Every man and his dog is writing this week about Imola. I doubt that I need to remind anyone that Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger died there 20 years ago this week. I am not about to follow suit on this blog. I have written a few reminiscences elsewhere but there is such a feeding frenzy that I feel the need to keep out of it. All that I really want to say is that it was the worst weekend of my racing career and I hope, sincerely, that I do not have to live through anything like it again. It is amazing to me that we have gone 20 years since the last driver died in F1, but I guess that before that weekend we had gone 12 years without a fatality at a race meeting and looking back the cars they were using between 1982 and 1994 were pretty unsafe compared to today. At the time we did not think of it that way. Twelve years without a fatality was in itself an extraordinary achievement. Having said that, three weeks before the Imola weekend I wrote a column that is almost frightening when one looks back. It was after the Brazilian Grand Prix, held that year at the start of the season, during which Eddie Irvine received a three-race ban for causing an accident which very nearly killed Martin Brundle, the Englishman’s helmet having been grazed by a wheel.
“I believe that F1 people no longer treat death with the respect it deserves. No-one has been killed driving in a Grand Prix since 1982 – 12 years. This is testament to the wonderful safety of today’s machinery, but it means that there is complacency. People think you can survive anything. And if you look back five years there have been some pretty impressive escapes: Gerhard Berger survived his huge shunt and fire at Imola in 1989; Martin Donnelly survived his car falling apart at Jerez in 1990; Christian Fittipaldi survived flipping at top speed at Monza last year and Alessandro Zanardi escaped a high-speed head-on into the wall at Spa. And so it goes on. Everyone survives.
“F1 folk complain that cars are being slowed down too much; that race tracks are boring because all the challenging corners have been changed for safety reasons, but the changes are probably worth it.
“I will always remember talking to the late Denny Hulme on the subject of safety.
‘We didn’t know any better in the old days,’ said Denny. ‘Now we’ve got the most incredibly hygenic circuits you have ever seen. Some people criticise them. They say it’s terribly boring motor racing. Yes, compared to the old Nurburgring it is, but it’s better than going to a funeral every Tuesday morning.’
“The younger generations of drivers – the men racing in F1 today – have grown up in relatively safe racing and their respect for the dangers is not the same as their predecessors. They have not been to any Tuesday funerals.
“As far as I am concerned Irvine’s attitude after the accident was wrong from the start. He was too busy protesting that it was not his fault that he overlooked the fact that his move – for whatever reason he did it – had nearly killed someone. He may have had a point when he said he it was ‘a racing accident’ and maybe he deserved the benefit of the doubt, but he didn’t seem shaken by his near-miss or anxious that Brundle was OK.
“Drivers say that the press and officials don’t knowing what they are talking about and cannot judge how drivers should react in a split-second at 180mph. In some ways this is a valid point, but young cocky drivers should also remember that observers have long memories. Most racing drivers consider that motor racing history began when they first sat in a racing car. I think that if they knew about the past they could learn from it.”
I think much of what is written remains valid. The safety of modern F1 cars is amazing but that does not mean that there will never be another fatal accident in F1. And we should not be complacent about it.