Unscheduled flight

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Ukyo Katayama emerged with remarkably light injuries from his startline accident in Estoril. Not so many years ago, he might not have energed at all

It was one of those moments when there was an audible gasp in the press room. The Williamses, Ferraris, Benettons, Jordans and the like had already passed before us, and were starting to think about braking for Estoril’s Turn One. Somewhere behind them, however, a substantial accident was going on. Initially, it was impossible to discern who was at the centre of the apparent catastrophe. All that was clear was that a car was locked into a violent, haphazard trajectory somewhere towards the back of the field. As it skated across the circuit, upside down, on the final part of its journey, it sustained a glancing blow from Andrea Montermini’s Pacific, perilously close to its cockpit area. Only when the thick cloud of dust and debris settled did it become clear that Ukyo Katayama’s Tyrrell was the victim of all the commotion. The red flags were already out; Professor Syd Watkins, the FIA’s respected medical officer, and head of the governing body’s expert advisory group on safety, was on his way to the scene…

A couple of years ago, the chances are that nobody would have been too concerned about the possible consequences, but the events of Imola 1994 have waylaid such complacency for keeps. Watkins admits that he wasn’t too optimistic when he arrived on the scene. “I wasn’t terribly confident. I saw very little of it, actually, until I got there, because when you start at the back of the grid there’s so much dust and smoke and so forth that I didn’t see any details of the accident until I watched it on telly the next day. I didn’t see the actual flight of the car through the air. I just saw him upside down.”

Relatively speaking, Katayama was unscathed. Unable to remember anything between seeing a flash of the sky and waking up a short time later on a stretcher, the Japanese was taken to hospital for observation, and was condemned only to sitting out the following weekend’s European Grand Prix.

As Watkins concurs, he would have paid a far higher price had he suffered an accident of this magnitude 15-20 years ago.

Ken Tyrrell was quite clear that the carbon-fibre survival cell was critical to Katayama’s chances of avoiding serious injury. “It’s the biggest progress we’ve made in the 28 years I’ve been in Grand Prix racing,” he said, in the immediate aftermath of his driver’s crazy flight.

“In this case,” says Watkins, “I think the height and integrity of the roll-bar was the primary thing. So far as I could see there was very little damage to his helmet.”

Watkins agrees with Tyrrell that the introduction of the carbon monocoque has provided the biggest gain in safety terms. “Number two is the absence of fire. At Katayama’s accident, there was a lot of petrol around, but apart from a bit of smouldering there was no real attempt for the vehicle to go on fire.

“It doesn’t combust because of the integrity of the ignition and so forth. When I say there was a lot of fuel around, there was probably about a litre, so the system doesn’t leak massively.

“The last big leak I saw was Berger’s accident at Imola (1989), when of course they were putting cooled fuel in under pressure. Once there was a breach to atmospheric temperature, the fuel just came out like a volcano. They changed that after I complained.”

Specific research into safety has increased spectacularly since the expert advisory group was formed 18 months ago. Air bags are likely to be seen in F1 next year, and a special three-part seat with integral spinal splint is currently undergoing development.

“Until this group got going, I don’t know of any primary research that was done, such as we’ve been doing in the last 18 months. It was a question of adopting things that had been seen elsewhere. What we’ve done is to look at the basic physics of what happens in the cockpit, which had not been done at all in Formula One before.”

At Estoril, Katayama benefited from some of the work that has already been done.

Despite the further safety improvements that he envisages, however, Watkins sounds a final note of caution.

“I don’t think there’s any possibility in any circumstance, sport or otherwise, to eliminate risk. The unexpected is always likely to happen. I think Max Mosley put it pretty well when he said that we wanted to make it as safe as possible, but would have to remember that there was always the likelihood of something going wrong.

“Some trick will turn up which we haven’t thought of.”

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