Injury is a constant risk in motor racing, but some drivers have shown immense powers of recovery
Robert Kubica’s careerspoiling injuries in his February rally crash are a reminder of how fragile a Grand Prix driver’s career can be. Mark Webber’s magnificent 2009 comeback from breaking a leg in his Tasmanian cycling accident is a shining recent example of grit, determination, modern medicine and rehabilitation. Michael Schumacher before him had (in some respects literally) bounced back from breaking a leg, and Johnny Herbert won Grands Prix after having his legs and feet shattered in an accident that for most athletes would have spelled curtains. Graham Hill, of course, is another to have come back to racing a car while almost unable to walk to it — as did Rudi Caracciola pre-war. In his case his 1933 Monaco GP practice crash, which snapped his thigh bone and shattered his hip, left him limping and in quite severe discomfort for the rest of his life; so he just closed his mind to it, and drove around the problem.
The list of other Formula 1 and Grand Prix drivers who have fought back from injury to compete again at the top level is extremely long. Patrick Depailler filed a vertical flight plan in a hang-glider. Moss broke most parts — excluding the most vital, but including his back — in his 1960 practice shunt at Spa. Niki Lauda survived his horrific grilling at the Niirburgring in 1976 — and Tony Brooks his fiery somersault in the BRM Type 25 at Silverstone in ’56.
But perhaps the most successful driver to recover from major injury was five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio. After he had taken his first world title with Alfa Romeo in 1951, the Italian company withdrew from racing. Fangio then signed up to drive for Maserati in what had become World Championship-status Formula 2 for 1952, while driving the BRM V16 (whenever it should emerge) in old-style F1/Libre events, plus sports and GT-type Alfas.
Raymond Mays of BRM had notified Fangio that they would be running a V16 for him in the Ulster Trophy at Dundrod on Saturday, June 7. Nello Ugolini of Maserati then notified him that they would be running an F2 car for him in the important Monza Autodrome GP, in Italy, the next day. Fangio arranged with the aviating Prince Tim’ to hitch a lift in his private plane, which Tim’ planned to fly direct from Belfast to Milan that Saturday evening, immediately after the Dundrod race.
All was fine and dandy until Tim’ encountered a car problem and decided to fly out of Belfast early, leaving Fangio’s plans in tatters and the great man stranded. Veteran French privateer Louis Rosier now stepped into the breach. After he and Fangio had both done their bit in the Ulster Trophy — Rosier finishing fourth in his Ferrari 375 while Fangio’s V16 BRM had boiled its way into retirement — they dashed to Belfast Airport and caught a scheduled flight to London.
They found no Milan flight available, not least due to stormy weather in central France, so they hopped on to Paris, from where all Italian flights were also cancelled. Fangio then tried to book himself onto a Paris-Milan sleeper train, but was too late. Rosier had hung around to help if he could, and finally offered the Argentine a lift in his Renault road car as far as Lyon. It was around midnight, so by the time they got there perhaps a Lyon-Milan flight might be available. They arrived in the small hours — but found no such flight…
Rosier was heading for his home nearby at Clermont-Ferrand, and at 6-7am he lent Fangio his Renault, as the Maestro recalled “…to continue my journey to Italy. I drove over Mont Cenis like a man possessed. Poor Rosier’s tyres were down to the fabric by the end. I got to the Monza Autodrome at two in the afternoon, at 2.30 I was racing and at three I was in hospital…”
He had flurried into the Autodrome just in time to take a shower, don his driving kit, pop some aspirins and drive his brand-new Maserati A6GCM to the startline — organisers and rivals all having agreed that the World Champion (who had of course not been able to practice) could start from the back of the grid.
“Monza was one of the circuits I knew best, and I had already decided that I would have time to take the lead even if I started from the back. Self-confidence is a good thing, but no use if one is not in good physical condition. We started — I passed six cars on the first lap… still getting the feel of the car, which was quite new to me. In the second lap into the Lesmo corners… I’m not certain if I was taking the second Lesmo in third or fourth. What is certain is that I touched the barrier there on the inside of the curve, and instead of correcting the car quickly, I let it go. I did this hoping to regain control later, but I wasn’t quick enough.
“I skidded off the track and hit the last of a long line of straw bales. Later I learned that the bales had been there for years, and the sun and rain had made them rock hard. The Maserati hit the bale and flew into the air. Then I felt myself flying through the air towards a strip of dark green, the trees. I remember losing consciousness as I smelled the grass I was lying on. What luck I was wearing a helmet…” Hard crash hats had only recently been made compulsory wear for drivers.
Fangio was carted off to hospital with concussion, a broken left thumb and crushed vertebrae in his neck. He then spent long days bed-bound in traction and it was three weeks before he was able to change position, unaided. He was then immobilised within an upper-body plaster cast, encasing his torso, neck and shoulders. It was not removed until September 3 that year and Fangio then made his public reappearance back at Monza, as honorary starter of the Italian GP. He had missed the heart of the 1952 racing season, and vowed thereafter never, ever to start a race without adequate rest and sleep beforehand.
But for the rest of his long life Fangio, famously, could not turn his head easily from side to side, and when he wanted to glance around he would move his whole upper body, shoulders and head in concert. And his left thumb healed at an odd angle. But he always looked on the bright side — as perhaps is understandable considering his subsequent success and stature. For him the added bonus was “…never again did I suffer a headache after racing”. He left that to his rivals.
‘Jolly Jack’ – a safer pair of hands
He was the archetypal journeyman driver from the 1940s into the ’60s. ‘Jolly Jack’ Fairman wasn’t a top-flight driver nor was he perhaps even second rank but he was steady, dependable, indefatigably keen and always willing to help. He drove essentially for peanuts, for Jaguar and Connaught and BRM and Aston Martin and Ferguson, and was never averse to being used as a back-up, in order to keep a car on the road ready for a team’s top-rank driver to take over, should his own mount fail.
Occasionally Jack got to share the top step of the podium, not least in the 1959 Goodwood if, but in particular when he was chosen by Moss to co-drive the lone quasi-works Aston Martin DBR1/300 in the 1959 Nurburgring 1000Kms. Moss was running the loaned car at his own expense and said he chose Fairman “…because I wanted someone who would do just what I asked him to, and Jack was prepared to do just two laps (of the scheduled 44) and then come in, if necessary. He was a steady driver who would drive sensibly and keep it on the island, which was all I needed.”
Moss’s best practice lap was 9min 43.1sec against ‘Jolly Jack’s careful not to bend it 10min 16.7sec. In the race, Stirling handed Jack a 5min 40sec lead. But it then began to rain, and as Fairman tried to pass a backmarker he was bundled off-line and slid into a ditch. The car became plugged at a steep angle, its tail against the trackside bank. But ex-Army tank driver Fairman was up to the challenge. Desperate to redeem himself he braced his feet against the bank, his broad shoulders against the car and simply muscled it bodily back onto the level. Not bad for a 46-year-old.
In the pits Moss had given up in disgust, had packed his helmet, gloves and goggles and was about to change out of his overalls when someone yelled “Here’s Jack!” And here, indeed, he was. The time lost in the ditch had left Moss with an almost two-minute deficit, but after another 10-lap stint the Aston had repassed the works Ferraris and built another twominute lead. Jack did two more laps and then the Boy took the final 10, starting 40sec behind the leading Ferrari, and beating it by 41sec. Heaving that car back onto the road became the pinnacle of Jack Fairman’s long career. He drove his final F1 race at Imola in 1963, earning decent start money in Count Godin de Beaufort’s second-string podgy Porsche 718. The Dutchman finished sixth in his Ecurie Maarsbergen Porsche, 50-year-old ‘Jolly Jack’ dutiful to the last right behind him, seventh.
He was quite well regarded as a test and development driver and put many useful miles on the Ferguson P99 in 1960-61. In 1962 he failed to qualify Pierre de Villiers’ outclassed Connaught at Indianapolis, then test-drove for Ferguson when it developed its P104 with Novi V8 engine for Andy Granatelli’s STP Corporation. Jack had shown good pace in the P99 at Indy while Bobby Unser drove the Novi-Ferguson (briefly) in the 1964 ‘500’. They also serve who only stand and wait. Jack Fairman today is too often forgotten.
You’re either with me or against me>
The interaction between motor racing teammates must provide a challenge of career-long proportions to graduate psychologists. Lord knows we saw enough see-saw relationships within just last year’s Formula 1 Veffel with and versus Webber, Alonso with and versus Massa. Digging deeper, one might dare try to penetrate the Masonic-lodge relationships between each team’s mechanics, and then between the platoons of engineers, specialist techies, computer nerds and management figures.
Of course this is nothing new though the TV spotlight has immensely magnified the pressures. Maybe old-time racing drivers were just more rounded, better-formed human beings than today’s youthful orchids, insulated within their cash-padded specialist-sport hot house? Certainly top drivers used to accumulate wider life experience with one another often travelling, carousing and skirt-chasing as a group. While one weekend top drivers might be baffling in Formula 1, the next weekend they might be teamed together in sports or GT racing. A week later they could become flint-eyed rivals once again at Indy or in F2. They really got to know each other. A true pecking order would emerge, in every respect, and between most of them a genuine respect evolved. What’s more, under less intense scrutiny by the media, more of what really occurred on tour, stayed on tour. And there was less reporting of A says B “Couldn’t drive his way out of a paper bag”, and C says D “Crossed some palms to pinch my best engine…”
This in no way denies that from time to time teammate relationships have had their tensions. The 1961 World Champion Phil Hill perhaps suffered most. He recognised how tense he could become and had his own ways of coping, but among all the great drivers of the 1950s and ’60s, Phil’s self-generating immediate pre-race torment out-pressured even Graham Hill. While Graham could lash out and verbally destroy even the friendliest unwanted approach in that hour before a race, Phil would retreat into his own closed, deaf, mental bubble, obsessively re-arranging his driving kit, repeatedly polishing his goggles, and asking the time. Despite being very Anglicised and Europeanised, Phil never developed adequate armour against British-style irony. His literal-minded American background combined with his pressurecooker sensitivity to make him a favourite target for winding up especially from the mischievous likes of Moss and lnnes Ireland, and before them Hawthorn or Schell.
Once, on the starting grid for the Dutch GP, Phil’s ‘Sharknose’ Ferrari had lost its clutch on the warm-up lap. Phil almost had steam issuing from his ears as his mechanics tinkered with the clutch behind him. Lined up alongside, Moss first loudly demanded “That car’s dead. Push it away!” before announcing “My God, Phil they’ve got the whole back end of your car apart now!” Each lance wound up Phil even more.., before he would recognise it as groundless needle. Once the flag dropped he was fine well, almost every time. One exception was an extraordinary episode in the 1961 Targa Florio. Phil and long-time co-driver Olivier Gendebien were sharing the latest rear-engined Dino 246SP sports-prototype cars, their team-mates ‘Taffy’ von Trips and Richie Ginther sharing another. In prerace briefing, team directors Eugenio Dragoni and Romolo Tavoni told Phil and Olivier that if their untried new car should break they’d take over the other.
Gendebien normally took the opening stint, but apparently stewed overnight that their car was completely untested, and that Phil knew it handled horribly so was keen for Olivier to drive it first. If it broke during his opening stint, he could well be left stranded up in the hills (it was a 44-mile circuit), leaving Phil in the pits to be switched into the proven Trips/Ginther car, which could have a good chance of winning.
Minutes before the start, as Phil was relaxing as much as he could, not expecting to be required until the first fuel stop, Olivier approached him “…with a funny look on his face, and he said, ‘Phil, I do not take this start’ and I said, ‘Why? You always take the start. He said he was feeling unwell “not up to it”.
Phil’s usual ritual was to focus by himself for at least 20 minutes, soaking his hands in hardening solution to prevent blisters, cleaning his goggles and fitting his car plugs. Now, at no notice, he was in the hot seat. He didn’t even have his goggles with him. He just had to borrow a pair. The Targa used a staggered start, with single cars being flagged away at 30-second intervals. Phil was wildly agitated as he scrambled into the car, and was almost immediately flagged away. And he absolutely blitzed it. On that opening lap he caught Trips who had started just ahead of him.
By his own admission, Phil was “out of my mind with rage” and lunged to pass Trips, but found no room. “I tapped him a couple of times but still he didn’t move over. I was incensed, just driving my head off. Then I got my car’s nose inside him in a tighter turn and tapped him again, but this time on loose gravel we both spun. There was shouting and waving, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ What the hell are YOU doing?’ Then we both set off and at last he gave me space.”
Still enraged, Phil then gobbled up Ricardo Rodriguez’s leading TRI/61 which had started a clear minute before him “…and buffaloed past him as well. But on the descent from Collesano I just kept going too fast at the end of a short straight into an ess-bend like the Masta Kink at Spa. I couldn’t get enough speed off to make it and maybe the parallax through that big screen helped me misjudge it…” His hurtling Ferrari clipped a hedge, bounced into a couple of roadside marker stones, then slithered to a halt on a bank with its underpinnings torn out. “I was in the local farmhouse having a drink with the farmer by the time Rodriguez and Trips came by…”
He remained furious with Gendebien who sure enough took over the Trips/ Ginther car to win the race but was even more angry with himself for losing it. But fate is a funny thing. On the way back to Palermo Airport, Gendebien rolled his hire car and returned home nursing not only his winnings, but also three stitches in a head wound. Next time they were paired together in the NOrburgring 1000Kms Phil crashed without his teammate being to blame. And then at Le Mans the pair won the 24-Hour race for their second time. The teammate relationship has always been a fickle thing.