Matters of moment, June 1989

The public image

On July 29, 1973, millions of television viewers worldwide watched helplessly as Roger Williamson was burned alive in the wreckage of his upturned car during the Dutch Grand Prix, while fellow driver David Purley alone tried to save him without any effective co-operation from nearby marshals. There could be no worse publicity for motor racing. Could anybody blame the BBC for its disinterest in the sport over the ensuing five years?

On April 23 this year the whole sickening scenario came close to repeating itself in the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, when Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari careered off at unabated speed at the ultra-quick Tamburello sweep before exploding into flames on coming to rest. Again the magic picture box put the whole grizzly scene on our screens, but thankfully the similarities ended there.

Of the Williamson accident, Motor Sport said in September 1973 that “not enough publicity was given to the inadequacy of the Armco barrier that collapsed when the March struck it and was the prime cause of the car turning over and catching fire. Not only the inadequacy of the installation, but the design and specification”. At Imola, by contrast, a very solid concrete wall brought the errant Ferrari to a stop from 170 mph without forcing it skyward or flipping it.

Attracting greater attention back in 1973 was Zandvoort’s rescue facilities, or lack of them. Our sister paper Motoring News said that “the fire was controllable for at least a minute and offered a good chance of survival, if only help had been available”, but that “the marshals showed an utter and complete incomprehension of their duty” while “although there was a fire engine approximately 100 yards away, no firemen came along until about eight minutes later”.

Berger, on the other hand, owes his life to the quick reactions of Imola’s marshals, who were on the scene extremely quickly, wielded their extinguishers intelligently and had the fire under control within twenty seconds or so. The armchair public’s faith in the ability of the sport to cope with a sudden crisis should therefore have been restored.

Equally commendable was the ability of John Barnard’s chassis to stand up to its impact with the concrete barrier without inflicting fatal or crippling injury upon its occupant. The fact is that either the impact or the fire could have killed Berger, and probably would have done in a bygone age. On both counts the progress which has been made towards safer racing is remarkable.

But the driver’s worst enemy remains fire, and the worrying question in the wake of this great escape must be why, when some drivers have come to trust the impregnability of the retaining bags which line their fuel tanks (and in some cases to rely on them to the extent of eschewing some elements of their fireproof underclothing), did the Ferrari burst into flames?

Barnard’s internal enquiry might yet point to a flailing fuel line, but it is worth noting that a combination of recent rule changes has moved drivers’ cockpits back, so as to be fully behind the centreline of the front wheels, while reintroducing normally-aspirated engines of V8, V10 and V12 configuration, all of which are longer than the popular turbocharged V6 of yore. As a consequence, fuel tanks are once more being squeezed into shorter, wider shapes which spread into cars’ sidepods; not only is the driver now partly surrounded by fuel, but the risk of the tank rupturing in an oblique or lateral impact is increased.

This is a possibility which FISA’s safety inspectors would do well to consider, alongside the current debate about the cramped confines of cockpits. There remains, of course, the fundamental question of why Berger crashed at all, but that is a problem specific to Ferrari. If we can be sure of anything, it is that racing machinery exploits components to extremes, and any failure can have catastrophic effects. All we can hope is that rescue services continue to be equal to their task.