The tragic cost of racing

As I write the morning after, we are reeling from the shock. News of the tragedy that has claimed the life of Henry Surtees in a Formula 2 accident at Brands Hatch is still raw, and it is too much to imagine what his father John and mother Jane are going through. We send our heartfelt condolences to the Surtees family, and also to Jack Clarke and the rest of the F2 fraternity, who will all be suffering at this very difficult time.

Investigations and reviews are to come, but as is always the case in these sad circumstances, calm and clear heads are needed. Lessons can always be learned from accidents, but it is impossible to legislate against fateful fortune. How many times have we seen errant wheels bounce alarmingly during incidents, only to land in relative safety? On this occasion the wheel from Clarke’s crashed car took the worst possible path. Poor Surtees had no chance.

Formula 1 has suffered two fatalities this century, both of them marshals killed by flying wheels. The first, at Monza in 2000, resulted in the introduction of tethers designed to contain wheels during collisions. But accidents by definition are unpredictable and these tethers cannot be guaranteed to withstand the immense forces at work. Little more than six months later, at the 2001 Australian GP, another marshal died when a wheel from Jacques Villeneuve’s BAR was shed after a collision with Ralf Schumacher’s Williams. In this instance it flew through a gap in the debris fence little bigger than the size of a tyre before hitting the victim. The odds on it doing so were incredible, but that didn’t stop it happening.

Work on car and circuit safety never stops and since that accident the bar has been raised time and again. The new Williams-built F2 conforms to 2005 FIA F1 safety regulations, quite rightly lauded as a selling point on the new category’s launch last year. Brands Hatch too is safer than it has ever been, even if it retains the fearsome character that has always set it apart. In short, any inquiry might struggle to place the blame for this tragedy – and that’s just as it should be. Accountability has always sat uncomfortably with this sport, as anyone working at Williams in the wake of Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994 knows only too well.

Jonathan Palmer too is more than aware of his responsibilities as a series boss, circuit owner and racing father himself. Indeed, his son Jolyon was running just ahead of Henry at the time. Palmer’s contribution to British motor sport has been immense since he created his own championship in 1998, and his stewardship of Brands deserves comparison with the circuit’s golden age under John Webb. What a pity it would be if this accident should impact on the GP track’s revitalised status as a venue fit for top-line single-seater racing.

Motor racing is, and always will be, dangerous. F2 and Brands Hatch must go on, sadder and wiser in the wake of a tragedy that no one in racing will ever forget. That’s the way it’s always been. Obituary, page 28.

Despite a heavy heart, Motor Sport must gather itself and look ahead, too. As the season rolls on our attention turns to a landmark date: on September 17, Sir Stirling Moss, Britain’s greatest racing driver, turns 80.

We’ve already marked The Boy’s big year with a party in his honour (see page 30). Now we’re letting him take over the magazine – I’m having a month off as Sir Stirling takes the reins as guest editor! The October edition promises to be a bit special as we celebrate the first 80 years of a man who has inspired us all. The magazine goes on sale on August 28 and I do hope you enjoy it. Meanwhile, I’ll see you in the November issue…
Damien Smith, Editor