Whatever Your Choice, Motorsport Is Dangerous
In light of the horrific accident that involved both Takuma Sato and multiple Indy 500 winner and Indycar Series Champion, Scotland’s Dario Franchitti at Houston a few weeks ago, what transpired as a result of the incident still shows to this day and age that motorsport is still not 100 percent safe.
Street tracks like at Houston and Monte Carlo have shown that safety has moved on in leaps and bounds, but we all know that anything can happen. The spirit of competition that is instilled into drivers from a very young age still remains prevalent, as every driver, no matter where they decide to compete, is very much at risk.
Pushing hard is what racing is all about, with legendary rivalries both past and present being fought out at close quarters on tracks that demand the upmost in focus and concentration, with driver fitness levels always increasing to combat the signs of mental and physical fatigue during race distances and several hours if it comes down to endurance racing.
When it also comes to split second decisions, such as overtaking into a corner or on a tricky section of a track, a driver has to be able to make that choice, but unfortunately, as Dario found out, it can sometimes be the wrong one.
Over the past few decades, we have lost many shining lights, including the likes of Francois Cevert, who we lost just over 40 years ago, Dan Wheldon, Ayrton Senna, Marco Simoncelli, and just this season, Allan Simonsen, Maria de Villota and Sean Edwards, who died during an instructor course at Queensland Raceway. This still proves that there is still that small fraction of chance that one moment can change not just the lives of one family, but the community that that driver is a part of.
Take for instance the 15-car accident in a 2011 at the Las Vegas Speedway that took the life of Dan Wheldon, who was one of the leading British drivers that decided to make his career stateside, instead of the traditional route we have seen from some of his peers, which include Jenson Button and Anthony Davidson among many.
It was one of the most brutal crashes that had been seen with regards to the Indycar series in most recent times, as double file close pack racing at speeds around 220mph triggered an incident that will not easily be forgotten by many. Other drivers including Pippa Mann, Will Power, Alex Lloyd and J. R. Hildebrand were involved, with barriers and catch fencing containing the fiery melee that went quite literally viral on social networks.
Dan was the fourth fatality since the Indycar series was formed in 1996, especially as he was a ‘wildcard’ entry, because he was the only driver to take up the $5m challenge that gave a lot of publicity to the race, as it was the brainchild of former IZOD CEO Randy Bernard, who was trying to turn the series around.
Prior to Dan being taken from the racing world before he was about to return to the series full-time, having signed a two-year deal to join Andretti Autosport in the “Go-Daddy” sponsored DW12, as Danica Patrick was making the move to NASCAR for 2013.
He was also set to go to Australia to compete in the V8 Supercars Gold Coast 600 at Surfers’ Paradise alongside James Courtney, with five other drivers from Indycar set to compete there. It would have been the Briton’s first time in a touring car race, but instead, there was a tidal wave of emotion after the news came through that Dan had succumbed to his injuries, doing what he loved, but unfortunately paid the highest price.
Saying that someone has died can be a very cruel term to use, as it brings a harshness that can unsettle us all, especially if one person is a role model or inspiration to a few or to many. Dan left behind his wife, Suzi, his two children and a grieving paddock, who paid tribute to him in the right way, remembering the funny times & the good times, cherishing and holding those memories close, as they would not be able to share them any more. Franchitti himself, did not like the way that he won that championship, especially as Dan had won the Indy 500 for the second time that year, having an outside chance of doing so.
One thing that has really come to light is somehow the way that mainstream media channels jump on the proverbial “bandwagon,” as well as the method or direction used. It is understandable that they are out there for hits on their websites, SEO profiles and television ratings, but sometimes it can just come across in the wrong fashion, as the crash involving Dario and Takuma has clearly shown. Then you have to consider the images they may decide to use, such as the aftermath of Dan’s fatal accident in 2011 at Las Vegas.
Then you always have to consider the other factor that was involved that weekend, as 13 fans were injured, due to the debris that was scattered after Dario’s car went airborne and literally disintegrated when it hit the catch fencing. The catch fencing itself did its job, forcing the car to come to a dead halt, but then it was worse than some may have originally expected. Even though carbon-fibre single cell structures have been paramount in protecting the drivers, the other parts such as the front wing, suspension, side pods and much more, are meant to breakaway and reduce the impact of severe forces hurt the driver.
Dario suffered a spinal fracture, as well as a broken ankle, but judging by the sheer violence and momentum the accident carried, it could have been so much worse. Fans were capturing what happened on their smartphones, but the risk was all too evident. When you buy a ticket or gain media accreditation, no matter the series, be it on two wheels or four, it always says the following: “Warning: Motorsport can be dangerous.”
Yes, a racing fan’s adrenaline levels are raised to a point of motorsport nirvana, but those that may have been capturing the event as it actually happened, with amateur footage being posted on YouTube and personal pages on Twitter and Facebook, but sometimes the ball is dropped. We can't blame any fan for what actions they could have taken or should have taken, but being too close to the action is not always a good thing, especially with newer racing facilities still enabling the fans to enjoy the action, but at some distance away from what could be a potential disaster.
Take for instance the horrific crash at Le Mans several decades ago, where a cartwheeling, out-of-control race vehicle hit the crowds in an inferno, with lives being lost. It just puts into perspective how much we all put our lives at risk, be it as a fan, as an accredited media representative, engineers in the pit lane or the drivers themselves. We breathe and love the sport for what it is and every moment at a race track, every individual feels alive no matter who they are, where their allegiances lie and what racing series they choose to follow.
Racing series always evaluate scenarios, as health and safety is a paramount fixture with racing today, especially when you consider the way Mark Webber accepted the taxi ride from Fernando Alonso at Turn 7 in Singapore, where Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton had to avoid a potential disaster that could have really impacted Webber’s racing career, especially as he signed with Porsche to go to the WEC next year.
Then there was the fire marshall jeep that was mistaken for the Safety Car at the Korean Grand Prix , which will have made the FIA take notice, as they appeared to not be consulted on the matter, when Webber’s Infiniti Red Bull Racing RB9 caught fire after an accidental collision with Sahara Force India’s Adrian Sutil.
Safety officials will understandably be just as shocked as anyone else with what happened in Houston, but the thoughts of all are just the same: What else can be done to make things safer, even though there is that one percent chance that something goes wrong?
You then have to take into consideration the events last July, where de Villota suffered major head and neurological trauma as a result of the Marussia testing accident at Duxford. She had major reconstructive surgery and lost her right eye as a result of this event, where everyone feared the worst. However, she came out all smiles, sported an eye patch and made sure she gave all she could to sport and safety.
The incident involving the late Sean Edwards, who currently led the Drivers' Championship in the Porsche Carrera SuperCup, showed that when race drivers, who have to struggle to keep income flowing their way by coaching racing hopefuls, are not in control of the situation, something can happen. It was an emotional tragedy that shocked the motosport world to its core, and even some of his friends who also instruct, said that they would have to seriously think about their safety and well-being when it comes to coaching.
However, one major point that was heart-warming to see was that both Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon went to visit not just Dario, but also one of the fans that was injured and taken to hospital. The communities that make up all the racing series are just one big worldwide family, as we all share emotions, grieve for lost ones, which shows the measure of the human spirit, but as a family, that brood is strong and always there for each other, as we share each other’s pain, loss and sorrow, but also celebrate when the going’s good.
Safety will improve, but hopefully without any further costs, but the circle of life doesn’t give us a choice, meaning it is a case of rolling with the punches. The only question that really remains may go something like this: With so many shining lights taken from us before their time, what safety techniques can be used to minimise the risk to an absolute minimum?
We here at NVC send all our best wishes to Dario and all the other people that have been hurt in this incident, and look forward to when the Scot gets back in the hot seat and returns to the track. We also offer our sincerest condolences to the families and friends of the late Maria de Villota and Sean Edwards, who were both inspirations and friends to many.