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CFM: The Dark Side of Motorsport – Part 1

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Published at Chequered Flag Motorsport on 8th August 2006

In motor racing history, there have been many tragic accidents. Hundreds of drivers, mechanics, marshals and spectators have lost their lives. This article focuses on the more famous ones, but we have to remember that there have been many others in lower forms of motorsport, and we should never forget them.

The Le Mans Disaster, 1955

In 1955, Mercedes were on the crest of a wave in F1. Fangio and co. were dominated, the Argentinian heading towards his 3rd title. The Silver Arrows, and the W196 were virtually unbeatable.

But at Le Mans that year, tragedy struck. Frenchman Pierre Levegh, driving one of the Mercs, hit the back of another car. This acted as a ramp, and the car, with the helpless Levegh inside, flew through the air, and exploded across the main grandstand on the pit straight. Huge pieces of debris were flung through the crowd, killing many.

In all, over 80 people died, including Levegh himself, although the actual figure could be higher. The accident had many repercussions. A number of races were dropped from the calendar. One of these was the Swiss GP at Bremgarten. After the crash, Switzerland banned nearly all types of motor racing in its borders, a ban which still stands today. Also, at the end of the year, Mercedes withdrew from F1, going out on a high with Fangio winning the championship, and only re-entered 40 years later, powering McLaren.

Wolfgang von Trips + 15 spectators – Monza, 1961

Ferrari had been the class of the field in ‘61. German Wolfgang von Trips and American Phil Hill had starred in the famous “sharknose” cars, with 2 wins for von Trips and 1 for Hill. The other wins went to Moss in a private Lotus, and Giancarlo Baghetti, who sensationally won his debut race for Ferrari at Reims.

Going into the penultimate round at Monza, von Trips lead Hill by 8 points, and had the opportunity to wrap up the title in front of the tifosi. But, on the opening lap of the race, coming down the back straight towards Parabolica, the German count locked wheels with Jim Clark’s Lotus. The car was flung into the air and into the crowd, whilst von Trips was flung out and onto the track. Somehow, all the other cars avoided the wreckage, but von Trips was killed instantly, along with 11 spectators. 4 others died after. Hill won the race, giving him enough points to leapfrog von Trips and take the title. A sad end to the season.

Jochen Rindt – Monza, 1970

9 years on, another top driver was heading to his 1st title, only for tragedy to intervene. Jochen Rindt was comfortably leading the championship in the Lotus 72, what was by far and away the best car out there. With some bad luck for other drivers, most notably Jack Brabham, it looked almost certain Rindt would become the 1st Austrian world champion.

But, at Monza, fate stopped Jochen from ever knowing he would take the title. On the run to Parabolica in preparation for the race, the same place as von Trips accident, the car snapped left under breaking, and the Lotus, crucially running without wings, slammed into the barrier on the outside. This twisted and destroyed the front of the car, and also pulled Jochen down. This caused the seat belt to cut his throat, and he also suffered massive leg injuries. He died on the way to the hospital, and the Lotus team withdrew from the event. Despite this, Rindt still went on to win the championship, as Jacky Ickx couldn’t catch his total in the remaining races, and he became F1’s 1st posthumous world champion.

Indy 500, 1973

1973 was a bad year for top flight motor racing, as you will find out later. The year’s Indy 500 was filled with tragedy, with a chain reaction series of tragedies.

It started on 12th May. In practice for the event, 46 year old Art Pollard crashed his Eagle-Offenhausen hard, and died as a result, casting a gloom over the race on 30th May, which itself was tainted with tragedy.

At the start, there was a huge pile-up. Salt Walther’s car exploded, and debris was sent into the crowd. Fortunately, Walther and the fans survived, although the driver was seriously injured.

Then, Swede Savage, who was in the running for the big prize, had a huge fiery accident, as almost the whole car was ripped apart. Amazingly, Savage was conscious throughout the whole accident and actually tried to free himself from the wreckage. But, then, a fire truck, driving the wrong way round the track, struck 19 year old Armando Teran, one of Savage’s mechanics, and the youngster was killed instantly. Tragically, Savage also passed away 55 days later in hospital from a kidney infection.

Roger Williamson, Zandvoort, 1973

2 months after the dreadful Indy 500 came the Dutch GP at Zandvoort, and with it came an accident that changed the face of F1 and motor racing forever.

March’s Roger Williamson, just 24 years old, was a rising star, racing under the wing of future Donington Park owner Tom Wheatcroft, although he was a backmarker in F1. However, it all came to an end at Zandvoort.

Around the back of the circuit, the March had a big accident, landing upside down further down the road. It ignited, trapping him in there. Another backmarker, David Purley, got out of his car and tried to rescue Roger from the now-raging inferno (at this point Roger was still alive, as David heard his screams for help from within the fire). The marshals amazingly stood back and left David on his own, as did the other drivers (Lauda said after he didn’t realise David was trying to rescue another driver – he thought he was trying to put out a fire on his car). One marshal kicked sand onto the fire. David tried to use one of the marshal’s fire extinguishers but it failed to do any good. Disconsolate, he walked away – he knew Roger had died.

This accident led to increased marshalling standards in F1, but this in turn led to the Pryce crash in 1977, as you will see next.

The season got worse when at Watkins Glen, Tyrrell’s Francois Cevert was killed in a horrific crash. It truly was an awful year for motor racing.

Tom Pryce + Frederick Jansen van Vuuren – Kyalami, 1977

Tom Pryce was Wales’ 1st and so far only F1 driver. He was tipped for big things, as his performances in his Shadow had been superb, with a pole position in the British GP, and a win in the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. Things looked good for this future world champion. But, unfortunately, it came to a sad end at Kyalami.

Early on in the race, his team mate Renzo Zorzi stopped on the pit straight, a notoriously steep decline towards Crowthorne. 1 marshal got to the car, and another 2, including 19 year old fire marshal Frederick Jansen van Vuuren. At the same time, Hans Stuck and Pryce came over the crest of the hill. Stuck had plenty of time to manoeuvre past the marshals, but Pryce, who didn’t see them, ploughed into van Vuuren at near-enough top speed. The marshal was sent skywards and was killed instantly, but his fire extinguisher hit Tom, ripping off his helmet and killing him as well. Pryce, with his foot still flat to the floor, then proceeded down the steep hill, gaining more speed. At the bottom, the car hit the Ligier of Jacques Laffite, and rolled, before coming to a rest against the barriers.

As with the Williamson accident 4 years before, changes were made, so that marshals wouldn’t run out into the paths of cars. But unfortunately this came too late for Pryce and van Vuuren, victims of one of the worst accidents in motor racing history.

Gilles Villeneuve – Zolder, 1982

The start of the 1982 F1 season was marred by political wrangling. At Kyalami, the drivers went on strike. At Brazil, the Cosworth-powered cars were disqualified. At Imola, half the teams failed to turn up, and Didier Pironi went against team orders to beat Gilles Villeneuve, infuriating the Canadian.

At the next race at Zolder, Pironi held provisional pole. Villeneuve, still angry at what happened at Imola, decided to have one final go in beating his team mate’s time. On his hot lap he came across Jochen Mass. At one of the fast sections of the course, he tried to overtake the German, but clipped the back of his car, rocketed skywards, cart wheeled and disintegrated. Villeneuve was thrown out and fatally injured, and F1 lost one of its most talented drivers ever.

Gordon Smiley – Indy, 1982

Not long after Villeneuve’s death, motor racing was hit by tragedy again, this time at Indy.

Gordon Smiley was a non-regular Indycar driver, and had struggled to qualify for the Indy 500. In practice, he was hoping to hit the 200 mph mark, but had so far had reached just 196 mph. Then, on his 2nd warm-up, he lost control at Turn 3 and went head on into the concrete wall at high speed. The car exploded and ripped apart, in one of the most destructive crashes ever. The car split into many pieces and rolled down the track. Smiley, whose helmet was torn off in the crash, died instantly, suffering unimaginable injuries. It was another tragedy at the IMS.

Riccardo Paletti – Montreal, 1982

The Smiley disaster was not the last of 1982, as back in F1, tragedy struck again.

The F1 circus moved on to Montreal, after a visit to the Motor City, Detroit, in America. Winner John Watson led the championship from Ferrari’s Didier Pironi. But at the start of the race, Pironi was to be involved in a horrific accident. Italian rookie Riccardo Paletti was starting his 2nd race for the little Osella team. He was towards the back of the grid, whilst Pironi was on the front row. When the lights turned to green, the Frenchman stalled, and the unfortunate Paletti, who didn’t see the static Ferrari, rammed into the back of Pironi’s car at high speed. The front of the car crushed Paletti, causing fatal injuries, although the fire which started not long after had little effect. After this 2nd tragedy, the safety regulations were changed, and there wasn’t another fatal accident on a race weekend in F1 for 12 years.

Imola, 1994 – F1’s Blackest Weekend

April 29th 1994 – Rubens Barrichello suffered a huge accident in the 1st qualifying session. He lost control on the 1st part of the tricky Variante Bassa, and the high kerbing acted as a ramp. The Jordan flew into the top of the tyre barriers and rolled along it. Rubens swallowed his tongue in the accident and only the quick actions of the medical team stopped him from choking to death.

April 30th 1994 – Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger of Simtek was killed in a huge 200 mph accident in 2nd quali. Having gone off at Acque Minerale the previous lap, he had damaged the front wing, although he had not realised this. Then, on the approach to the flat-out Villeneuve kink just before Tosa, the front wing failed, sending the Simtek into the wall sideways on at high speed. Ratzenberger, after being treated at the scene, was declared dead on arrival at the hospital, although it is likely he had died on impact and this was done so that the race weekend could continue.

May 1st 1994 – At the start, JJ Lehto of Benetton stalled, and was struck by Lotus’ Pedro Lamy, sending debris into the crowd and injuring a number of spectators.

Not long after the safety car pulled in, Ayrton Senna suffered a high speed crash at Tamburello. The Williams plunged off the circuit at the bend, spearing into the concrete wall. Senna was fatally injured, because of a piece of suspension which pierced his helmet, and/or because of severe head injuries caused by the impact. Either way, it was a tragic end for one of the sport’s all time greats to leave. He is sorely missed, even today, and will never be forgotten.

Adding insult to injury, a wheel from Michele Alboreto’s Minardi which fell off in the pits as the Italian exited, struck and injured a number of mechanics. This led to the introduction of pit lane speed limits in F1.

Jeff Krosnoff + Gary Avrin – Toronto, 1996

10 years have now passed since the tragic accident that claimed driver Krosnoff and marshal Avrin, but neither is and will be forgotten.

Towards the end of the Molson Indy race at the Exhibition Place street circuit in Toronto, Krosnoff was involved in a collision with a number of drivers. Coming down Lakeshore Boulevard, the high speed back stretch of the track, Jeff hit the back of Stefan Johansson’s car, sending Krosnoff’s car flying into the air. The car flipped through the air, striking a tree. It then disintegrated into many pieces, with the monocoque splitting into 2. Jeff was killed instantly, despite efforts to resuscitate him afterwards. Avrin was killed when one of the car’s wheels struck him at high speed. Afterwards, extra precautions were made to ensure that trees were positioned behind barriers – at Toronto, the tree Krosnoff’s car struck was not.

Greg Moore – Fontana, 1999

At the time of his death, Greg was one of the best and most popular drivers in CART. The young Canadian driver had just signed a contract with frontrunners Penske, who won the title the following season. Tragically, he never made it to his new team.

The round at California Speedway, Fontana, was the final round of the season, a season which had already been touched by tragedy. Penske rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez, making his debut after finishing his F3000 season, was killed in an accident at Laguna Seca. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end.

Moore had injured his wrist in a fall before the race, and he had ignored recommendations not race – he always had been a bit of a daredevil. Then, during the race, he lost control at high speed, and headed towards the infield, which at Fontana was then covered in grass. When Greg’s car hit the grass, it flipped it, and it hit the wall partly upside. The roll hoop was crushed against the concrete wall and collapsed, and Greg’s head was crushed against the wall as well, causing fatal head and neck injuries. The car then rolled a number of times and was ripped apart, and despite the actions of the medical team, he died in hospital later that day. CART had lost a popular and brilliant gifted driver and an almost certain future champion.

These are just some of the many tragic accidents which claim the lives of drivers, mechanics, spectators and marshals in motor racing. Even this year there have been fatal accidents, mostly in lower forms of motor sport, although only a few months ago, the IRL lost Paul Dana at Homestead, and in rallying, co-drivers Michael Park and Jorg Bastuck were killed in separate rallies in the WRC, proving that motor racing is still dangerous, despite the many safety precautions that are put in place, and we must never forget this.

This is dedicated to all those that have lost their lives in motor racing. May they rest in peace and never be forgotten.


Written by James Bennett

December 23, 2010 at 22:57

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