MAY 13, 2008

It is not just a dog's life

During the GP2 race in Turkey on Sunday morning there was a worrying moment when two dogs appeared on the race track. Unfortunately, Bruno Senna was unable to avoid one of them, killing the poor animal and breaking the front suspension of his car. This put the Brazilian out of the race.

Senna was rightly furious at the incident, not only because it ruined his race but also because of the safety issues involved.

Stray animals have been a problem throughout the history of the sport beginning as long ago as 1896 when Emile Levassor rolled after swerving to avoid a dog on the Paris to Marseilles trial. Levassor never really recovered from his injuries and died the following year.

In 1928 the celebrated Italian star Pietro Bordino died while racing a Bugatti on the Circuito di Alessandria in Italy when he ran into a stray dog and the car went out of control and crashed into the River Tanaro. Bordino drowned before help could arrive.

In 1970 in Mexico City Jackie Stewart escaped injury when he hit a dog, but the problem persosted in Mexico because 20 years later practice for the 1990 Mexican GP had to be stopped when a stray dog got loose on the track.

Deer have also proved to be a problem, famously in 1987 when Stefan Johansson hit one in Austria. His McLaren was destroyed in the ensuing accident, but the Swede escaped injury. In 2006 former F1 driver Cristiano da Matta suffered series head injuries when he hit a deer while testing a Champ Car at Road America.

The size of the animal involved is obviously an issue. Smaller animals, such as groundhogs, are regularly seen on the race track in Montreal and a number have been killed in accidents, but the key point is not the size of the animal but rather what happens when it is hit. In 1960, for example, Team Lotus driver Alan Stacey died during the Belgian GP in an accident which resulted from him being hit in the face by a bird.

On another infamous occasion Formula 1 driver Tom Pryce was killed when his Shadow F1 car hit and killed a fire marshal at Kyalami in South Africa in 1977. The marshal was running across the track to deal with an incident. The fire extinguisher that he was carrying hit Pryce on the head.

With modern safety demands and improved track security the problem has been reduced significantly but the incident in Turkey raises questions about whether the track is sufficiently protected. This is embarrassing for the Formula One group because the Istanbul track is run by the Istanbul Park Organizasyon AS, a corporation organized and existing under the laws of the Republic of Turkey, but in fact a subsidiary of Formula One Administration. It has a 15-year lease on the circuit and promotes the Turkish Grand Prix.

The FIA views the incident seriously and on Sunday ordered "special checks on all circuit gates, internal access points and all other parts of the Istanbul Park circuit" in an effort to ensure that no animals were in the circuit when the Turkish GP took place.

A formal report has been submitted to the FIA.