The Grim Reaper's place in F1
MAY 5, 1994
BY JOE SAWARD
Death returns to Formula 1. I don't know how many times I read those words in the aftermath of the San Marino Grand Prix, nor in how many languages I saw them. All I know for sure is that after Imola I was not proud to be a journalist and, on reflection, I believe very strongly that the press did not do a very good job for Grand Prix racing in its hour of need.
What really upset me was the over-reaction to the accidents. Everyone forgot that if you are involved in motor racing you must accept that there will be accidents and, no matter how good the safety, there will inevitably be injuries and deaths.
To think otherwise is like being a member of an RAF fighter squadron in the summer of 1940 and expecting everyone to be back in the same bar night after night.
Every time drivers step into a cockpit they accept the risk that they might die at the wheel of their car. And they are happy to accept that risk. If they do not want to drive they can just walk away.
But the events of Imola had pressmen demanding that the sport be banned; that the cars were dangerous and that the governing body was to blame. There were some who even suggested that Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley were responsible because they cared only for making money.
This sort of reportage was not restricted to one country, nor to one type of magazine. The daily newspapers and the specialist press were as bad as each other.
Worse still was the morality of some of the journalists. I know several cases where quotes were simply invented and this caused terrible upset to those involved. Patrick Head never did say he thought Ayrton Senna's accident was the driver's fault, but that did not stop the story being beamed around the world with fabricated quotes.
Oddly enough the day before Roland Ratzenberger's crash a group of journalists were dining in a local hotel and arguing over the standards employed by F1 journalists today. The general agreement was that even the much respected specialist press in Europe was under increasing pressure from publishing management to dig up scandal rather than write the truth. The truth, quite simply, was not interesting enough.
To many Formula 1 specialists - who are above all enthusiasts - this is hard to swallow. Selling newspapers should be the result of good journalism not the aim of bad journalists.
What was needed was careful analysis of the accidents to determine if there was a common cause. There were not very many pressmen who reached the only possible conclusion. That the accidents of Imola were unrelated and were caused by pure bad luck.
Bad luck, it seems, is not exciting enough for readership-hunting publishers.
No matter how you look at it, the Formula 1 cars of 1994 are incredibly safe. The fact that there had been no deaths in an F1 car since 1986 may have created an illusion of safety, but it was also a testament to the great job that had been done to make F1 safe. Big accidents still happened but they did not have dire results as they did in the 1960s. To illustrate this point I sat down and made a list of crashes between 1986 and 1994 which without technology might have been fatal. I gave up counting when I reached 50.
The one thing about Imola which was worrying was the pitlane crash. The governing body needed to find a way to avoid such a thing with sensible pitlane rules or the end of refuelling - which, in my opinion, adds little to the spectacle of racing.
However the structure of the cars could not be blamed at Imola. Subsequent investigation proved that there was nothing which could have saved Roland Ratzenberger's life, given the scale of the accident he had. In fact the Simtek chassis stood up remarkably well. In Senna's case the suspension came back and hit him on the head. There have been numerous accidents where tires and suspensions might have done the same but in recent years none has been fatal.
The Imola crashes meant that F1 was under particular scrutiny at Monaco, with the press corps swollen by 30%. What F1 needed was a quiet weekend. Time to think about safety changes and not be panicked into taking action.
That wish went out of the window on Thursday morning when Karl Wendlinger's Sauber hit the wall at the harbour chicane. It was another unusual accident, the car hit the wall completely sideways at high-speed and a few centimeters either way would have meant Karl walked away unhurt. Instead he was in a coma and the press went berserk again.
You might say this doesn't matter because nowadays newspapers are there for amusement, not for information. But it does matter because the media coverage is now so important that it is a player in the game. Bad luck was not a good enough excuse. Something had to be changed. The pressure to be seen to be doing something was such that F1 could not ignore them - whether the change was needed or not. And so the sport was railroaded into making rushed changes.
What worries me is that the rule changes which were pushed through to make F1 safer are going to cost a lot of money and put enormous pressure on the teams. When changes are made in a hurry and teams are under pressure then mistakes are more likely to be made.
Sure, reducing downforce is generally a good thing so long as it does not disrupt the fundamental balance of the cars, but what about "strengthening" the front suspension? Nowadays the suspensions are designed to break in a certain way to avoid hurting the drivers. If suspensions are strengthened without proper thought we may find that we have more injuries as a result.
The best kind of change is evolutionary, lessons are learned, thought about and solutions are found. Fast reaction may not consider all the problems involved.
So is F1 safer now than before the new rules were announced? I do not think it is and I feel very strongly that the press must take the blame for that. What do we say if, in a few months from now, someone else is hurt or killed in a new car?