The overwhelming answer from most people if asked if motorsport has become more dangerous is a resounding “no”. The cars, the circuits, the helmets, the hazards and the medical facilities have all improved and the evolution of each of these attributes has been well documented.
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I confess I was hooked on a programme being shown just before Le Mans. I was keen on this year’s race and especially wanted to see Mark Webber enjoy success. I met him briefly at Silverstone and he looked incredibly relaxed in the sports car environment and away from the shadow and frustrations of having Sebastian Vettel as a teammate in the clinical execution of a Formula 1 environment.
The main focus on the particular programme was the 1955 accident Le Mans and Mercedes will always be remembered for. Ironically the dark hand of fate almost repeated itself for Mercedes at Le Mans in 1999 – bizarrely with Mark at the wheel, although the Mercedes appeared to have had a design fault and was withdrawn from the race that year. It was just too dangerous to carry on from a driver safety point of view and for the PR gurus’ at Mercedes, they were staring into the abyss of a worldwide marketing failure. The world felt for the team at that point.
It is the danger that works for motor racing – we don’t want deaths anymore and we don’t want injuries, but we do want accidents.
I must admit that watching the documentary about the ’55 accident I started to feel actually quite angry about the whole disaster. It was completely bad luck that it was a Mercedes that went into the crowd, it could have been any car and it was not because the Mercedes had any sort of failure itself, but the reason I felt angry was that the whole accident seemed entirely foreseeable – but when one says this the reply is “Yes, but it was an entirely different era”. I am not convinced that is a justification or an excuse, but it was just ten years after the second world war and stepping into some of the most iconic machinery of the air was often a “one-way” ticket so surviving was simply “lucky” and there was an accepted expectancy of death – at least by those close to the sport.
The circuit at that time had not changed for decades. Originally when the first 24-hour race was held the cars were barely able to corner faster than the speed limit of today’s F1 Pit lane, and by the time of the accident, drivers with little more than a splendid pair of slacks and a leather cap were exposed to the elements at 180 miles per hour – that’s is 264 feet per second (80.4 meters per second for those who prefer metric) – no belts because apparently being thrown from the car gave you an improved survival rate – not something to try at home that’s for sure…
I suppose the reason for my anger was towards those who developed the grandstand in the firing line of cars that if they came off at that corner could be predicted to go in one direction – bang where the crowd was. The other attribute to the accident was that the “blame” was fixed at the time on the hapless Pierre Levegh who was behind the wheel of the no. 20 Mercedes. There has never been a formal investigation although subsequent footage and analysis removes the blame from both names – it is just a pity the formalities were never concluded – but here is an irony that I find fascinating… and I am not alone…
It is the danger that works for motor racing – we don’t want deaths anymore and we don’t want injuries – although if there were none I would be out of a job of course – we do want accidents. In a previous article, I outlined how over the years the indecent rate and contact between F1 cars has actually increased. Drivers no longer die if they touch or bang wheels and as a consequence, some accidents are caused not by the exaggerated size of the driver’s reproductive organs, more the diminished grey matter in the heat of battle – but this makes for spectacle and we all gain from this.
The particular point I am coming round to is that through a little research of the most dangerous tracks in motorsport – F1 still “has it”. I thought the US would be at the top of the list with the Indianapolis speedway – but two of the F1 tracks are right up there – Spa and Monza. The statistics are distorted through the length of time of course – but talk to the drivers and Spa will always be right up there. The 264 feet a second is now carried through the corners, not just the straight bits in between and it is this flirting with danger we all need – either by doing it or watching it.
I am probably a lone voice here and I fully understand the pull of many of the new circuits being designed and there is great work that goes into giving the drivers a challenge – but there was something a little more raw about last weekends race in Austria and if there was to be a new circuit built in a new country – please can we find one where we can drive a route through a forest on the side of a hill. I understand the Germans have been quite good at this in the past…?