Hard times

These last weeks have been hard for the Grand Prix people. People get worn down by as the year progresses. It has been a long summer -- with races every few days -- and no real break worth talking about. The summer holidays came and went and for the F1 folk all these mean is that the airports are more crowded and the flights delayed more than normal.

Take a wander around the paddock and you will be amazed by the number of people who are ill. Influenza and other viruses have a field day. People have run themselves into the ground.

At the same time the late European races see a lot more tension in the paddock than is normal. The pressures of the silly season make people more irritable.

This year it has been worse than normal. The Spanish GP a tense affair in the wake of Martin Donnelly's horrendous accident in qualifying. We have grown used to seeing huge accidents in F1, watching drivers crawl unharmed from the wreckage of destroyed cars.

The feeling in the paddock has long been that F1 is immensely safe.

On that Friday afternoon, we were reminded -- in the most unpleasant fashion -- of the dangers of Grand Prix racing. The sickening sight of a driver thrown from his car and lying on the track, is not something that F1 has seen for eight years. The last time it was Gilles Villeneuve at Zolder in 1982...

Donnelly crashed head-on into the barriers at one of the fast right-handers behind the paddock. The closed-circuit television cameras flashed up awful images of a twisted and motionless body, lying on the tarmac. It looked, at that ghastly moment, that Martin could not have survived the crash.

It was profoundly shocking.

The paddock suddenly became a very lonely place. Small groups gathered, everyone asking the same questions. The rumors were bad -- as they always are when no-one really knows.

Martin was taken to the medical center and, gradually, reports began to filter out. Martin had regained consciousness. He had spoken to a doctor. It seemed that a miracle had occurred.

"It just makes you realize how fragile you are," said Ayrton Senna later. "It makes you realize that something like this can happen to any of us, because there are some situations which are out of control. It's a difficult thing to cope with. It gives you a little bit more feeling of self-preservation when you drive next time."

At such moments the Grand Prix people close ranks -- become a family. It puts everything into perspective.

As the evening closed in, the paddock cleared quickly -- people did not want to be there. For the first time in many months, Nigel Mansell was able to walk quietly out of the paddock -- no longer mobbed by hordes of reporters trying to find out if he had signed for Williams.

And then, as Donnelly lay recovering slowly in hospital in London, there came the news of Sandro Nannini's helicopter accident.

Sandro is almost universally liked among Grand Prix people and his accident was another shock to the already shocked circus. It hurt that another of their number had been injured.

The group psychology of the F1 circus is a complex thing -- difficult for those on the outside to understand. In the coming weeks a new book is to be published trying to throw some light on the F1 mentality. It is called, quite simply, Grand Prix People and is the work of Gerald Donaldson, who wrote the highly-acclaimed biography of Gilles Villeneuve.

Donaldson makes no judgements. He has interviewed 110 people involved in F1 and he lets them tell their own story. Pieced together these opinions create a fascinating insight into the way that F1 works. He draws no conclusions beyond the final words of the book. The subject of that final interview is Bernie Ecclestone. What does he make of Grand Prix people?

"They're all a bit mad..."

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