Atlas F1

Reflections On Silverstone

by Roger Horton, England

For the fleeting amount of time it took Michael Schumacher's Ferrari to plough through the gravel trap on the exit of Stowe corner until the almost head-on contact with the tyre wall, he must have known it was going to hurt.

Drivers seem to have an almost sixth sense of what the consequences will be, in the split second that follow the loss of control. From being the master of his machine to being its slave, in the blink of an eye can be a defining moment in a driver's career.

For Michael Schumacher this reality came in his 126th Formula One race. He had of course crashed before, but always without injury. There can be no doubt that as he recovers in the weeks to come, the memories of that approaching wall will be a constant companion. Another mind game to play, fear - another foe to conquer.

Since that defining and terrible year of 1994, Formula One we are told is now safer than ever. There can be no question that the measures introduced progressively since then have saved lives and reduced injuries. Silverstone '99 will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to the FIA that there is still much to be done.

Michael Schumacher is the third driver in eight races to suffer injuries so far this season; both Ricardo Zonta and Heinz-Harald Frentzen would have suffered severe head injuries if not for the raised cockpit sides introduced for the 1996 season. As it was they too suffered leg injuries of varying severity.

Flying wheels on race tracks are another matter altogether. If an out-of-control racing car's trajectory has at least some relation to its speed and direction prior to its loss of control, the wheel of a racing car, once detached but with its momentum still intact, can cause total mayhem.

In the last year or so, six spectators have been killed through detached racing car wheels flying off into the crowd following accidents in open wheel racing in the United States of America. The recent history in Formula One is really no better, just luckier. In '97 Jacques Villeneuve's championship challenge ended in Suzuka when a rear wheel detached itself from his Williams and cleared one safety fence only to be restrained by another. At Spa last year the sight of multiple wheels bouncing around long after the cars were stationery concentrated minds enough to see the introduction of tethers to minimise the risk of a repeat.

When Mika Hakkinen's left rear wheel parted company from his McLaren, bouncing back from the restraining fence onto the track and into the path of the mid-field pack, a whole lot of collective breaths were held. Nothing is going to save a driver making frontal contact with an errant wheel and they know it. Schumacher's accident may have grabbed the headlines but the potential for tragedy from this flying wheel was greater and more importantly - it put non participants at risk. Fortunately for Formula One all these incidents happened at relatively low speed, but one day the luck will run out.

With both lead drivers out of the race it became a struggle of the number twos. In the end David Coulthard's win was well deserved although it always looked as if the race would be decided in the pits. Eddie Irvine came down to earth from his high-horse long enough to admit to making a race-losing mistake by over-shooting his pits during his first stop. The extra amount of time it took for his pit crew to service his car allowed Coulthard through to take the lead.

Irvine seems to be revelling in his self-appointed role as Formula One's bad boy, but even he was forced into an embarrassing climb down after his comments during the post race press conference were not deemed respectful enough to his injured teammate. Incredibly we now have the previously unimaginable scenario that Irvine is Ferrari's only real hope of bringing the long sought after drivers' title to Maranello in '99, given that Schumacher looks like missing at least three races.

With the McLaren team's reliability still very suspect and Irvine now level with Michael Schumacher, just eight points adrift of defending champion Mika Hakkinen, he has everything to go for and nothing to lose.

Ralf Schumacher continues to impress and there can be little doubt that if and when the Williams is a race winner, then they have the driver to get the job done. The modifications made by the team for this Silverstone race were clearly a major step forward and the points scored by the car were earned from the front, rather than just collected from the rear, as has been the case most times this year.

The BAR team's terrible year continues, with again both cars retiring with mechanical problems. Clearly you need more than money to succeed in Formula One and currently it is hard to see any real progress being made. Just what Honda's thoughts are in seeing Jordan, the team they spurned, going from strength to strength is anybody's guess.

Damon Hill pretty much gave the sell out Silverstone crowd what they had come to see. He was competitive all weekend and even managed to get the jump on his teammate at the first start. Only Johnny Herbert getting a ten second stop/go penalty prevented all four British drivers finishing in the top six and he eventually had to settle for a 12th place finish.

The '99 British Grand Prix was undoubtedly the pivotal race of the season so far. It was a reminder also, that behind the facade of hi-tech wizardry that is the modern Formula One car, things can still go terribly wrong and sometimes even the best teams can make mistakes. It should never be forgotten, that each and every time a driver leaves the pit-lane, only his skill, and the integrity of the car, will bring him back.

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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