I'm not a car enthusiast or racing fan (I can't even drive), but I've long been haunted by the wonderful, terrible history of Formula One, a tale of breathtaking courage, stupendous recklessness and amazing stupidity. Growing up in the 1970's, every Grand Prix seemed marked by at least one accident, one burned out car, one broken neck, one more nice, posh driver killed or maimed or incinerated. In actual fact, the seventies were a high watermark of safety in the sport's history to date: only ten drivers were killed. Of those, three were British.
At the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix, Colchestarian and Brewery heir Piers Courage (below) died when he skidded off the track and one of his front tyres detached and hit him in the face, probably killing him outright. In an effort to make the car chassis lighter, it had been built containing a large amount of magnesium. When the car crashed this burned so brightly and strongly that the surrounding area caught fire and it was some time before they could recover Courage's body.
At the 1973 Dutch Grand prix, on the same corner, 25 year old Briton Roger Williamson's car burst a tyre, flipped over and caught fire. Williamson was not injured but, due to the slow reactions of poorly equipped race marshalls, he could not be freed before he asphyxiated. It was a pointless and avoidable death. Fellow driver David Purley (pictured) risked his own life to try and help Williamson but, despite desperate efforts was, in the end, forced to walk away. It was only Williamson's second F1 race.
Four years later, at the South African Grand Prix, the Welsh driver Tom Pryce was killed in one of the most horrific incidents in racing history. His car struck race marshall Jansen Van Vuuren who was running across the track to help the Italian driver Zorzi escape from his burning car. The unfortunate steward was torn in half, and the fire extinguisher he was carrying struck Pryce on the head, killing him instantly. Pryce's car continued at high speed for a while before crashing into an Emergency Vehicle bay.
Happily, there hasn't been a Formula One fatality since Ayrton Senna's death in 1994. It's a less interesting sport now for many reasons, but it has to be said that one of the reasons is the reduced risk: not because the public want to see drivers die - but because the drivers who knew that they could die but raced anyway were a far more interesting, braver and idiosyncratic lot and inspired more enthusiasm and admiration.