Are Formula One Drivers Real Men Or Just Lunatics?

The return of the great Michael Schumacher to Formula One this weekend has overshadowed another resurrection; that of Felipe Massa.

During qualifying at last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix a small, innocuous spring dislodged itself from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn, bounced along the Hungaroring track  and smashed its way deep into Massa’s  helmet fracturing his skull.  The injury was deemed life threatening and  highlighted in a photo of him being lifted from his imploded Ferrari. The left eye was closed and covered with congealed blood from the gash above it and his staring right eye looked like that of a dead man. His doctors announced it was unlikely he would race again.

But these Formula One drivers are tough, perhaps even mad. As with the cars, the lean and fragile looking bodies belie the power within. And so eight months later, with a titanium plate in his skull to prevent the g-forces breaking it apart, he is back. With a genuine chance of winning the championship.

Compared with the ’60’s and ’70’s, when sixteen of Formula One’s twenty four fatalities took place, the modern era is a relatively safe one. Driving during those decades was a serious lottery of death. On-board footage shows the bobbing heads of the drivers propped up well above the chassis as they work the gears and fight the steering wheel.The film One by One directed by Claude De Boc documented the 1973 season. Two of the four drivers profiled, were killed in accidents within a year of the film’s release.

The courage, single mindedness, and madness of the time were epitomised by Niki Lauda. After crashing in the 1976 German Grand Prix Lauda was dragged from his inferno of a Ferrari with serious head burns and poisoned lungs. Despite falling into a coma and being administered with the last rites he was back racing in six weeks losing the championship by a solitary point. For Lauda being on fire was water off a duck’s back.

One of his saner contemporaries, New Zealander Chris Amon, refused to restart after Lauda’s accident claiming: “I’ve seen too many people fried in racing cars”. He was subsequently sacked by his team.

Of course the danger of driving in this era was the essential attraction for some of these moneyed adventurers, an attraction they could fatally carry over into their non racing time. Only days after surviving the horrific 1977 South African Grand Prix, Brazilian Calos Pace was killed in a light aircraft accident. Interestingly, Stirling Moss only narrowly avoided death yesterday when he fell three stories down an elevator shaft.

Even today, with drivers in high tech helmets and ensconsed in carbon fibre cradles, the safety of the head remains a serious concern. In an open cockpit travelling at 300km/h a driver’s head will always be a prominent target for debris and a candidate for serious impact with concrete walls and flying wheels ( a common occurence until tyre tethering, and improvement in safe walls and run off areas). Tethered wheels helped prevent death and injury to other drivers (and the crowd ) but not necessarily to the drivers of the cars they were tethered to. Senna was killed when his tethered front wheel and suspension struck him on the helmet.

The history of fatal head injuries include the bizarre 1960 death of British driver Alan Stacey who was killed after being struck in the face by a bird and crashing. The last and most famous Formula One fatality was that of Senna. (postscript Frenchman Jules Bianchi died as a result of a collision in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix).

When One by One was later released on video as Quick and The Dead it included the appalling death of Brit Tom Pryce and a fire marshall at the 1977 South African Grand Prix. Pryce at near full speed struck the marshall who was running across the track to attend to Pryce’s teammate’s stricken car. Pryce, even taking his era’s appalling safety standards into account ,was extremely unlucky and would  probably have survived if the marshall’s extinguisher hadn’t struck his helmet. The ruthlessness of that era was also highlighted by the winner Lauda who claimed it was one of his greatest wins. Compare that to the solemn victory speech of Schumacher after Senna’s death.

The lack of professionalism was glaringly obvious in footage of the race that played like a tragic farce. Pryce’s teammate Renzo Zorzi has pulled over to the side of the track. The car starts to spout flames as Zorzi fights his way out of the cockpit only for his seatbelt to catch on his shoulder. Pulling at it desperately he finally manages to break free. Then remembering  his car has its own extinguisher he scampers Frank Spencer-like around to the side of the car and starts pulling at the stubborn thing. At that moment a fire marshal arrives on the scene just as (out of shot) his accomplice is struck by Pryce’s car. As the shattered carcass flutters by, like a red wet piece of cardboard, they glance over momentarily, unsure exactly what they’ve witnessed, and continue their fire extinguishing.

The entire Grand Prix resembles an amateur car club meet at Sandown: flair-jeaned marshals darting about, medical staff carrying the bouncing body of Pryce on a canvas stretcher rush across the track with cars still screaming by with Pryce’s Shadow crumpled and entangled in chicken wire.

Despite the cause of the marshal’s death we then see the chequered flag waver nonchalantly wandering out onto the track towards the oncoming cars.

Six days before Massa’s accident Formula 2 driver Henry Surtee was struck in the head and killed by a wheel that had broken its tether. Until canopies are introduced (unlikely considering the reduced visibility, the possibility of  dislodgement  and of injured drivers being trapped in wrecks) the threat of frontal impacts to drivers’ helmets will remain.

If some of these madmen from the ’60’s and ’70’s were alive today they would claim the safety of the modern cars makes the sport boring.  Director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association Aussie Mark Webber wouldn’t agree with that but he does sound a little like them when  he mentions that the young brats of the sport have it  too easy:-

“The cars are easier to drive. You don’t look at these guys and think ‘they are real men’. There is power steering now; a lot of things that make the cars easier to drive. That’s why these youngsters can get away with it. I came through the categories with gear sticks and what have you.”

When Webber was taken out by a young Sebastian Vettel , his current teammate, costing him  second place or possibly victory in the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix, he said: “Well it’s kids, isn’t it. Kids with not enough experience, doing a good job then they fuck it all up.”

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