Guest column: Wild in the country

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Accidents have been around since racing began, but the BARC’s Chief Executive fears they are becoming endemic

A great deal has been written, and said, in recent weeks about standards of driving in  races, particularly among drivers in the lower formulae. A collision involving Greg Mansell in a Formula 3 race at Brands Hatch caught the attention of the media, for obvious reasons, and since that incident there has been widespread criticism of the way youngsters approach their racing.

Naturally, the British Automobile Racing Club, along with all other British clubs, is doing its best to stamp out some of the more wild and aggressive tactics being used, especially in the single-seater categories.

As chief executive of the BARC, I’d like to throw some light on why we believe that drivers’ behaviour is worse than in the past, and I say this with nearly 40 years of experience both as a driver and an official. There are a great many factors involved in the deterioration of driving standards.

Motor racing, like many other sports, is often a mirror of the way life is going. We are seeing in our daily lives more irresponsibility and more selfishness, less respect for others and more aggressive attitudes. These attitudes have found their way onto our racetracks where drivers appear to have little respect for their fellow competitors and for the sport itself.

At the same time, motorsport has become substantially safer which in turn means that drivers are more prepared to take risks as they simply don’t believe that they can get hurt. This, of course, is a myth. Too many drivers simply assume that it is never going to happen to them.

Some of this complacency comes from what we have seen recently in Formula 1. We have seen Robert Kubica walk away from an enormous accident in Montreal, and some of the youngsters assume that they will be just as lucky. However, Kubica was extremely fortunate to have escaped unhurt from that incident.

It would be wrong to simply blame the kids, as we are seeing more and more parents and team managers with equally irresponsible attitudes. The emphasis today seems to be about winning at all costs, so there is far more pressure on drivers to perform. Perhaps parents just don’t appreciate how dangerous motorsport can be. There was a time, too, when teams felt able to admit that their driver was at fault or had put another competitor at risk. Now it appears that nobody is prepared to accept the blame, or the responsibility, for their actions. The attitude is more likely to be ‘well, we got away with it’ – even when they know they were in the wrong.

There are an awful lot of fathers who are living out their dreams through the careers of their sons. Of course this is not unique to motor racing, but it is important for parents, and team managers, to take a more responsible attitude if we are to raise the standards of driving.

So what can be done? All our clerks of the course are instructed to take action against any racing driver when there is sufficient evidence to support their disciplinary actions. Where we are perhaps falling down is that we are not getting the necessary evidence in many cases and so it is very difficult for a clerk of the course to make a punishment stick. Yes, we have hundreds of marshals and trained observers at every race, but none has 360-degree vision and they cannot be looking in every direction at once when 30 cars are racing in close company.

In days gone by, a driver would have held up his hand and admitted a mistake, but not now. We are dealing, in many cases, with failings in society as a whole and not just with reckless racing drivers. There is a general lack of responsibility and, I repeat, the desire to win at all costs. We want to be tough, but we are pushing water uphill some of the time.

It is no use constantly comparing today’s motor racing with what people perceive as the golden days of previous eras, just as you cannot compare life today with life three or four decades ago. However, there is undoubtedly  considerably more contact than there ever was and that is partly a result of a tendency to over-defend a race position. Sometimes you simply have to back off, lose a place, and accept that the car behind is quicker on the day. Letting someone by is preferable to cars colliding and going out of the race. 

There’s no doubt that some of the youngsters we see on the circuits today are picking up some bad habits from watching the tactics of grand prix drivers who, understandably, are their role models. There is an element of youngsters copying what they see, but it’s not a major factor in the debate about driving standards. All the really top drivers have a streak of ruthlessness and a bit of gamesmanship, otherwise they would not climb to the very top of the ladder. It’s the way they control that aggression, though, that separates the true champions from the rest.

On a positive note, I do not see any reasons, or any evidence, that this problem is going to get any worse. We simply have to encourage all drivers, their parents and their team managers, to take a more responsible attitude and to have a greater respect for the dangers. As in the rest of everyday life, sometimes you have to take responsibility and accept that it is not always somebody else’s fault. And remember, the clerk of the course has his eyes peeled for any kind of silly or reckless behaviour on the circuit.

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