Where Safety Means Danger

Atlas F1

Where Safety Means Danger

by Ewan M. Tytler, U.S.A.

When Michael Schumacher ran into the back of David Coulthard's McLaren on Sunday, his left front suspension disintegrated, as it was designed to do, but the German managed to drive to the pits on three wheels and was fit enough to briskly walk from the car and then "politely" ask David Coulthard for an explanation.

Schumacher's collision with Coulthard was very similar to Gilles Villeneuve's and Didier Pironi's accidents: in 1982, Villeneuve's Ferrari left front-wheel ran into the right rear-wheel of Jochen Mass's March and the Ferrari went airborne. Villeneuve was killed instantly. In a virtually identical accident later that year, his team-mate Pironi broke both his legs, ending his Formula One career. It is a sobering thought that if Michael Schumacher had been driving a Ferrari 126C2 instead of his Ferrari F300, he would have shared the fate of Pironi or Villeneuve. Giancarlo Fisichella did virtually the same thing to Shinji Nakano and also walked away unharmed. Both Michael and Giancarlo should thank their lucky stars that Formula One car safety has made enormous strides over the past 16 years.

However, often when a serious or fatal accident happens at a motor racing event, there is usually a reaction instead of a rational response to the accident, and there is a long history of illogical responses to serious accidents in Formula One. The Monza banking, for example, was closed after Wolfgang Von Trip's fatal accident at the Parabolica, which caused the death of 14 spectators in 1961. But closing the Monza banking did not make the Parabolica any safer - nine years later, Jochen Rindt was also killed at the Parabolica.

Likewise, the original Nurburgring was dropped from the Formula One calendar after Niki Lauda's fiery accident in 1976. It took the death of Ronnie Peterson in 1978 before the real problem was faced, which was that the 1970's Formula One cars were incendiary bombs. Piers Courage (Zandvoort, 1970), Jo Siffert (Brands Hatch, 1971) and Roger Williamson (Zandvoort, 1973) all lost their lives in car fires. Since 1980, Elio de Angelis was the only driver to die from a Formula One car catching fire.

But Niki Lauda's accident did highlight the fact that it takes much longer to get medical help to an injured driver on a long, far-flung circuit like the original Spa-Francorchamps and the Nurburgring, and Zolder, for one, was dropped as the venue for the Belgian Grand Prix after Gilles Villeneuve was killed there in 1982 although the accident was due to a driver error.

But notable of all, was the FIA's reaction to Ayrton Senna's and Roland Ratzenberger's fatal accidents, which included a demand that circuits have chicanes added to slow the cars down. The chicanes were supposed to bring not only track safety to Formula One, but also a closer racing, by slowing the cars down, and bunching them together at the entry points. However, while the slogan "Speed Kills" is somewhat questionable, rapid deceleration most certainly does kill.

Moreover, it is questionable whether the Senna chicanes improve either the safety or the quality of Formula One racing. How does adding a hazard to a circuit improve its safety? Ralf Schumacher's collision with Johnny Herbert at Monza last year and Alexander Wurz's accident at Montreal this year, where he ended upside down sans wheels, both prove, along with other similar incidents, that the Senna chicanes need to go.

Great Grand Prix circuits like Brands Hatch, Kyalami, Monaco, Monza, Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps all had a rhythm to them. Without sounding like a relic from the 60's, they had a "groove" to them that good drivers could get into. Adding chicanes has upset this rhythm. Many Formula One circuits are a lot less "groovy" and a bit more "kinky" than they were in the swinging '60s. From an aesthetic point of view, this makes the driving look ragged, with the cars bouncing over the kerbs and often getting out of balance.

Spa-Francorchamps, although reduced in size, still retains much of its original character and groove. The bus-stop chicane, the La Source hairpin and Eau Rouge are still there. There is no Senna chicane, however Eau Rouge was "Sennatized" after 1994. As of late, it has been restored to its former glory but after Jacques Villeneuve's massive crash between Eau Rouge and the Raidilion on Friday, there was talk of changing Eau Rouge again. Indeed, Eau Rouge is a dangerous venue - Stefan Bellof was killed there in the 1985 1,000 Km sports car race - but Spa without Eau Rouge would be like France without Paris. Furthermore, Villeneuve did survive the crash unharmed - a proof that car safety regulations should preceed any track safety changes.

This was also witnessed when a massive pile up of expensive Formula One hardware was formed at the first start of the race at Spa on Sunday. The amount of shrapnel in the air at Spa was worrying, but the designed break-up of the cars reduced injuries. In a similar incident, in 1973, Jody Scheckter lost control at Woodcote Corner in Silverstone on the opening lap. A huge pile-up followed that resulted in a red flag with 9 cars being unable to make the restart. In both these accidents, there were remarkably few injuries.

Silverstone was quite different then. After Abbey Curve, it was a flat-out sprint to Woodcote Corner, the last corner before the start-finish line. This allowed for thrilling finishes to both Formula One and motorcycle races. But Woodcote was dangerous because the surface was very bumpy. Resurfacing Woodcote would have been a good idea but instead, six corners were added between Abbey and Woodcote. There are now as many corners from Abbey to Woodcote as there was in the entire original 1948 circuit. This complex does not lend itself to an exciting finish to the British Grand Prix, which usually ends in a procession.

Chicanes do have a place in racing tracks - the bus-stop chicane at Spa is quaint, since it is in real life a bus stop; the Goodwood circuit in England, had a chicane built into it from its inception in 1948 and it will still be there for the 50 year anniversary events at this circuit in September. But drivers approaching this (in)famous chicane were faced with a brick wall, an obviously unacceptable dangere and in its time it claimed many victims.

But it was the wall that needed changing, not the track itself. A hazard should be removed, a danger should be elimintated. Notoriously bumpy circuits like Interlagos, Buenos Aires and the Hungaroring should be resurfaced. Sunday's events need only prove that a better use of the pace-car should be practiced. The Senna chicanes, however, are the wrong choice. They have introduced more hazards, increased the number of accidents, reduced the number of passing places and made the driving look ragged.

Not to mention, as I won't be the first to note, that the great Brazilian himself after which these chicanes are named, would not have relished in this disputable honour anyway.

Ewan M. Tytler 1998 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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Ewan M. Tytler is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and drove 250cc Karts between 1973 and 1979. Later he was the Press Officer for the Banff & Moray Kart Club, and published several race reports in "Karting" and "The Scottish Clubman" magazines.