The Death of Innocence

It is common practice not to award number 13 in the start list for any form of motorsport. On the Tour of Corsica, there has been no number four since 1986. Twice running, the driver of car number four – a Lancia on both occasions, as it happened had been killed. Rallying went about its business after the death of poor Attilio Bettega, but the demise of Henri Toivonen and his codriver, Sergio Cresto, 10 years ago on May 2, was a cataclysmic blow that transformed the sport for good. Indeed, it is hard to think of the death of any sportsmen having a comparable impact.

Most feel that the accident was inevitable; if it had not been the outrageously gifted Toivonen, it would have been someone else, because the performance of Gp B cars such as his Delta S4 had far exceeded the limits of traditional rally roads. Far from adhering to the strict safety standards imposed on racing cars, in the age of innocence before Toivonen’s fiery death, engineers were free to indulge their mechanical fantasies with little regard to the risk of fire. If the ultimate, turbocharged cars had begun to filter into private hands in any number, the carnage would no doubt have been greater still. Toivonen’s accident was after all the best-publicised of a string of serious rally accidents in 1986 that had killed four Portuguese spectators and nearly cost Marc Surer his life.

Cars come and go. Regulations change. Toivonen’s death changed rallying itself, from a test of endurance as much as speed into a sprint sport, still fundamentally different to anything on a circuit, but a discipline where reliability and stamina have become no more than incidental virtues. FISA, as the governing body was then known, shortened all subsequent international rallies so drastically on that May afternoon that the rules of engagement changed for good, for the works driver and the humblest clubman alike. On short rallies with slack road timing, merely finishing is no longer something to be especially proud of. Ten years on, it seems likely that the demands of television and environmental considerations would have put paid to the all-night slog in any case. Yet, while circumstances might have “sanitised” rallying, change would not have been so rapid and might therefore have preserved more of the sport’s traditional character. We should be grateful that safety has become a serious topic, but in the process it has largely squeezed out a sense of adventure. D K W