There but for fortune

But for an alert guardian angel in Suzuka Martin Brundle might have become another statistic in 1994’s grim toll. Observations he made earlier in the season eerily forecast the situation in which he unwillingly found himself. . .

Imola was a dreadful shock. I put together an agenda for a meeting in Monaco, and every driver turned up, plus a few. We had a four and a half-hour, properly structured meeting, and we covered an awful lot of ground. I’ve felt for a while now that the guys in Formula One are probably as sensible a bunch as I’ve ever seen in my 10 years. There are some very intelligent young men. A lot of the big egos have gone. I don’t think this could have happened three years ago, because the egos were matched by the bank balances. We couldn’t have had such a constructive meeting as we had in Monaco.

“We elected Niki Lauda as our spokesman because we needed someone who wasn’t actually racing. If you’re a current driver there are so many emotional strings that can be pulled.

“In the past we’ve trusted others to look after safety. But now nobody accepts the death of a racing driver or a sportsman. With respect to the others, and because Ayrton was much more than just a racing driver, people focused on his death. It was very bad for our sport. And we don’t want to be killed, either.

“It’s going to be difficult to keep the balance between something being a challenging track and a safe track, and we can never pretend that motor racing will be completely safe. It never will be. But we need to make it as survivable as possible.

“As drivers, we don’t want a combative role in safety. We want to drive. But we also want to be set up so that when the engineers and the FIA come to us we can give one opinion.

“In the short-term, everyone has become a safety expert, in and outside Formula One. We’re all focussed. And whilst the drivers stay together we’ve got a lot of clout. Everybody wants to be seen to do what the drivers want. The crunch is going to come if somebody is hurt in a corner where the drivers asked for changes, because then we may become open to political manoeuvres. We just have to see what happens in a year, but this is not a particularly democratic society we live in. . .”

Martin Brundle was the speaker, in an interview we did back in the middle of May just after he had been appointed chairman of the newly reformed Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. In that capacity he had just been to Montreal to oversee installation of the new chicane, and continued: “It’s in that fast sweep which is like Tamburello; demanding on the car, not the driver. No skill involved. But if you go off there you’re in trouble, and Formula One can’t afford to lose another driver.

“We all signed a statute in Monaco, and the GPDA is properly set-up and properly defined. We don’t want to meet at every race, and I don’t want to be walking round standing in gravel traps all the time. We’ve been obliged to do that as the more experienced guys, but standing there and seeing what you might hit is not good news. . . But it had to be done.

“In Barcelona one of the best things was to see changes to Montreal and Silverstone signed off by the FIA, and to see people being refocussed. When I went to Montreal I took a speed trace from the previous year, what the car was doing and where it might end up. The guys there were terrific, and they said they’d never had that kind of input before during a safety inspection. Going into the hairpin there at 300k, and going round it on foot, are two different things. . .”

Looking back on that now, a week after his miraculous escape in the Japanese GP at Suzuka, some of MB’s words have an Arctic chill to them, and a worryingly prophetic ring.

He was very fortunate at Suzuka, and in one of those twists it had been he whose warnings in the pre-race drivers’ briefing about the dangers of having caterpillar tractors operating the wrong side of the Armco barriers could so nearly have been the preface to his death.

The incident in which his McLaren aquaplaned off the track and ploughed down a marshal occurred on the 15th lap of the sodden race, and involved many of the political wranglings that he had predicted. Of them all the most insulting was to give an official reprimand to a man who had already been chastened by the view of his life passing before his own eyes.

“It was a bit of a bizarre situation, a bit ironical, not least because in the drivers’ briefing I was the one who raised the subject of these caterpillars going against the flow of traffic. Or just having them out there anyway. In qualifying I’d come across one; I’d just passed an incident and was getting back on it, and there was a caterpillar coming from the next corner, back round the track to help out. I think that’s a no-no! Cranes are the way to go, and I’m told they have got cranes at Suzuka. Sure, the caterpillars do pull cars out of the way, but. . .

“In the race I just radioed in, not 10s earlier, to say I’d got aquaplaning. I think there’s a distinct possibility I had a right rear puncture from the debris that had been all over the place from various cars. I think there’s a great chance that I had a slow puncture. I’d just radioed in to say I’m really struggling with aquaplaning, which I knew Steve Hallam, my engineer, would read as ‘think about a pit stop and think about some more tyre pressure in the next set’ because sometimes more pressure can reduce aquaplaning.

“I don’t know, I think I was also a few inches further left through that quick fifth-gear left, the Degner Curve that leads back uphill behind the pits, where Riccardo went off last year when his active failed. My car got away from me on exactly the same puddle that Morbidelli’s got away from him. I thought I was going to save it, but I just couldn’t.

“Apparently there were yellows there, but sometimes you can’t even see your own dashboard. I was very close to Frentzen. You’re driving along in a ball of spray and — I’m not romanticising it — sometimes you cannot see your own dashboard! You can’t see anything. It’s like when you pass a truck on the motorway: you know when you’re at that critical point just up by his rear wheels, where if you stay there you’re in trouble and where you have to drive through it. But with an F1 car you can’t drive through it. Imagine being in that position with your car but you have no wipers, it’s exactly the same scenario, but instead of the windscreen being blocked it’s your visor that’s blocked. So that’s why I say you can’t see your own dashboard. ,

“It’s a long, long left-hand corner, uphill slightly off-camber. The car just swapped ends so quickly. There’s very little run-off there. Anyway, I’m now travelling backwards, trying to keep it on the road, then as soon as I touched the grass, as you can imagine, it just accelerated. And as the car gyrates you look out of whichever side you’re going, and it became very clear that I was heading for a nasty situation. There was a red Honda Accord Estate that was reversing out of the way, the wrong side of the Armco; I don’t know what it was doing there.

“As I got very close to Morbidelli’s accident, I was heading — not just the car but my part of the car — was heading for the caterpillar about five metres away. I can see it now, a blue caterpillar tractor, out of the right side of my cockpit, looming up. And I’m going at enormous speed still. And I really thought that I was going to die.

“What’s amazing is that I wasn’t scared, which is really scary in itself. I’ve spoken to a couple of drivers since on that, because I was quite surprised. The Verstappen thing in Brazil, when he ran over my head, took me by surprise because I didn’t see that. I didn’t even know it had happened afterwards, because I was unconscious or semiconscious. But I saw this one coming up, and it’s the first time I’ve really thought: ‘You’ve had it, you’re not going to make this one.’ I could just see it looming up.

“I just stamped the brakes again. I’d released the brakes, then stamped them again. I did that in the IROC car when Rusty Wallace pushed me off at Michigan; I was hurtling towards the end of the pit wall, remembering what I been told: ‘Whatever you do, don’t hit the end of the pit wall!’ And I did the same thing then. If you jump on the brakes it can actually make the car go into a different kind of spin. I did that and by some miracle it just whistled past the caterpillar. Before that my shoulder had been going right for it. There was no way I’d have survived, no way on earth I’d have survived that.

“I then went through the gap between the caterpillar and the barrier, and I could see the men. What they showed on the circuit film, not the TV film which doesn’t show much, it was just terrifying. I went through a gap where the Honda Accord had been and where the caterpillar was moving to, somehow I went clean through that gap.

“One marshal threw himself against the barrier. They were reorganising the tyre wall that Morbidelli had knocked down, which I think was totally unnecessary. I went clean through the lot of it, but then I had this vision of this slightly chubby Japanese marshal with his crash hat on — I’m sure he went through across my cockpit. I have this real vision of his crash helmet in front of my crash helmet. And I knew I must have hit somebody.

“The guy who threw himself against the barrier was putting the tyres back, and I missed him by inches. I slammed into the barrier and skidded down that, then I collected the other guy.

“Anyway, I got out, I wasn’t injured. If it had been an accident all by itself it wouldn’t have been that nasty because I slithered down the barrier. I got out, ran back, and I saw the red flag was out and I saw the marshal’s leg pointing the right way and saw that he’d got some paramedics, and I’m not very good in that sort of situation. If there’s blood around, I’m not the right man on the scene! I could see the guy was totally conscious but in shock. I think I must have glanced him as he was diving away, but I’d thought for sure the guy was dead. So that was a relief. Minoru, McLaren’s Japanese representative, has been to see him in hospital, we took him some flowers. I’m going to send him a letter and some paraphernalia, and he sent a message back that he feels sorry for me because he knows there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

“Then as I walked back to the pits I just got angrier and angrier and angrier, and Morbidelli wound me up because he was angry as well. It was just outrageous, because we shouldn’t have been doing that. I think with that sort of downpour they should have stopped the race until the rain stopped.

“The thing is, it’s a big grey area as to what’s acceptable and what’s not and it depends on individual cars. Some are better at clearing water than others. They’ve changed the cars and the whole criteria of what’s acceptable and what’s not in the rain has been reduced. Much earlier now you’ve got to say ‘stop’, and it’ll be even more so next year because you haven’t got so much downforce. Anything we’ve seen this year in reduction of downforce is nothing compared with next year’s change. You’ve got less downforce so you’re still going to aquaplane. But when you come down the other side of the water you don’t really catch the track anything like as quickly. You look at how races are won in the wet; Boutsen here in Adelaide had a Gurney on everything! So much downforce on the car; that’s what gets rid of the aquaplaning.

“The reason I just accepted a letter of reprimand from the stewards is how do you explain to somebody who’s never been in a racing car, let alone a Formula One car in the rain, that yes I did see the yellow flag at the last moment, and yes I did lift and it might have contributed to my accident, but now there’s nothing I can do, the conditions were appalling and if the car aquaplanes you go off the road. How do you explain that to a person who’s never driven a racing car?”

It’s just as if, when you start a rollercoaster ride, you spot something to one side as the carriage starts moving. Under a certain set of circumstances what you see is beyond your control.

“That’s right!”

Brundle says that he never did suffer any follow-up reaction — further anger or fear — perhaps because racing drivers are conditioned. “These things are in your mind but whilst they don’t ever come very much to the front of your mind, at the back of it you must know that this could very well happen to you one day. So when it happens there’s absolutely no shock involved at all. Most people would have a month off work.” In Adelaide in the rain a week later, he says he never even thought about the accident.

The worry about the Brundle accident, the mechanics and near-tragedy of it aside, is that some of the FIA officials were in momentary turmoil, not knowing which rules to apply until a calm John Corsmit brought common-sense to bear. And they were all too aware of the standing water in the Degner Curve. Then to say that a driver was to blame for pushing a fraction too hard in the conditions, was simply crass.

“I could have protested it, but what’s the point? It might have got tripled. . .”

Word was that because of the injuries to the marshals something had to be seen to be done. Remember those words about politics in situations where drivers had already pinpointed potential problems? And who said them? Gentlemen of the FIA, pin your ears back and open your eyes. This time we were all lucky, not least the driver you so unjustly reprimanded. D J T