DESPITE SAFETY ADVANCES, DRIVERS FACE EVER-PRESENT RISKS. BUT THAT DOES NOT MAKE THEM HEROES
Should motor racing ever become safe, it simply will cease to exist.
I was reminded of that sobering fact after Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso’s crash in March’s Australian Grand Prix.
In that crash, Alonso’s body was subjected to enormous forces that the FIA has now determined to be 46G. That meant his body momentarily weighed 46 times its normal weight, some 3000kg. Yet he walked away from the wreck unscathed.
Scientific advances allow the FIA to record almost every parameter of an accident. It continues to build up a library of information that can hopefully prevent or minimise serious accident injuries, on the road and on the track.
The possibility of an accident is continually present in motor sports. It is what makes the drivers or riders into heroes for some fans.
The bravery, man against the elements, fearlessness and speed are what prompted Ernest Hemingway to say, “There are only three sports; bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
Heroes come from all walks of life, with children picking astronauts, cartoon superheroes, even pop stars when their parents would prefer them to have “role models”.
The late James Hunt was a hero to many and his lifestyle was one that evoked envy among his fans. However, for those of us who were closer to him during his racing days the status of hero did not fit.
Great fun, irreverent, womaniser, party animal certainly ... but hero, maybe not.
Certainly not your parents’ idea of a role model sportsman.
Apart from the respect and admiration I have for many drivers I have worked with, I have had only one true hero who fits the dictionary definition of that word — a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.
David Purley was his name. Born in 1945, he became an officer in the elite British Parachute Regiment, even surviving a parachute failure during training. He saw action in the Aden military campaign in the mid-1960s before starting his racing career in the early 1970s in Formula 3.
He graduated to Formula 1 but that career move was largely unsuccessful, qualifying to race in just seven GPs.
Perhaps he is best remembered as the driver who stopped his car during the 1973 Formula 1 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, while others raced on, and tried to rescue his friend and fellow driver Roger Williamson from his burning, overturned car while Williamson screamed for help.
A flat tyre had destabilised Williamson’s car, throwing it towards the barriers on the opposite side of the road where it flipped, trapping him in the cockpit unable to move.
Purley was the only person — driver or marshall — who tried to lift the car off Williamson, who died of asphyxiation at the scene.
The film of that incident as Purley tried to lift the car, extinguish the flames and get help from marshalls, and drivers, with disregard for his own safety is, even today, a harrowing watch.
For his efforts Purley was awarded the George Medal.
He continued racing until at the 1977 British Grand Prix at Silverstone when, in qualifying, his car throttle stuck open and he hurtled straight on into a wall with the car decelerating from 173km/h to zero in just 66cm.
The G force impact was estimated at almost 180G.
Purley was brutally injured and his heart reportedly stopped multiple times on the way to, and at, the hospital but he did recover to race again although not in Formula 1.
After he retired from race driving, he took to flying a Pitts Special competition aerobatics aircraft, a hobby potentially more dangerous than driving racing cars.
The man who had once been Britain’s youngest licensed pilot was practising in that plane one day in 1985 when the aircraft developed a technical fault and nosedived into the sea, killing Purley immediately.
An athletic, popular figure with boyish good looks, Purley was a top bloke and I spoke to him on many an occasion. He was the sort of man other men want to be and for some reason he was an heroic figure to me even before his Silverstone accident, yet I was never able to mention that fact to him.
He would have been embarrassed, as would I, if I had even thought to say it out loud.