On fishing, reinsurance and the pioneer spirit

The recent weeks in motor racing have been sad and serious. It is natural that people should be upset but things must be kept in perspective. At the moment everyone is very sensitive to danger.

They have forgotten that a driver risks his life knowing that he is more likely to die driving to the circuit than actually on it. They forget that racing - believe it or not - it's actually safer than fishing.

Now that sounds unlikely, I am sure, but it's really is true. Any decent doctor will tell you that fishing is the most dangerous sport in the world. Why? Because fisherman like to have long lunches and a couple of beers and afterwards they put on their thigh-length galoshes and wade out into rivers. They slip, lose their balance and fall over, causing water to rush into their long rubber boots, trapping air around their feet. As air is lighter than water this has the effect of turning the fishermen upside-down in the water whereupon they drown.

I expect that most fishermen don't even know galoshes are dangerous but racing drivers know the risks and choose to race nonetheless. They love it. Racing is all about passion and pushing to the limit and the risk is part of the thrill. It is sad that Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed but both died both doing exactly what they wanted to do.

They were willing to gamble and both - in his way - was very successful. Ayrton's success was a ticket to vast wealth and Roland's achievements in Japan had made him personally wealthy. He lived in Monaco and drove a nice Porsche. They both played the F1 lottery. The stakes were high and so were the rewards. Most people in life prefer smaller risks like buying lottery tickets - and thus they have less chance of hitting the jackpot in life.

For the modern racer the risk is greatly reduced The cars are extraordinarily safe to such an extent that drivers now have elaborate insurance policies so their families will be provided if they die. Teams can also insure themselves against the loss of a star.

Insuring racing drivers is a high-risk business, but the insurance men are willing to gamble because the chances are that the drivers will survive and because it is a high-risk game the premiums the drivers have to pay are enormous.

In fact, insurers not only gamble on the lives of racers these days, they also gamble on drivers' careers. It is quite common for a Formula 3000 driver to insure himself against losing. The driver pays his premium - believing he will win the F3000 title - the insurer bets that he will not. If the driver is successful the insurer must pay up, providing the young driver with an instant F1 budget for the following season.

In short, if you can find a man willing to gamble, you can insure yourself against anything. The odds always favor the insurer and, just to make sure, they offset their risk through reinsurance. There are hundreds of wealthy, happy reinsurers in Bermuda, dealing tax-free and creaming profits.

I am told by friends in this reinsurance world that Ayrton Senna had life insurance worth US$19 million and Williams was also insured against losing its star so insurers will have to pay another US$6 million to the team. Rothmans is rumored to have been insured for another US$12 million.

This is sufficient money to pay for another top driver or hire two cheap youngsters and invest in vital research to make the FW16 - and its successors - easier to drive.

The insurance men have lost their gamble with Senna, but when you consider that they have been collecting high premiums from all the drivers for the last 12 years they have come out on top in the long run.

Death doesn't scare most drivers but they do fear permanent injury. It is a subject which makes them very uncomfortable - the unacceptable side of the risk they take.

When it happens, however, drivers have proved to be remarkable men, turning awful circumstances into personal triumphs. Clay Regazzoni has been in a wheelchair since his accident at Long Beach in 1980 but is pretty mobile. He drives and has even raced hand-controlled cars on the Paris-Dakar Rally. Philippe Streiff uses his time to organize such things as the Elf Karting Grand Prix in Paris last winter.

Less well-known is Belgian Andre Malherbe. A former World Motocross Champion, Malherbe raced Formula 3 in the mid-1980s but was left quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident on the Paris-Dakar. The urge to compete remains and Malherbe recently drove an extraordinary prototype, designed by Etienne Mertens, which is controlled entirely by movements of the driver's head and mouth. In competition with all manner of innovatory machines this won the Shell Technical Trophy at the recent Shell Marathon at Paul Ricard.

The Shell Marathon is all about pushing back technical frontiers and there are plenty of weird and wonderful machines on display. The basic idea is to design a car which can go further than any other using just one-liter of lead-free petrol. The winner, for the eighth time in the 10 year history of the event, was a Frenchman called Jean-Yves Thual. He completed 1573.63km on one liter of fuel.

Just think about that for a minute.

Thual and his team mate Paul Paranthoen, who finished second, were driving La Joliverie-Nantes cars, powered by a 30cc four-stroke engine.

Some racing folk laugh when you talk about such things. They mutter about soap box cars powered by sewing machine engines and say that it all means very little. But maybe, in a few decades from now, they will remember these men and their crazy machines as pioneers of a new automotive age. They are pushing back the limits, investing for a world where cars will have to be more environmentally-friendly.

Cigarette companies used to laugh about their clean-living opposition, but today as anti-smoking legislation intensifies, they are rapidly diversifying into new profitable businesses - including insurance!

F1 likes to portray itself as a pioneer sport, pushing back the boundaries of research. When you look closely, however, most F1 technology comes directly from the aerospace industry. Perhaps, at a time when the F1 rules are under discussion, the governing body of the sport should set the F1 engineers challenges which will really benefit the automotive industry. Fuel efficiency and low emissions would be a good start.

The La Joliverie-Nantes may be forgotten forever and the Benetton-Ford B194 may end up in science museums, but somehow I think it might be the other way around.

Either that or they will both be consigned to history's dustbin and the museums will feature Citroen 2CVs converted into speedboats which are now raced in France. The cars are known as "Deudeuches" and feature outboard motors mounted above the rear bumper. These weird machines just go to show that when it comes to motor sport people will do just about anything for a bit of fun.

And that, let us not forget, is what motor racing is all about.

Print Feature