In the wake of a motor racing incident, there are always people who look for solutions to the problems. Sebastian Vettel complains about his tyres and his supporters want to reinvent the wheel.
Usually, there is some logic in taking action, even if it is merely shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. However, knee-jerk reactions are never a good idea. Safety is a science and research and experimentation are required because rushed solutions, applied too rapidly, can create new problems that were not immediately obvious.
Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono was the result of an incredibly unlucky accident with objects with different trajectories combining to create a disaster. Suddenly, fighter jet style canopies are the discussion. Perhaps they can stop intrusive objects… but perhaps they would also create even worse problems and further tragedies.
I doubt there are many people who remember the name Lyle Kurtenbach, but for some reason I do. He was a 41-year-old cement additive salesman from Rothschild, Wisconsin, who went to the 1987 Indianapolis 500 as a spectator. The race was something of a family reunion and there were 10 relatives gathered in the top row of a grandstand in Turn 4.
On lap 130 of the race, a wheel came off Tony Bettenhausen’s car and bounced into the path of Roberto Guerrero. He was lucky as the wheel hit the nose of his car but missed his head. The impact sent the wheel high into the air, arching over the safety fences and falling back to earth on the top of the grandstand, where it hit and killed the unfortunate Kurtenbach, who became the third spectator to die after being hit by a tyre, the others having been in the 1930s.
The point that must be made here is that if there were easy solutions, they would already have been applied. The FIA has been researching canopies and doing tests for at least five years, but no safe solution has been found. Canopies protect the drivers, but they deflect flying wreckage in an almost random fashion, and that could create even worse problems, as illustrated above by Kurtenbach’s death.
In addition there are questions about whether a canopy would hinder drivers trying to get out of a car in a hurry, or impede rescuers who are needing to get quick access to help an injured driver. If the canopies are made detachable, perhaps they will fly off or be dislodged in an accident. And so it goes on…
It is the same thing with cranes. If you have a static crane to lift cars off a race track you may need to have more people on the race track to manoeuvre the car so it can be attached to a crane. Think of the number of marshals you see on the circuit in Monaco. Using tractor units may not seem logical, but they do actually reduce the number of people at risk.
Some say that tradition is important and that open cockpits should be open cockpits. I don’t hold with this. If something is dangerous and there is a solution then it is wrong not to at least consider it. However it does mean that the sport would need to be rethought in a fairly major fashion because it is not going to be easy to explain the difference between an F1 with a canopy and a sports car and this would blur the lines between the different and distinct disciplines. It is the same too with enclosed wheels. There was a time when sports cars were Grand Prix cars with mudguards, but the two disciplines quickly diverged from one another.
Some would have us believe that there should be no mortal danger in motor racing, but in my opinion this is simply naive and unrealistic. If one pushes the boundaries of speed, it is inevitable that sometimes things will fail. The laws of physics are the laws of physics and they are not going to change. We can stop some dangers, but “freak accidents” will continue to occur because these are often the result of multiple factors. So, one must accept danger – as racing drivers do – while at the same time always looking to improve standards. One should not be complacent, but at the same time, one should not allow Health and Safety despots to lead crusades that destroy an activity that has brought pleasure to the world since the dawn of time. People like competition. I’m not a great fan of athletics (how can you tell who has been cheating with what drugs, blood transfusions and so on?) but yesterday I found myself watching races from the IAAF World Championship in Beijing while I was having lunch. I enjoyed it.
Some would ban motor racing completely, yet they let people fall off mountains or yachts all the time, without a word. They do this because motor racing has a higher profile and gives them an easier target.
In the end, there have to be compromises. Races should not be started behind Safety Cars, tracks cannot be entirely encircled with debris fencing. People buy tickets that tell them that motor racing is dangerous and while slippery lawyers may win cases, arguing that no-one ever reads the back of a ticket, we all know that there are risks involved in racing – and we accept them.