Doug Nye: F1 fires have so often ended tragically

“Erupting fireballs were followed, so often, by the worst possible news”

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The year 2020 will generally be remembered with horror. However, for those following Formula 1 it was nearly even worse. Romain Grosjean’s light injuries after his fiery Bahrain GP crash seemed almost miraculous. Any experienced enthusiasts of a certain age will recall such an erupting fireball being followed, so often, by the worst possible news…

Double Indy-winner Bill Vukovich, his oval-track rivals and successors Ed Elisian, Tony Bettenhausen, Eddie Sachs, Swede Savage, Dave MacDonald – and more – perished in burning cars. In Formula 1, Stuart Lewis-Evans, Lorenzo Bandini, John Taylor, Jo Schlesser, Piers Courage, Jo Siffert and Roger Williamson met similar, sickeningly public fates. Peter Revson and Elio de Angelis both died in F1-testing barrier accidents, accompanied by fire – and of course Pedro Rodríguez and Paul Hawkins suffered massive similar accidents in sports cars. Boley Pittard was a Formula 3 victim. There were many more – yet each one had known the risks, and raced regardless.

In addition to such a tragic list, there have been the survivors; Ken Wharton (1955), Jacky Ickx (1970), Niki Lauda (1976), Jos Verstappen (1994) and Pedro Diniz (1996) in F1, Mike Salmon and Richard Attwood in Ford GTs, Peter Procter in a Broadspeed Ford Anglia, Brian Redman in a Porsche 908/3, and more.

“The relief as Grosjean arose from the flames was properly immense”

Reaction to such risk has always been widely varied amongst committed racers, with driver differences ranging from bold, brave and recklessly over-confident, through unimaginative – and plain thick – to intelligent, analytical and imbued with apparently God-given talent to keep clear of trouble.

The surge of relief as Grosjean arose from the flames – even walking away– was properly immense, and heartfelt. The Formula 1 establishment was vocally thankful, and justifiable preening began since so many recent safety aids had just saved a life in extreme peril.

One early photo depicting fire danger in racing caught Maserati works driver Harry Schell after he had escaped from the blazing wreck of his crashed 450S in the 1957 Caracas 1000Kms Sports Car World Championship decider. In that race Maserati’s challenge to Ferrari not only fizzled out but carbonised in a devastating series of fiery incidents, killing not the drivers, but the factory team. In that photo Schell, face blackened, is bare-chested save for bandages and burn dressings, eyes staring, jaw sagging. It was captioned: “Schell in shock”, and it made a deep impression on me. At least until Phil Hill and I were hunting through old photos and turned up a print. “Hey, will you look at that,” said Phil, “Hah – the press always label this kind of stuff with how they would react, not how a guy like Harry would have reacted. I can imagine he was really saying, ‘Hey fellers – look what they’ve just done to me!’ And he’d reach for his hip flask and joke about it.”

In Grosjean’s Bahrain crash the Haas-Ferrari VF-20’s footbox crash structure plainly did an outstanding job of protecting his feet and lower legs in the quoted 53g, 137mph, open-angled impact against that corrugated triple-tier steel barrier. The cockpit halo’s centre strut then either deflected the two upper rails over his head, or – if the car’s monocoque instantly skewed belly-first beneath those rails into the attitude at which it came to rest – it protected his crash helmet from other impacts.

The fuel escape which caused the immediate fire was a real throwback to dark times, but multi-layer fire suit, HANS device, air supply and well-practised reaction by marshals and medical car crew contributed to saving the likeable Frenchman.

So Formula 1’s principals emerged fairly content. Still, two factors escaped instant comment. One was the apparent lack of imagination in Bahrain track inspection which permitted that barrier to be sited where it was, while so much open space seemed available further back… One interesting aspect of Grosjean’s escape was that he instinctively leapt over the barrier ‘to safety’ – whereas in fact he was leaping from conventional safe (spectator) side into danger (track-side). Or maybe there was too much fire ‘safe-side’? The fact that ‘the car’ was trapped within the barrier meant the rails had actually worked.  The car’s breaking in half was somewhat similar to Jochen Rindt’s Monza crash in 1970 when the Lotus 72’s nose was trapped abruptly by a parted barrier, leaving the inertia of the engine-heavy rear end to crack the structure like a whip, detach and spin further on.

But happily we could all settle back content that Romain Grosjean survived this reality-reminding incident, and can perhaps joke about it. On that cheery side one still recalls The Sun headline over Pedro Diniz’s blazing Ligier-Mugen JS43 at Buenos Aires in 1996 – Diniz in the Oven. And did the BBC website writer perpetrate the following unconsciously, or was it perhaps intentional: “The Frenchman’s Haas pierced the barrier, split in two and burst into flames…”? Imagine hearing that on the radio.

Motor sport can certainly be thankful. The FIA’s finest deserve great credit, but it is not unalloyed – and for his cross-track lunge initiating the incident Grosjean was at least part-author of his misfortune. Racing takes few prisoners. This was indeed a great escape.