Technology has helped to save lives in motorsport
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TRAGEDIES HAVE LED TO GAINS IN SAFETY FOR DRIVERS AND FANS AT TRACKS EVERYWHERE
The San Marino Formula 1 Grand Prix 1994. Those few words alone conjure up bad memories for motor sport fans around the world.
The travelling members of the paddock experienced a collective shudder on the first day of practice when the Jordan Hart of Rubens Barrichello flew at unabated speed into the tyre barriers and finally landed almost upside down.
The metaphoric holding of breath was only released when the news came through from the medical centre that he was, remarkably, uninjured.
Tragically, during Saturday qualifying Roland Ratzenberger went off the track and was killed on impact.
It was the first fatality for Formula 1 in 12 years.
A dark cloud seemed to descend on the paddock and a mood that the word “sombre” cannot adequately describe, settled in.
But Sunday, June 1, 1994 is a day that the world of motorsport as well as many with little interest in the sport will remember forever.
The second death of the weekend, that of Ayrton Senna in the race itself, was a blow to the very fabric of the sport.
I well remember the silence in the McLaren motorhome when the news, firstly from the track doctors and then from the hospital, came through.
I am not ashamed to say that I walked to the other end of the paddock, sat down on a wall, alone at that point, and wept.
Although a Williams driver from the beginning of the season he was still “one of ours”.
A McLaren family man and more importantly, a good friend.
For Formula 1 and racing worldwide that weekend was a watershed, a seminal moment and much good was to come from tragedy.
New safety measures were developed and introduced and since that time the survivability of drivers in accidents has increased exponentially.
All of the above was brought into sharp focus for me with the recent accident that befell young Austin Dillon at the Daytona Nascar race when his race car became a one and a half tonne airborne missile travelling at 320km/h, hitting the debris fence so hard that the impact tore the engine from the front of the car.
Yet he walked away with no injury save the odd bruise.
That would not have happened without the innovations developed, especially since 1994.
Let’s not forget that Dillon’s car number is number 3 and that number was brought into prominence and Nascar lore as the regular number for Nascar drivers, Dale Earnhardt.
He was killed in a fairly innocuous, by Nascar standards, accident that the now universally used HANS (Head And Neck Support) device would most probably have prevented.
A mere bump on the wall by Dillon’s standards.
In the past 20 years the developments and innovations around the safety of drivers are too numerous to detail in full but every motorsport controlling body has pushed for more driver and crew safety measures and those measures, be they in F1, Rally, Nascar or IndyCar have helped to save lives.
There is always the risk that the unforeseen will happen.
The son of World Motorcycle and Formula 1 champion John Surtees was killed driving his race car when an errant wheel from another car bounced at speed into his single seater cockpit.
The death of Senna himself can be considered a “freak” incident, the like of which was never seen previously or since.
The risk that drivers, crews and teams run is an accepted risk but the risk to spectators of injury cannot be an acceptable risk.
Sure, it says on every entrance ticket that “Motor Racing is Dangerous” and the spectator attends at his or her own risk but that is not enough.
The car of Dillon impacted the catchfencing which then, incredibly, stopped the bulk of the debris from reaching the crowd and held the car on the track. Some spectators were injured, none seriously, but the potential for disaster was obvious.
What can be done to protect the crowds and the marshalls further? I don’t know.
Move them so far back that the cars appear to be mere Scalextric toys like some F1 circuits?
No, that destroys the reason the crowds go to see the racing.
Whatever changes come along there must also be big congratulations due to the Daytona track owners and the manufacturers of that catch fencing for effectively containing and therefore protecting the people in the stands.
As well as helping to protect the drivers themselves.