They make for dust, danger and no overtaking. So should we be racing on street circuits at all?
Nigel Mansell lost a World Championship through a puncture on the streets of Adelaide; Mika Hakkinen nearly lost his life.
Incongruous though it seems, drivers spend most of the year pushing back walls and increasing run-off areas but then go and hurtle around a street circuit through a tunnel of unyielding concrete.
“It sounds crazy, I know,” admits Damon Hill, “but the attraction of this game is increased by the occasional challenge of street circuits.”
Adelaide certainly provided a challenge. Not least because Hill arrived from back-to-back defeats in Japan to find that Williams golden boy Alan Jones, world champion with the team in 1980, had joined the clamour calling for his head.
In fact, a weekend which started under such a cloud, thanks to Hakkinen’s 125 mph accident, ended as something of a personal triumph for the Englishman. With his major rivals falling by the wayside, Damon became only the second man in F1 history to win a race by a two-lap margin. Not since Barcelona’s Montjuich Park in 1969, where Jackie Stewart’s Matra-Ford MS80 led home Bruce McLaren, had the feat been achieved.
Though Hill conceded that the race itself had been “too easy” the manner in which he had clinched pole position had been anything but. With Hakkinen fighting for his life in Intensive Care, the resumption of the interrupted qualifying session tested every driver’s resolve to the full.
Hill confronted his demons: “Nobody likes sitting in their cockpit watching a fellow driver receive treatment, and everybody was a bit stunned,” he says. “You know everybody has the same fears, and it’s difficult to put them out of your mind when you get in the car because you don’t suddenly turn into an inhuman thing when you drive out onto the circuit. But the only way to deal with it is to keep your mind on your driving. If you think about everything else, you will be a liability to yourself and to everyone else.”
That Hakkinen escaped with only a fractured skull, and should make a complete recovery, was due to a mix of good fortune and good medical attention. As McLaren boss Ron Dennis pointed out, had the accident taken place on an extreme part of Spa, medical back-up might not have arrived in time to clear his airway of blood.
But however good the response teams were in Adelaide, the fact remains that punctures are always more likely on the debris that accrues around a street circuit Pedro Lamy and Johnny Herbert each suffered one apiece in the same session as Hakkinen. And the high rate of attrition in the race illustrated that there is far less margin for error around such a circuit: when a car does go off, it invariably hits something solid.
“It is almost impossible to make some circuits right,” accepts Hill. “I mean in Monaco, I don’t know what you do. But we are prepared to race at places like Monaco. Part of what we do is take risks. Calculated risks.
“The point is, you’ve just got to be realistic. You can’t go and race at venues that are completely lifeless, soulless, purpose-built circuits all the time.
“I thought the Nürburgring was great. I got the impression that if I went off there I was going to be able to talk about it later – although I did hit the wall quite hard to give it a test. But then there’s Magny-Cours. I always thought that was one of the safest places in racing. I’ve been on pole position three times there, and maybe that feeling of security is part of the reason. I just feel safe there. And yet Campos got killed in the F3000 race. You’re never going to make somewhere completely safe, but you have to minimise the risk as much as possible.
It was an emotional weekend for the Williams driver, for his 13th GP victory puts him within one race of equalling his father’s tally of wins. Indeed he followed in his footsteps in Australia, where Graham won the Grand Prix for BRM in 1966 when it was part of the Tasman series.
But Damon flew back to Europe with mixed emotions, for Hakkinen’s plight touched a nerve still raw from last years Imola tragedies.
“I have to say you get a perverse pleasure at going through a tunnel at 180 mph, not knowing what’s round the corner,” he ponders. “It’s easy to sit here and say that now, but if I was laid up in hospital with a ventilator, what would I say then? That’s the unanswered question.
“We want to go away from Adelaide having had a great race, with everyone having enjoyed themselves, and not having this cloud over us of someone in hospital. That is something we must avoid as much as possible. “This sport sells itself: it’s exciting, we do crazy things in racing cars, things that can be admired and held in awe. But it’s all worthless if people get killed. To me, it just takes it too close to that point where you say it’s not worth doing it.”
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