In 1994, F1 saw its darkest weekend. In practice, Roland Ratzenberger went off track and damaged his wing, then tried to race on with it. The wing failed and the rookie driver was killed.
“I’m here to race,” were the words spoken by 34-year-old racing great Ayrton Senna after somebody asked the visibly shaken man if he still intended to drive.
He intended to drive, and he intended to restart the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association in memory of Ratzenberger.
In the Tamburello curve his car snapped in the wrong direction then flew off the track. The legendary driver, well known for finishing races (and often winning them) on literal fumes left in his gas tank was killed instantly.
The deaths were the first in 8 years, and they shook the sport to its core.
They also led to the reformation of the GPDA and a shift in racing culture. A shift which reverberated across the world and across different series.
If what may have been the greatest driver that ever lived could be killed in a freak crash, then everyone else needed to be just that little bit more careful.
Fast Forward to the Indianapolis 500
Indycar has been a strange place this year. For the first time ever, the Indianapolis 500 was run without fans in the stands.
It was also being run in August, not April, and with many restrictions designed to protect drivers from the new threat of COVID-19.
And from the start it was an odd race. It was one of those races where things were bound to go wrong. It started on lap 6 when James Davison’s right front wheel spontaneously combusted. He attempted to limp to the pits with a burning wheel and almost made it. (Presumably something went very wrong with his brakes).
And that set the tone. Marcus Ericsson hit the wall and trashed his racecar. Alexander Rossi missed the entrance to pit lane. Rinus VeeKay hits a crew member (at slow speed on pit road). Dalton Kellett…hit the wall and trashed his racecar.
Green flag again, and Conor Daly spins. Rookie Oliver Askew tries to avoid him, messes up, and slams into the inside wall, needing help exiting his trashed racecar.
Alex Palou…hit the wall and trashed his racecar. Yup, definitely one of those races.
Alexander Rossi messed up in the pits again, with one of the most blatant unsafe releases I’ve ever seen that nearly caused one of the dread pit row wrecks. Apparently this put him the rest of the way out of his flow, because a few laps later he…hit the wall and trashed his racecar.
At this point everyone is wondering what’s going to happen next. With four laps to go, Spencer Pigot hits the wall, spins clear across the track and sideswipes into the barrier at the end of pit row. A tire bounces off his head.
It was one of the worst crashes I’ve seen that didn’t involve a car going airborne, and I was for a moment right back in 1994.
The relief as Spencer Pigot was helped out of his car was palpable. The young driver was released from hospital a few hours later without serious injury beyond a likely mild concussion.
So, what has changed?
What has changed is that while drivers, crew, and fans, accept the great risks of open wheel, everyone now understands that those risks can and should be mitigated.
Spencer Pigot is still alive and will drive again because of something called the “pit road attenuator.” Instead of hitting the naked pit road wall, he slammed into a wall of tires which act as a shock absorber, distributing and reducing the impact. It worked.
A new safety feature added to the cars this year, the aeroscreen, may also have contributed to his lack of serious injury.
The first change that came out of Senna’s death was a reduction in speed. Cars had been getting faster and faster, and people now realized that they were getting too fast. NASCAR had already come to this realization. Restrictor plates, designed to reduce horsepower and slow cars on the fastest and most dangerous ovals, were introduced in 1988. (They’re now being phased out in favor of lowering horsepower at all tracks).
In 1995, the crash tests were made stronger. Since then, safety measures have included tethering the wheels to the cars, adding the HANS system in 2003, and more recently, the halo in 2019. The fatal curve at Imola was modified into a safer chicane. Other safety measures include improved fire suits, testing to ensure the driver can exit the cockpit rapidly, improved standards for helmets.
There was not another death of a Formula One driver until 2014.
In Indycar, the last death was of Justin Wilson in 2015, a seriously freak accident when a piece of debris struck him in the head while he was driving. Indycar has had a slightly worse safety record than F1, but has also implemented many, many safety features over the years. Among them is another feature that contributed to Pigot’s survival: The SAFER barrier. This is a foam barrier which is attached to the wall on ovals and on high speed track sections. Like the tire attenuator it’s designed to absorb impact, and it works. Formula 1 does not use the SAFER barrier because of the different circuit design, but rather use the TechPro barrier insert. The idea is pretty much the same.
Then there’s the aeroscreen. The aeroscreen is an upgrade of the halo system that includes a canopy-like windshield…something which might have saved Wilson. Not all of the drivers are on board with the aeroscreen…but now they might be. It probably reduced the effect of that, well, tire landing on the head.
Virtual racing might be safer, but it doesn’t replace the real thing. And the culture of safety that has developed around auto racing allowed a young man, this weekend, to walk away and race again. And that is the most important thing.
That culture of safety has almost certainly ensured, too, that autoracing has experienced no major outbreaks of COVID-19, unlike certain other less generally risky sports.