Features - News Feature

JULY 1, 1997

Formula 1 drivers: coping with injury


Olivier Panis's broken legs are likely to be fixed within a couple of months and he should be racing again before the end of the season. Olivier is now at the Centre Reeducation et de Readaptation Sportive in the seaside resort of Treboul-Douarnenez, near Quimper in the Brittany region of north-western France. Dr Gilles Sauleau reckons that it will be at least at least the end of July before Panis can walk although he is already working in the swimming pool to ensure that he maintains the necessary muscle in his legs and keeps up his pre-accident levels of cardio-vascular fitness. If all this is successful Panis could be racing again in mid-September.

Olivier Panis's broken legs are likely to be fixed within a couple of months and he should be racing again before the end of the season. Olivier is now at the Centre Reeducation et de Readaptation Sportive in the seaside resort of Treboul-Douarnenez, near Quimper in the Brittany region of north-western France. Dr Gilles Sauleau reckons that it will be at least at least the end of July before Panis can walk although he is already working in the swimming pool to ensure that he maintains the necessary muscle in his legs and keeps up his pre-accident levels of cardio-vascular fitness. If all this is successful Panis could be racing again in mid-September.

"I hope to be fit at the start of September," says Olivier, "I certainly want to drive as soon as possible - but one must be realistic. I must take my time because I want to come back 150% fit so that I am competitive right away and can give my best."

But how easy will that be? Injury is a part of motor racing just as it is a part of any dangerous sport.

"There's hardly a sport that is not dangerous," says F1's doctor Professor Sid Watkins, "except perhaps snooker. The physical sports, the contact sports all have their injuries and their fatalities from time to time."

There are two very different aspects to consider when one discusses the effects of accidents on Grand Prix drivers: physical effects and psychological damage.

In general most F1 drivers do not believe that they will have an accident and if they do they immediately know that they want to race again. They have learned to accept accidents in the junior formulae. Sometimes as drivers get older they find that their views change. Gerhard Berger admits that as he gets older it is harder to accept accidents.

"When you are young obviously you want to race a lot," he says. "It is your life. You have accidents, you see accidents. Maybe you see people die, but it does not affect you so much. When you are older you feel completely different. You realise that there are other aspects of life which are very important."

It is very rare that an F1 driver emerges from an accident unscathed and then decides that they do not want to take further risks. It did happen in May 1985 to Frenchman Francois Hesnault. He had a huge accident in his Brabham-BMW in the high-speed Verreries sweepers at Paul Ricard. His car ended up completely wrapped in catchfencing and it took a long time before he could be released. Hesnault was badly shaken and quit the sport immediately. A year later at the same corner Italian Elio de Angelis crashed his Brabham at the same spot and died while trapped under the upturned machine. Perhaps Hesnault was right.

Overcoming fear is slightly different problem. After his fiery accident at the Nurburgring in 1976, Niki Lauda returned to F1 for the Italian GP at Monza - just 33 days afterwards. His burns were barely beginning to heal.

"I said then and later on that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly," Niki says. "That was a lie, but it would have been foolish to tell the truth and play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza I was rigid with fear."

Niki beat his fear and went on to win a World Championship the following year. It was just a question of psychology.

Psychological and physical problems tend to merge a little when one considers head injuries. These are difficult to predict as no-one can be sure of the effects. In August 1975 Mark Donohue crashed at the Osterreichring into an advertising hoarding. He was briefly unconscious but seemed to be OK when he left the circuit. Two days later he died of a brain haemorrhage.

In 1978 Vittorio Brambilla suffered head injuries in the same accident which claimed the life of Ronnie Peterson and he was never able to race again because the crash had impaired his ability to concentrate. It was a similar story to a lesser degree with Austrian Karl Wendlinger, who suffered serious head injuries at Monaco in 1994. He came back to race in F1 again but he was never as competitive as he had been.

It is difficult to predict head injuries as they can involve all manner of different nerve-related problems. Some people find that they suffer from a ringing noise in the ears; some complain that one hand is constantly cold no matter what the temperature may be. Mika Hakkinen admitted that bright lights really upset him in the first few months after his crash in Adelaide in 1995.

Fabrizio Barbazza admitted that he was not able to concentrate properly after suffering head injuries in an IMSA sportscar accident at Road Atlanta in May 1995.

Head injuries can also affect a driver's ambition. The most famous example is probably Mike Thackwell, who was the youngest man ever to race in a Grand Prix when he took part in the Canadian GP of September 1980. In April the following year he suffered a huge accident in a Formula 2 race at Thruxton and although he raced again, often successfully, he had lost the urge to become a Grand Prix driver. He is now a teacher.

Concussion is a relatively mild form of head injury but even this can badly affect a Grand Prix driver. In May 1987 Nelson Piquet crashed his Williams-Honda FW11B in Tamburello corner at Imola and suffered severe concussion. It affected him for the next few races as he was not sleeping well and his fitness was suffering.

"It is fair tos ay that Nelson was struggling physically at the next few races after Imola," remembers his engineer at the time Frank Dernie. "He was obviously not ultra-fit."

But Nelson recovered and went on to win the World Championship.

Most of the major injuries these days are broken bones and, once again, the long-term effects of an accident depend on the exact details of the injuries and the medical treatment received. The most devastating accidents need not be the big ones.

Good vision is absolutely essential for a Grand Prix driver and damage to the eyes - which is very rare nowadays thanks to full-faced helmets and bullet-proof visors - is very rare. Up until the early 1970s, however, it was a different story. Austrian Helmut Marko (who now runs the RSM Marko Formula 3000 team) had to retire from driving after he was hit in the eye by a stone at Clermont-Ferrand in 1972. Another racer of that era Johnny Servoz-Gavin retired in 1970 - at the age of 28 - because he was worried about his vision after he was hit in the eye by the branch of a tree while riding an offroad motorcycle.

The biggest crashes usually result in drivers suffering multiple injuries. Racing legend Stirling Moss had to give up his career after a crash at Goodwood in April 1962. Amongst his injuries Moss suffered serious head injuries which affected his timing and vision. He tried to make a comeback.

"I came to the conclusion while driving that it would be foolish to continue," he commented. "I have lost a certain amount of dexterity."

David Purley, who survived one of the biggest ever F1 crashes when he crashed his Lec-Ford in qualifying at Silverstone in 1977, never raced again but never lost his sense of adventure, dying while flying aerobatics in July 1985.

Martin Donnelly also had to give up his F1 dreams after his horrific 160mph 100G crash at Jerez in 1990.

"My body had to withstand enormous G-forces," Donnelly says. "The artery in my left leg burst. My lungs, liver and kidneys stopped working. I had a broken cheekbone and my left leg was broken in five places."

He woke up six weeks after the crash but his leg injuries were so bad that he was not able to make a comeback. He now runs his own racing team.

The 1964 World Champion John Surtees suffered multiple injuries in a CanAm sportscar race at Mosport Park in September 1965 but came back to win F1 races again, despite long-term health problems after the accident.

The most dangerous injuries are those which affect the back and the neck - which can damage the spinal cord and, in some cases, cause paralysis. Frenchman Philippe Streiff has been paralysed since his AGS-Ford crashed over the barriers while testing in Rio de Janeiro in March 1989. It was a similar - but less serious - accident which resulted in Clay Reggazzoni being partially paralysed after he crashed his Ensign in March 1980. Regazzoni has feeling above the waist and is thus able to race using cars with hand controls. Since his accident he has competed on events such as the Paris-Dakar Rally but only because "they won't give me a licence for anything else."

Spinal injuries are never easy to predict. Gerhard Berger, for example, broke his neck very badly in a road accident in October 1984 but was fortunate that he received the right medical attention. He has never had to worry about racing in F1.

Jean Alesi crashed his Ferrari at Mugello early in 1994 and damaged vertebrae, suffering temporary paralysis, but he recovered and now races without trouble. Christian Fittipaldi damaged vertebrae at the French GP in July 1991 but similarly is no longer troubled by that injury.

Mika Salo is another F1 driver who has broken his neck, after a Formula 3000 accident in Japan. Although the treatment was more difficult and more painful Salo decided not to have an operation to fix his neck.

"Now I am fine," he says. "I do not have any problems with the neck. I crashed about the same time as JJ Lehto did and he had an operation and this caused him problems in his F1 career."

Lehto's crash happened at Silverstone early in 1994 and although he tried to make a comeback with Benetton he was soon replaced because he was unable to push the car to its limits. He is now racing in touring cars.

Broken arms and legs are relatively common in Formula 1 racing and the effect of such injuries is difficult to predict as they are entirely dependent on the exact details of the breakages. Generally-speaking, however, if the joints (hips, knees, ankles, elbows and wrists) are undamaged it is much easier for a driver to recover. If the joints are damaged the driver's ability to be flexible and quick in his movements can be affected.

The introduction of carbonfibre technology has made serious leg injuries a much rarer occurrence than was once the case and improvements in medical technology and skills have meant that there have to be fewer amputations than was once the case. Back in the 1950s, for example, Maserati driver Sergio Mantovani's F1 career was cut short when he crashed in Turin and his leg had to be amputated. Such things are unheard of these days. Surgeons such as Professor Raymond Letournel (Porte de Choisy Clinic in Paris), Gerard Saillant (La Pitie/Salpetriere in Paris), Nigel Cobb (Northampton General, near Silverstone) and Terry Trammell (Indianapolis Methodists Hospital) have performed the most extraordinary operations to repair damaged legs and often drivers have been able to return to competition.

Even complicated fractures can be no problem is the surgeons do a good job. In 1984, for example, Danish Formula 3 driver John Nielsen crashed heavily at Monaco, suffering a broken pelvis and a damaged hip and leg. Within a matter of months he was back winning F3 races and although he never made it to F1 he did go on to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1990.

"I spent five weeks in hospital," remembers the Dane. "Then I spent six weeks in a rehabilitation centre. I had plenty of time to think things over and I must admit I did consider stopping. It was a strange thing but the publicity from the accident did bring me a number of offers - to manage a team and to drive sportscars - but in the end I decided I wanted to stay in single-seaters and from on it was a challenge to get better."

But it is not always the case. Jacques Laffite suffered similar injuries in his accident at Brands Hatch in 1986. He was 42 and too old to make a comeback.

"It annoys me that I had to leave F1 because of it," he says. "I would have preferred to make my own decision. The accident meant nothing to me otherwise - it just stopped me being a Grand Prix driver."

Badly broken legs have, over the years, finished the careers of many drivers. This was certainly the case with Cliff Allison (Spa 1961), Mike Parkes (Spa 1967), Andrea de Adamich (Silverstone 1973), Mike Hailwood (Nurburgring 1974), Jean-Pierre Jabouille (Canada 1980), Didier Pironi (Hockenheim 1982) and Johnny Cecotto (Brands Hatch 1984). Such injuries have also ended the dreams of several young drivers on their way to F1, notably Frenchmen Fabien Trolle (who crashed at the race meeting as Johnny Herbert at Brands Hatch in 1988) and Fabien Giroix.

Others such as Graham Hill (1969 Watkins Glen) and Pedro Lamy (Silverstone 1994) overcame bad leg breaks to return to F1. Perhaps the most extreme case is Marc Surer who broke two ankles at Kyalami in 1980 when he crashed an ATS F1 car. Two years later at the same track he crashed an Arrows and broke both feet. He returned to F1 again but in 1986 while rallying in Germany he crashed heavily and suffered multiple injuries including two broken legs and nasty burns. It was the end of Marc's career - but he is still to be seen at F1 races these days, working as a commentator for German TV.

Martin Brundle suffered nasty foot and ankle injuries after a crash in Dallas in 1984 - when he was an F1 new boy - but he came back to enjoy a long and successful career, although he never won a Grand Prix.

Arm injuries tend to be less damaging although a cataclysmic injury such as those of Sandro Nannini in a helicopter accident in 1990 cannot easily be overcome. Nannini's arm was severed in the crash but was reattached in a remarkable operation by Italian microsurgeons under Professor Carlo Bufalini.

Sandro has since raced successfully in touring cars and has driven specially-modified F1 cars but his arm was never good enough to allow him to race in F1. He is now a partner in Minardi, the team which gave him his F1 break in 1985.

Belgian Formula 3000 driver Thierry Tassin looked set for an F1 career until a bad accident at Silverstone, which left him with a damaged arm which did not have the strength needed to drive an F1 car. He too is now a TV commentator in F1.

Broken wrists are fairly common in F1 and if one points out that both Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost broke their wrists in the course of their careers, it shows how little such an injury can affect the performance.

From these examples one sees that it is difficult to generalize about driver injuries. The only thing that can be said about Olivier Panis's broken legs is that they do not seem to be too bad.

"He's all right," said Professor Watkins after the accident. "He'll be back again soon dancing around the garages."