Sports Editorial: Safety Back in Spotlight

After two deaths in as many weeks, the contentious issue of safety in motor sport is back in the public eye. Following former two time British Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon’s tragic death in a 15 car pile up, MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli was involved in a horrific accident resulting in an immediate red flag. Whilst Simoncelli’s accident has been correctly described as unavoidable by one safety official, the Wheldon incident has raised a few serious questions about the balance between entertainment and drivers safety.


Many observers have cited the nature of Indy Car racing as the principle cause of the accident rather than the technology contained in the car. The races operate a rolling start on an oval track surrounded by a concrete wall giving the driver no margin for error. Throw into the equation the fact that cars can often be running four abreast and traveling at speeds of up to 225mph in open cockpit cars and the magnitude of the danger is laid bare. Whilst fans of the sport would argue that the speed and nature of the oval track is part of the excitement which gives the sport its unique appeal, a balance needs to be struck to ensure there is no repeat of such tragic incidents.


Throughout the history of motor sport, advances in safety have often been preceded by hideous or sometimes fatal accidents. One of the foremost campaigners for an increase in safety in Formula 1 was British legend Jackie Stewart. Stewart himself was involved in an accident in 1966 at Spa, Belgium when he careered off the track at 165mph in heavy rain. He hit a telephone pole and a shed resulting in his steering column pinning down his leg and the fuel tank leaking into the cockpit. At the time of the incident there were no doctors or medical facilities at the track and Stewart described himself as being left on a stretcher on the floor, ‘surrounded by cigarette ends,’ waiting for an ambulance to arrive. When it eventually came to his aid the ambulance lost its police escort and was unable to find the hospital in Liege. Stewart was eventually flown back to the UK for treatment in a private plane.


Following this incident Stewart became an outspoken advocate of implementing various safety initiatives including full head helmets, on site medical teams and the mandatory use of seat-belts, describing the safety at race tracks when he entered Formula 1 as diabolical.   When he first entered Formula 1, a driver undertaking a five year career had a 2 two in three chance of death. Stewart organised boycotts of circuits and had it not been for his success as a driver, his relentless pursuit of improved safety standards could have made him even more unpopular than it did.


His work greatly improved standards in the sport however in 1994 perhaps the most infamous incident in Formula 1 history occurred in San Marino. Ayrton Senna left the track at 205mph and crashed into the surrounding concrete barrier. A snapped suspension column came back into the cockpit, forcing his head back into the head rest resulting in a fatal brain trauma. This incident in the race was preceded by the death of Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying, again due to a high speed collision with a concrete wall. When Senna was extricated from the car an Austrian flag was found inside the cockpit, which he had intended to raise after the race in memory of Ratzenberger. Following this incident the run off areas and gravel traps around the tracks were greatly improved, along with the implementation of tyre walls around the tracks. These initiatives have meant that subsequent crashes in Formula 1 have largely been restricted to relatively minor injuries. However standards are still far from perfect; two seasons ago Ferrari driver Felipe Massa was struck on the head by a flying spring from another car.


Whilst Formula 1 has been at the forefront of safety initiatives, the less publicised motor sports have sadly lagged behind, as is highlighted by the recent Dan Wheldon incident. Some of the technological advances now being suggested include an enclosed cockpit similar to that found in jet-fighter planes and already used in the Le Mans 24, a 24 hour endurance race hosted in France. During the most recent event Mike Rockenfeller was involved in a serious crash. He received no injuries on account of the enclosed cockpit within the car. The use of these cockpits has now been mooted in Formula 1 following the aforementioned incident involving Massa.


The sports governing bodies are likely to attempt to thwart these changes because the high speed and daredevil aspects of motor racing are part of its global appeal. People have always been attracted to sports with a high risk factor as this adds to the thrill and excitement. However with two fatal accidents occurring in the last fortnight, eerily coinciding with the release of the film gauging the life of the great Aryton Senna, the time is now to rectify the issues and make the sport safer for the drivers. The problem for the governing bodies is how to balance safety with the drivers pursuit of adrenaline.

Written by: Robbie Gill


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