MAURICE HAMILTON

The darker side


We were talking the other day about the remarkable steps made in safety in motor sport. Time goes so quickly and you have to remind yourself that it will soon be 20 years since that terrible weekend at Imola when we lost Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.

Both accidents involved high-speed collisions with concrete. In Ratzenberger’s case, the violence came close to destroying the car, the whole thing triggered by the nose coming off and the wing getting beneath the front wheels. The likeable Austrian had no chance.

Senna was different insofar there was not a broken bone in his body. His death was caused by the sheer fluke of a right-front suspension component, ripped from the car by the impact, penetrating the slot-gap in his crash helmet.

Even now, however, no one can say for certain precisely what caused one of the world’s greatest drivers to veer off the road on the approach to Tamburello. The celebrated film ‘Senna’ quotes observers as suggesting that steering failure was the most likely culprit. But that has never been proven, the broken steering column, hanging limply and graphically over the cockpit sides, is seen more as the effect rather the cause of the impact. Adrian Newey, who has had more access to data than almost anyone, believes his creation went out of control thanks to a slowly deflating rear tyre caused by a puncture picked up from debris caused by a start line shunt.

Massive lessons have been learned since 1 May 1994. No longer would the cars be allowed to run through debris behind the Safety Car. Indeed, the Safety Car itself is now a high-performance state of the art AMG Mercedes SL and not the pathetic Opel saloon car run at Imola. Cockpit sides have been heightened, the cars strengthened and the likelihood of wheels being set free has been decreased thanks to the use of tethers.

We’ve seen some spectacular and terrifying shunts since then but the consequences have not been tragic. No one, however, would be daft enough to assume that the cars are perfectly safe. The quest to protect spectators, officials and drivers is relentless. And always will be because the nature of our business demands it.

I was reminded of this on Saturday morning while having breakfast in the Mount Errigal Hotel, headquarters for the Topaz Donegal International Rally. First reports of Craig Breen’s accident were coming through from Sicily and, as the tweets continued, the shocking reality dawned that Gareth Roberts, Breen’s 24- year-old co-driver, had lost his life in the Targa Florio Rally, a round of the IRC. Roberts was seen by those who knew the pint-sized Welshman as an absolute star of the future. It was a tragedy beyond words.

For those of us wearing racing overalls and about to tackle tarmac special stages in the rain, I can tell you that many breakfast tables were pretty subdued. You didn’t need to be a brain surgeon to register that everyone present had received a terrible reminder of the flip side of our sport.

But what do you do? What would Gareth Roberts have done? You gather up your time cards, pace notes and road book and head for parc fermé determined to literally drive through this. When you pull on a crash helmet, you know the risk.

Like racing drivers say, closing the visor is like entering another world. For rally crews, the equivalent is pulling the seat harness even tighter and watching the clock count down the start to the next special stage. Then you’re off into a fantastic zone, heightened in this case by some of rallying’s truly outstanding special stages, sweeping round Fanad Head and Atlantic Drive or rushing into and through the village of Glen, complete with its pub and occupants enthused by a glass or two of Guinness and rallying in its purest form.

The Donegal Rally has seen its share of sadness over the decades but, despite some cars ending up in ditches and no longer possessing the smooth lines their manufacturers intended, this year’s event was free from bad news. But that is not to say next year’s rally and the one after that will be without the usual high standard of safety procedures any more than world rallying should ignore lessons learned in Sicily.

It seems the accident had worrying circumstances similar to those that came close to killing Robert Kubica when a crash barrier penetrated the cockpit of his Skoda. Clearly, steps need to be need taken to include some form of forward protection inside rally cars simply because it is impossible to legislate for proper crash barrier installation on thousands of special stage miles around the world. It is the least the FIA can do to honour the name of a young man cruelly taken from us by the sport he loved.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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