Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Speed of life (and death)

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.


  1. This post sums up everything I think about Formula 1 (and I can't even drive either).

  2. Actually, I doubt the reason, why F1 isn´t popular anymore, is the reduced risk of drivers dying or people treat drivers as uninteresting individuums cause of lower risks. That´s bullshit. There are so much motorsport desciplines nowadays as popular as in the past: for exaple NASCAR or V8 Supercars. They all are pretty save now, drivers don´t risk to die anymore as in the past. But people still love to follow these racing desciplines. Look how much people were following F1 in times of Michael Schumacher, even if there weren´t drivers dying anymore.. It still was a mass- meeting of motorsport-fans. The only reason why motorsports such as Formula 1 get uninteresting is the decreased amount of action on track, actually because of reglements and too much involvement of aerodynamics destroying the ability for position fights and overtaking. People want to see action and position fights. And Formula 1 can´t offer that anymore. So the interest sinks. That´s the only reason.

    1. Another reason might be that there are no interestin characters in Formual 1 anymore. Too much business, reglements and correctness, too little individual and special driver characters like Prost, Senna, Schumacher etc. standing out of the crowd.