Safety In Motor Racing Through The Ages
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Safety In Motor Racing Through The Ages

Attend any race meeting and, on the back of your ticket, you will likely see the advice ‘Motor Racing is Dangerous’. Of course it is: the idea of driving cars very fast among other cars is always going to present a risk.

The recent deaths of Jules Bianchi, who was gravely injured after hitting a recovery tractor at Suzuka, Japan, in 2014, and Indycar star Justin Wilson have served to highlight just how dangerous it can be. Both, it should be noted, were freak accidents, cases of wrong place, wrong time; this is not an excuse, but a fact.

Scroll back through the years in motorsports and it becomes evident just how safe your modern Indycar, F1 car or World Endurance car is these days – compared, that is, to times gone by.

Between the 1950’s and the middle of the 1980’s it was not uncommon for drivers to perish in F1; the cars were not as well built as they are now, circuit safety was – in many places – rudimentary at best.

Some years ago I interviewed Sir Jackie Stewart, three times world champion in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and he told me his greatest achievement was in campaigning successfully for improved circuit safety. He was, to begin with, pretty much a lone voice, and his views were not welcomed by some.

He was inspired by the number of funerals of friends he had had to attend, something today’s breed of drivers can thankfully call a rarity.

For me, the deaths of certain F1 drivers remain vivid memories; back in the ‘old days’ of the early 80’s –when I first became fanatical about the sport – there were no live broadcasts of races, and it was hardly a main news topic.

We learned of news and incidents between races by way of Autosport, the popular UK weekly. Thus, the death of Patrick Depailler, in testing at Hockenheim, Germany, in 1980 came as a shock. He crashed into a guard rail that was inadvertently fitted the wrong way around.

Again, the Frenchman was in the wrong place, at the wrong time; had he crashed elsewhere, he may have broken bones, and recovered.

Riccardo Paletti and Gilles Villeneuve in 1982 were also victims of poor circumstance and – in hindsight – poorly built cars with little or no safety features. In those days, the driver sat so far forward that any head-on accident was going to result in broken legs.

Riccardo Paletti crash

Then, of course, there were the events of Imola 1994, with the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and the great Ayrton Senna on successive days.

This was in the days of live broadcasts; Senna’s fatal accident was watched, in real time, by millions of people across the world, and replayed on news broadcasts over and over again.

That black weekend inspired a raft of safety changes – including many knee-jerk reactions such as building temporary chicanes at Barcelona, for example – and undoubtedly led to improved safety like never before.

Justin Wilson

What can we learn from the death of Justin Wilson, who was hit by debris from another car? Not a great deal, in fact; the call for cockpit canopies on single seater racing cars has unsurprisingly reared its head once more, but is it the answer? In the eyes of many, no, it is not; what happens, for example, if a car overturns?

The concept has been looked at many times by many highly qualified people, and it never works. I’m not trying to brush off the death of a talented and likable man – or the many others that have perished along the way – but simply to come back to the fact that Motor Racing is Dangerous. Thankfully, it is far less so than it ever has been, and we should remember that.

You may also enjoy reading:

US Drivers Who Succeeded in F1
1982: The Inside Story of the Sensational Grand Prix Season
F1 Needs The United States More Than The United States Needs F1

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Down to earth coverage of automotive news, culture and events.

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