CFM: The Dark Side of Motorsport – Part 2
Published at Chequered Flag Motorsport on 15th October 2006
Due to the popularity of my previous article “The Dark Side of Motorsport”, I’ve decided to write this follow up. It will once again concentrate on motor racing’s darkest hours, with high profile and not so high profile tragedies from over the years. **However, I must warn you that there are a number of bits in this that some of you may find distressing, as I have included some things I didn’t include in the last one.**
In the 1950s, in my opinion, Formula 1 got a bit lucky in terms of fatalities, considering how little thought was given to safety in those years. Mike Hawthorn summed it up, saying “If you take away the normal hazards of motor racing, you take away the reasons for going motor racing”.
The championship’s first fatality was Onofre Marimon, the young protégé of Juan Manuel Fangio, who was killed in an accident at the Nurburgring in 1954 – the 4th year of the official championship, although there had been and would be fatalities in non-championship events. We also lost Luigi Musso and Peter Collins of Ferrari and Stuart Lewis-Evans of Vanwall in 1958 – this should have been a bit of a wake-up call, but little was done safety-wise. Not only that but the cars were getting less safe too.
The 1960 Belgian GP would go down as one of the worst in F1 history, and probably stood as F1’s worst weekend until Imola ’94. It started in practice. Stirling Moss, racing a Rob Walker-run Lotus 18, crashed at the 135 mph Burnenville corner after a rear hub broke, causing the rear wheel to fall off. Thrown out in the ensuing crash, he suffered fractures in both his legs and keeping the British star out for most of the season. Soon after, Mike Taylor, also driving a private Lotus 18, crashed into a ditch when his steering column broke. He suffered a number of broken bones and a neck injury, ending his F1 career prematurely.
The tragedy continued on race day. Chris Bristow, a 22 year old British driver driving for the private Yeoman Credit Racing Team, was having a fabulous battle in his Cooper with Ferrari’s Willy Mairesse. But, just over halfway through the race, his car left the road at the same spot as Moss’. In the resultant brutal accident, Bristow was decapitated in the impact with the trees. But, the race, and the tragedies, continued. 26 year old Alan Stacey of Lotus, famous for having an artificial leg, was hit in the face by a bird at high speed, causing a huge crash in which the Brit died. Jim Clark, team mate of Stacey and having narrowly avoided what was left of the unfortunate Bristow, despised the circuit from now on, although went on to win 4 times at the circuit before his own tragic death in 1968 in an accident in a needless F2 race at Hockenheim.
Francois Cevert – Watkins Glen, 1973
Watkins Glen was the traditional host of the US GP from 1961 right the way through to 1980. It saw many great moments, including Innes Ireland’s only championship win, and Emerson Fittipaldi’s 2nd world title victory in 1974, after a 3 way battle to the last event. But, in 2 consecutive years, it saw 2 tragic accidents, which claimed the lives of 2 drivers who couldn’t have been more apart.
Francois Cevert was France’s great young hope. He was picked up by Tyrrell in 1970, replacing the retired Johnny Servoz-Gavin alongside Jackie Stewart. Over the next 3 years, the Frenchman flourished, being a useful number 2 to Stewart and assisting him to the 1971 and 1973 titles. He took his only win at Watkins Glen in 1971. However, in a cruel twist of fate, 2 years later, he would lose his life in the most awful of accidents.
The 1973 US GP was due to be his team mate Stewart’s 100th and final race. He had wrapped up the title with Cevert’s assistance, although Jackie later admitted that Francois could’ve passed him if he had wanted to. But Francois maintained that ’74 would be his year, when the baton would be passed from the Scot to him. But, in practice, tragedy struck.
In the fast Esses, Cevert lost control at high speed. It was a corner which he took in a different gear to Stewart, and in which the car had felt unstable with both. At 150 mph+, he overcorrected going through the bends, and the resulting accident was huge. He hit the barrier on the right of the track at a mild angle, but hit the opposite barrier head on. This was not properly secured, and the lower and middle rails buckled, causing the car to wedge underneath. The momentum caused the car to turn over whilst still through the barrier, inflicting massive damage on the car. It slid along the top rail for a short distance before coming to rest upside down the other side of the barrier. Francois was killed instantly, effectively being ripped in 2. Stewart, along with a number of other drivers, stopped not long after the accident took place, said the marshals had left him because “he was so clearly dead”. It left Carlos Pace wondering why they raced if things like this could happen. F1 had lost one of it’s bright young stars.
Helmuth Koinigg – Watkins Glen, 1974
A year on, 25 year old Helmuth Koinigg had just come off the back of his 1st GP start at Mosport. He was driving for Surtees, having replaced Jose Dolhem. He knew the Watkins Glen circuit well, and his girlfriend lived in nearby New York. But, that weekend, his dreams turned to disaster.
By lap 9 of the race, Koinigg was up to 21st, when he suffered his tragic accident. In the Boot section of the track, the part that was built in 1971 when the track was extended and revamped, Koinigg’s car went straight on at the Toe, plowing through the catch fencing and into the barrier. Though, it didn’t go into the barrier – more under it. Once again, it had not been fully secured, and the car went under the barrier, decapitating Helmuth. The race carried on, however, and Koinigg was left in the car, which was covered by a tarp, for the whole race, such were the rules for the marshals. It is believed the Cevert tragedy from a year before would’ve caused this.
From then on at The Glen, the barriers were fastened down properly to prevent any repeats of the 2 tragic accidents. But it is ironic that whilst most people remember Cevert and his tragic passing, Koinigg remains one of Formula 1’s forgotten sacrifices.
Ronnie Peterson – Monza, 1978
The Lotus 79 was the dominant car of 1978. Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson destroyed the opposition on a number of occasions, with its secret weapon being ground effect created by the car’s design, particularly the underside of the car and the sidepods. Peterson remained a faithful number 2 to Andretti, following him home as in the contract on a number of occasions, to prevent them colliding or any bitterness and disputes between the drivers.
The Italian GP was the 3rd to last round of the championship. Only the USA and Canada remained after. Mario had a chance to take the title at his “home” track, having been born in Italy despite emigrating to the USA at a young age. Although his passport said he was American, his heart was Italian.
In practice, Ronnie damaged his 79 beyond repair. He replaced it with the 78 model from the previous year – although it wasn’t perfect, it was still a pretty effective car. Little did he know that in the long run, this would cost him his life.
At the end of the parade lap, the cars lined up on the grid on Monza’s wide start-finish straight. However, when the race started, not all the cars were stationary, and this caused bunching. As the cars were funnelled into the narrow section leading into the first chicane, there was a collision. James Hunt in the McLaren had been squeezed by Arrows’ young star Riccardo Patrese. Hunt made contact with Peterson, and chaos ensued. Peterson was sent flying into the barriers, which once again were not properly secured. The front of the car went under the armco barrier, seriously damaging the front of the car. In the large pile-up behind, a number of cars crashed out. Vittorio Brambilla, in the orange Beta March, was struck on the head by a flying wheel. The race was stopped.
Peterson’s car was in flames at this point. Hunt pulled the Swede out. He still conscious but had suffered serious leg injuries in the crash, probably made worse by the fact that he was driving the 78 instead of the 79. There were also serious concerns for Brambilla, who had suffered serious head injuries. The 2 were rushed to hospital, the debris was cleared, and the race was run. Lauda took the win from Watson and the new champion Andretti, who took the title in the most appaling of circumstances.
That evening, Ronnie underwent an operation on his legs. He had been fully conscious up until that point, and was worried that he might miss the rest of the season. However, on the operating table, Ronnie suffered an embolism, a blood clot, which tragically the doctors could not have forecast or do anything about. Lotus, after the tragedies of 1961 (Clark was involved in the accident that killed Von Trips and the spectators) and 1970, had once again been hit hardest at Monza, and the great Italian circuit claimed another great driver.
(For the record, Brambilla went on to make a full recovery, and returned at Monza the following year)
Gonzalo Rodriguez – Laguna Seca, 1999
Unlike some of its South American neighbours like Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay is not known for its racing stars. Gonzalo Rodriguez broke that pattern, though. He was probably Uruguay’s most famous and best racing driver.
He made his F3000 debut in 1997. It was not an outstanding season by any stretch of the imagination – he finished 22nd and last of the point scorers (and a competitive bunch they were, with drivers including Ricardo Zonta, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tom Kristensen and future Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner). He scored just ½ a point, which came at the Nurburgring, after the race was stopped early after a huge accident for Dino Morelli.
The following year saw Rodriguez emerge as a star of the series. 7 podiums, including 2 wins, saw him rise to 3rd in the championship, behind future F1 stars Nick Heidfeld and winner Juan Pablo Montoya. It seemed almost certain that Gonzalo was destined for a top flight series.
1999 saw this promise realised. He stayed in F3000, although he was now 27. After more great results, including a win at the prestigious Monaco GP support race, and 2nd places at Barcelona and Spa, he finished 3rd overall in the series. But he had also got a break on the other side of the Atlantic. In CART, Penske had a rotating driver line-up. Rodriguez was given a chance at Detroit, finishing in 12th place with 1 point. He was given a 2nd chance at Laguna Seca in California, but that’s where it all ended for Gonzalo.
2 weeks after a 2nd place at Spa, the penultimate round in the 1999 F3000 season, Rodriguez travelled to Laguna Seca, to drive for Penske for the 2nd and what would be the final time. In practice, it all went wrong. At the Corkscrew corner, the famous plunging right-left combination, Rodriguez failed to stop. He bounced over the short gravel trap, and hit the tyre barrier. The car then cartwheeled over the barrier and landed upside down on the other side. He was killed instantly, as he suffered a basilar skull fracture (see Earnhardt) on the initial impact, and CART and the motor racing world mourned a great driver who had so much more to give.
Dale Earnhardt – Daytona, 2001
Dale Earnhardt was one of the greatest drivers in the history of stock car racing. His is one of the few names that motor racing fans will associate with NASCAR, America’s premier stock car championship. A multiple champion over many years, on his day he was unbeatable.
In 2000, there were a number of tragic accidents in stock car racing. In testing at New Hampshire, both Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr were killed in similar accidents at similar places on the track. Both had died from basilar skull fractures, as had Tony Roper, a Craftsman Truck driver. This is when the spinal cord effectively disconnects from the brain – I’ve heard it described as “internal decapitation” and also that it’s effectively 100 times the neck ache you get when you are hit from behind in a traffic accident.
To prevent this injury, scientists developed the Head And Neck Support or HANS device. This restricts head and neck movement during an accident, and can survive unlimited amounts of G, making it an invaluable safety device in motor racing.
When it was introduced into NASCAR, it was not made mandatory, and a group of drivers, led by Earnhardt, were dead against it, Earnhardt nicknaming it “the noose”, because he claimed it could hang you. How wrong he was.
In the closing stages of the 2001 Daytona 500, it was looking good for Earnhardt’s team. Team mate Michael Waltrip was leading, his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr, was 2nd, and Dale Sr was running 3rd. But he was involved in a battle, with a number of other drivers fighting over the final podium spot. On the final lap of the race, they all started to crowded round the tail of Earnhardt’s car, causing the car to “fishtail” (sway from side to side) due to a lack of rear downforce down the back straight. His car ran down into the inside lane, and came back across the track, making contact with Ken Schrader’s car and hitting the wall. It seemed at the time that it was only a light crash, and as Waltrip celebrated an emotional victory, concern was growing. Schrader had emerged from his car, but Earnhardt had not.
Earnhardt too had died of a basilar skull fracture. It is such a tragedy that if he had been wearing a HANS device, the device that he was completely against, and also a full face helmet instead of the open face one he used, then he probably wouldn’t have died. After the tragedy, the HANS device was made legal not just in NASCAR, but across all forms of top level motor racing. But as in many cases, it took the loss of a great driver to prompt action.
The Wales Rally GB 2005 – my account of the tragedy
I’ve followed the Wales Rally GB, or as it was known, the RAC Rally, since the age of 2. That year, 1993, saw world champion Juha Kankkunen take victory in the ice and snow, as Colin McRae was robbed with engine problems. I fell in love with the cars and the event. When I heard the theme music to Top Gear Rally Report (Jewelled by Propaganda, if you want to know), I knew that the rally was in Britain again.
Back in those days, it was a 4 day event, with long, gruelling stages hard on cars and drivers alike, the drivers including some of the best ever, like Kankkunen, Vatanen, Auriol, Sainz, Wilson, McRae (my all-time rallying hero), Burns, Makinen, and later Gronholm, Solberg and Loeb. But by the time those later drivers arrived, it was down to 3 days, with less and shorter stages. It was and still is a great event – anything can happen, as I found out last year.
Having listened to Rally Radio via the WRC website the previous day, I was excited at the prospect of doing it all again as the rally drew to an exciting climax on the Sunday. I got up early to catch the first stage, and it was all going smoothly. But at Margam Park, news from the stage surprisingly stopped, and music started playing. All they announced (twice) was that there had been an accident involving the car of Estonian Markko Martin, Peugeot driver and one of the stars of the series, and his English co-driver Michael Park, and that the stage had been cancelled. The 2nd announcement, which came after a period of music, revealed Park had been injured, but no more was said. For over 2 hours, the music continued, with no further news.
My father had by now got up, and asked what was happening. I told him, so he suggested looking around various websites for news. For a while, there was nothing. My father joked that one had been killed, but it was just a joke. But soon the humour went. On one of the websites, it announced that Michael Park had been killed in an accident on the stage. I was stunned – a fatality, in the WRC (the first for 12 years), on my back garden (almost literally – the rally ran for a period on stages only a couple of miles from my house)? I searched around other websites, hoping that for some reason, there had been a mistake, but soon, it started appearing elsewhere. I was devasted.
Obviously having watched the rally for so long, I had seen their rise to the top. I remember Markko from before, noting that there was an Estonian in the rally – quite surprising considering Estonia’s not a country famous for its motor racing. He had been with Park since, and they drove for both the Subaru and, more famously, Ford works teams. In 2002, they were thrust into the spotlight in a fantastic battle with fellow young gun Petter Solberg. In the end it was Solberg who took his 1st win, and Markko and Michael had to wait until the following season to take their debut win. By this time they had risen to number 1 status at Ford, after McRae and Sainz both left. They continued at Ford until 2005, when they joined Peugeot for what would be their final season.
During the stage at Margam, the car had stepped out in a fast corner, and hit a tree very hard on Park’s side. The whole of the side of the car caved in, and Park probably died instantly from massive injuries.
It was one of the saddest days in all my years of following motor racing. I never thought that something like that could happen in the WRC, especially with safety levels being such a high priority and motor racing just generally being so safe these days (although not 100% safe) at this present time. However, when your driving down narrow gravel roads at high speed with trees, walls and people so close to you, and such a narrow margin for error, it is understandable that sadly, sometimes these things do happen.
Scott Brayton, Tony Renna & Paul Dana – IRL 1996/2003/2006
The Indy Racing League hasn’t got the best reputation as a safe series. It’s brief history had been tainted, amongst other things, by the number of large crashes, the first of which happened in its first season.
Veteran driver Scott Brayton took pole for the 1996 Indy 500. The 37 year old had also taken pole in 1995, and was an experienced driver, with 148 Indycar races and 14 Indy 500s. However, 6 days later, in the free practice session, a rear tyre deflated at high speed. Brayton’s car spun round and hit the concrete wall on its side at 230 mph. Brayton was killed instantly. He was the first fatality during an Indy 500 session since 1992, and was also the IRL’s first.
In 2003, a series of frightening accidents brought the IRL into the spotlight. First, Mario Andretti, making a comeback in testing in place of Tony Kanaan, suffered a massive crash and IMS, hitting debris from Kenny Brack’s car and flipping several times, hitting the top of the catchfencing.
Then, in October, at the last round of the season at Fort Worth, Brack himself was involved in a massive crash. Colliding with Tomas Scheckter down the back straight, his car was sent high into the catchfencing. The car was completely torn apart, and just the monocoque was left, but amazingly, the 1998 champion survived with a broken back, and is now back racing again. He also took David Purley’s record for surviving the most G.
Then, just a couple of weeks later, in private testing at Indianapolis, there was another disaster. Young star Tony Renna, who had just signed up for top team Chip Ganassi Racing, was killed in a horrifying accident. No footage exists of the accident, presumably because it was testing, and if there was any, the footage would’ve been either destroyed or hiden. Only pictures of the catchfencing exist, though it is clear it was a big accident, because it was completely destroyed.
It is not completely known what happened, although it is said to be something like this. Renna lost control at 227 mph going into Turn 3. He went across the inside grass, and when the car went from the unbanked to the banked sections of the track, it took off, and hit the catchfencing with horrendous concequences. It is rumoured that significant pieces of the car and Renna were hanging in the catchfencing, and there were also pieces in and under the stands. There was huge damage to the catchfencing and the stands were also damaged.
The reasons why this crash, and the pictures and videos have been kept out of reach of the public are unknown, though it’s probably a combination of the fact that many people would’ve been killed or injured if it had been a race day, Renna’s injuries were so gruesome, and Toyota were about to join up to the IRL, and they didn’t want to put them off. It is therefore completely understandable why information about the crash, pictures and video footage have been hidden away somewhere or destroyed.
In 2005, there was another huge accident, though this time, the driver was luckier. At Chicagoland Speedway, CGR’s Ryan Briscoe locked wheels with Alex Barron, sending the Aussie flying into the catchfencing. In a similar accident to Brack’s, the car disintegrated in the fencing, but once again, the strength of the modern single-seater left Briscoe with only a broken collarbone.
But less than a year on, tragedy returned. At Homestead, the opening round of the season, in free practice, Ed Carpenter of Vision Racing had a sizeable accident at speed. The yellow flags and cockpit lights came on, but Rahal Letterman’s Paul Dana failed to slow down. He clipped debris from the accident, damaging his suspension, before smashing into the rear of Carpenter’s car at high speed. Dana’s Ethanol-sponsored car flew into the air before landing and rolling on, whilst Carpenter’s span round a number of times. He suffered only concussion, but Dana’s injuries were much more serious, and he died not long after the emergency crews got to him. Death had returned to top flight motor racing, a reminder that motor sport is still dangerous.
You may be wondering how I know so much about these sad events. I’m not a sick person – I have always hated dead bodies. The reason why I find these things out is because I’m so inquisitive. It’s a natural part of the human brain to search for these things sometimes, especially when you’ve read about them in books loads of times, but have never seen any pictures or videos. So when I get the chance, I find out about them. I watch the videos, though I don’t like the graphic ones – having seen it a couple of times, I never want to see the Tom Pryce accident again. However, unlike some people, I don’t regret watching them.
At the end of the day, they are part of motor racing history, and as tragic as they are, they will always be key parts of motor racing history, and we can never improve for the future if we don’t learn from the past.
Once again, this is dedicated to all that have lost their lives doing what they loved best – driving, marshalling or watching motor racing. I hope they’re all racing up in heaven against the other drivers that have left us, being marshalled and watched by the others that have tragically passed away.