Matters of moment, May 2016
The shot of Fernando Alonso, crouched with hands on knees as he caught his breath, was wonderful to see. He’d clambered from a smouldering pile of something that used to be a McLaren after a violent accident in Australia. But was his escape a surprise? Probably not. After all, Martin Brundle had run back for the spare from his own Turn 3 barrel roll – and that was 20 years ago. In this regard, modern racing cars are better than anything from history.
Beyond the driver protection, what really showed how far we’ve come was that all four wheels remained attached. Thoughts soon turned to Graham Beveridge, the marshal killed at Albert Park in 2001 by a wheel that had flown from Jacques Villeneuve’s crashed BAR. The double tethers subsequently developed in response to such tragedy did their job superbly in Australia.
They sprang to mind again a couple of hours later as I stood with my son on the banking at Goodwood, shaken by an incident that was just a little too close.
The Tony Brooks Trophy for Grand Prix cars of the late 1950s/early ’60s was a lap old as the field streamed past us just after 9am on Sunday morning. The clumps of mud flung across the track were the first sign that something had hit the bank, then my eye caught a wheel arcing through the air about 30 feet to our right. The crowd shifted, one man falling in his haste to move back. Where had it landed?
Eye-witnesses closer to the scene reported that a car had somersaulted and landed in the entrance to the narrow pedestrian tunnel that crosses under the straight. It seemed inconceivable. Later, footage on YouTube – taken from the top of the pit building – confirmed that an out-of-control Cooper had tangled with Stephen Bond’s Lotus 18, launching it into a sickening series of rolls that ended with the car plunging tail-first out of view and into the tunnel entrance. And there was the wheel… clearly landing in the disabled viewing area, behind a spectator in a wheelchair. A figure can be seen running for his life.
No one was seriously injured, Bond escaping with nothing worse than a broken collarbone. I still find it hard to believe as I type those words.
A second accident later in the day in the Bruce McLaren Trophy for Can-Am and Group 7 cars – Goodwood’s fastest racing category – featured another miracle. As our pictures on page 126 show, Michiel Smits had no right to escape the impact that destroyed his Lola T70 Spyder on the approach to Woodcote. This was no carbon-fibre McLaren, after all. But somehow he did.
Old racing cars don’t feature crash structures or wheel tethers, and they’re just as fast – if not faster in many cases – than they were in period. As for Goodwood, it is safer than it was back then thanks to belted tyre barriers rather than solid banks, and extended run-off at key areas. It meets with governing body the MSA’s approval – of course it does. But these incidents inevitably raise questions once again, just as they should: questions about the cars that race there, the drivers who steer them – and the circuit itself.
Let’s take them in order. Should the classes that race at Goodwood be reviewed? Is it time to cap wheel-to-wheel competition to cars up to and below a certain speed? There has to be an argument for this, yes. Gp7 racers, which were recorded at 176mph on Lavant Straight this year, have been in the spotlight before. Smits’ deliverance must surely be the final warning.
What about the drivers? Standards have long been erratic, with too many clearly out of their depth in cars beyond their capabilities. There’s an awful lot of talent in historic racing circles – but the range is wide. In qualifying for the Bruce McLaren Trophy, for example, 14 seconds separated first to 20th – around a 2.4-mile track.
It must be said great racing drivers still have accidents, just as Alonso did in Melbourne. In racing safety can never be guaranteed. But a gold, silver and bronze grading system has worked well in sports cars. Historic racing would benefit from a similar structure based on experience, with perhaps only gold and silver drivers allowed to race cars of a certain power or speed.
The hardest questions surround the circuit itself. Now, we all love Goodwood. What Lord March and his team have created since racing returned to the track in 1998 is precious, largely because it flies in the face of modern motor sport, reminding us of simpler times. We love it precisely because there are no debris fences, because the racing is so visceral – from inside the car or on the banks.
But when an incident such as Bond’s occurs, it’s a reminder. Fences at race circuits aren’t there to protect the drivers, who accept the risks when they pay their entry. They are there to protect those who have paid only to watch them. And yes, I know the old adage about reading what it says on the back of every ticket. It should also be noted that few fences at other tracks would have been high enough to catch the Lotus 18’s wheel. But the fact remains: by not erecting them a promoter is calling on his customers to make a bigger commitment, to take a bigger risk in standing beside his track. Does he have the right to make that demand?
In the end, we take the choice, whether or not we’re armed with the knowledge of what the consequences might be. I admit, anger swelled in me after that accident on Sunday morning – but it was directed more at myself than anyone at the track, for it had been my decision to stand at that particular spot with my son. I’d felt uneasy when the flag dropped at the start, and the massive energy of a grid full of racing cars was unleashed, but still we stayed. I won’t stand there again.
Lord March has said in the past that he could have relaunched Goodwood as a modern motor racing facility, but he chose not to because that held no interest for him. Instead, he chose a more engaging route, one in many ways more challenging – as Sunday proved. So do I want him to compromise and build the fences? Of course not. Like most of you reading this, I love it just as it is. But should he, for the future of his business and the safety of his customers? That’s a much harder question to answer.
The description of how F1’s daft qualifying format evolved highlighted the core of its troubles right now. Bernie Ecclestone laid down a challenge to the stakeholders: either they devised a way to mix up the grids or he threatened simply to reverse them. Under pressure to respond, they cobbled something together at the last minute, then launched it without really thinking it through. We all witnessed the result.
Ecclestone’s reaction, that he’d never liked the idea anyway, would have been funny if it wasn’t so twisted. In any business, good decisions are rarely made when people jump to please a boss who makes demands on a whim. In F1’s case, qualifying in Australia proved once again that Grand Prix racing can never truly be fixed until the strings have finally been cut from the puppet-master.
The stream of good wishes for editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck continues to flow. You’ll notice his absence once again from this issue, but he continues to make a good recovery from his recent illness. We look forward to welcoming him back very soon.