racing's world governing body, the Paris-based International Automobile Federation, was a comforting - perhaps numbing - reassurance at a time when Formula One was enjoying soaring levels of popularity. (F1 Drivers Dedicate Russia Race to Jules Bianchi)
But for all the innovations that have made it possible for drivers to walk away from 180-mph somersaults into crash barriers, there has always been the fear that the specter of death might return. Unhappily for the organizers of the first Russian Grand Prix, to be held here Sunday at a new 3.6-mile track that runs through the former Olympic Park, that moment seemed to arrive with a crash that marred last weekend's race in Suzuka, Japan.
Nobody died in the race in Japan. But the French driver Jules Bianchi, 25, suffered severe brain injuries when he crashed into a heavy tractor clearing another wrecked car. Five days after the accident, the mood among the teams and drivers in the paddock was as dispirited as at any time since Senna's death.
At a news conference Thursday, top drivers made little attempt to disguise their misgivings, using phrases like "a gray cloud," "a catastrophe" and "a bit of a shadow" to describe the atmosphere.
The drivers recited the reasons that competitors in extreme sports such as F1 accept the inherent risks - essentially, that they compete for the exhilaration of venturing where few others go and deploying skills developed, as Bianchi did, in years of competition at lower levels of racing.
The risks of death or severe injury are not generally a popular topic in the Grand Prix paddock, and German driver Sebastian Vettel, the current F1 champion, spoke for most of the drivers when he said, in effect, that it was self-indulgent to dwell on the subject.
"We are all old enough to make our own decisions in life," he said. "It's our conscious decision if we want to go racing or not. I think if anyone is not happy, he's old enough to say, 'No.'"
Another top driver, Nico Rosberg, a 29-year-old German contending for this year's championship with his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton of Britain, said that while what happened to Bianchi, a popular, debonair driver picked as a future champion, was "shocking," a driver's responsibility was to put his grief and misgivings away before taking to the track.
"There is a job to be done," Rosberg said. "I need to get into that car, close my eyes, put the emotions away and concentrate on doing the job."
Formula One's top officials have commissioned a report on the Bianchi accident, which took place in the torrential rain that preceded a typhoon sweeping north over the Pacific.
Bianchi, a Ferrari protege assigned to the Marussia team, lost control of his car on one of Suzuka's fastest corners and aquaplaned at about 110 mph off the track into a tractor that was hoisting driver Adrian Sutil's car, which had spun out, over the crash barriers.
The race was red-flagged immediately after the crash, which occurred while marshals were waving double yellow flags, warning drivers to proceed with extreme caution and to be prepared to stop. Bianchi was taken to the nearby Mie University Hospital in a coma, where he remained in intensive care, unconscious and unable to breathe on his own. The reported prognosis offered little hope for a long-term recovery.
The investigation will be led by Charlie Whiting, a Briton who acts as director for all Grand Prix races. Whiting made the decision to continue the race in Japan even though at least one driver, Felipe Massa of Brazil, had been appealing over his car-to-pit radio for the race to be stopped because of poor visibility and heavy water on the track.
The drivers said they would await Whiting's report before pressing for new safety measures, but several suggested that the crash in Japan indicated a need for some changes.
"It's been a while since there's been that sort of accident in Formula One," said Daniel Ricciardo, Vettel's Red Bull teammate. "It's put things into perspective."
One common suggestion has been that no heavy vehicles like tractors should be deployed to recover crashed cars unless a safety car is on the track, a measure Whiting did not order in the laps before the Bianchi crash. Another suggestion has been to consider requiring F1 cars to have closed cockpits, with fighter-jet-like canopies to protect drivers' heads.
The measure was considered and rejected once before, after Massa suffered a serious brain injury when he was struck in the helmet by a heavy spring that broke free from another car during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Officials vetoed the idea in the face of objections that Formula One cars had used open cockpits since the drivers' world championship was established in 1950, and because some team officials warned that the cars would be "too ugly," diminishing the sport's appeal. But Fernando Alonso of Spain, who leads the Ferrari team, said it should be looked at again.
"All the biggest accidents in motor sport over the last couple of years have been head injuries," he said, citing a multicar crash in Belgium in 2012 when another car flew over his at the first corner of a race, missing his helmet by inches.
"I could probably have died there in Corner 1 if it had been 10 centimeters closer to my head," he said.
"If the technology is there and available," he added, "I would not exclude it, for sure."
© 2014 New York Times News Service