I was lying in bed on Sunday night around midnight and checked my twitter feed for the latest sports news before nodding off when I discovered the tragic news of Dan Wheldon’s untimely passing at the Las Vegas Indy 300.
Shockwaves have reverberated not just around the motorsport community but the global sporting world. Sadness and mourning has turned to anger and confusion about how one of Britain’s most successful racing drivers of the 21st century lost his life, leaving behind a wife and two sons under the age of three.
Calls have been made to decreases the speeds but, in my opinion, it is the cars themselves and the track that need to be modified first.
One of the inherent appeals of motorsport is risk. Both for drivers and spectators, the thrill of being on the edge, threading the eye of a needle in search for that extra tenth, hundredth and thousandth of a second that could make the difference between first and nowhere. You ask Joe Public why they watch motor racing? I’d guess a large percentage will say the crashes. When racers risk everything and lose.
Every driver that enters the sport fully acknowledges that crashing is an occupational hazard. If you take away the element of risk, the fear of serious injury and you will breed a crop of foolhardy individuals with invincible mentalities. No driver crashes and bemoans the sport. No footballer who gets injured blames FIFA. No skier who breaks a leg lies in hospital aghast at anybody but themselves.
But risk should be with the knowledge that yes it may end your race, your season or threaten serious injury at worst but not be choosing whether or not you live or die.
So what makes Wheldon’s death different? And why does it take the loss of a human life to hear these concerns and outcries for increased safety?
Wheldon’s death is different because it was preventable.
Look back at a lot of deaths and serious injuries within motorsport over the years and they have triggered change. Ayrton Senna crashed into a concrete wall at Imola in 94. The response? Safety cells within cars increased and the track layout and safety changed.
Michael Schumacher broke both legs at Silverstone in 1999 after the front suspension pierced the cockpit having collided having hit the barriers head on. The response? Cockpits and suspensions were strengthened and tarmac replaced the gravel trap.
It is important not to jump too far though and break the very essence of the sport. Henry Surtees, grandson of John, died when a wheel struck his head at Brand Hatch in 2009. This was an accident that could not be prevented without removing the fabric of the sport itself.
Three drivers have died in IndyCar since 2001 and where is the change?
The indicident that claimed Wheldon’s life surprised nobody.
The hardest pill to swallow is that drivers voiced their concerns over the safety of the race prior to Sunday’s fatal season finale. 34 cars on an oval track 1.5 miles long racing four abreast just doesn’t work. Fears of a serious accident fell on deaf ears and the race proceeded until that fateful incident on Lap 13.
But do the drivers have to take responsibility themselves?
If it was genuinely unsafe, why did all 34 drivers take to the track that day? Drivers with wives, husbands, sons, daughters and families for whom their death has to be lived for eternally.
In 1976, torrential rain threatened the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix. It was the final race of the season, the title decider. Austrian Niki Lauda pulled into the pits on Lap 2 along with other drivers deeming the race unsafe. He had forgone the glory and riches of a Formula One title for his own life. Lauda went on to become a triple world champion so you cannot question his love for the sport and racing.
As has been well documented in the media, the main reason Wheldon was racing in Las Vegas was the $5million prize offered if he could come from last place to win the race. It has since emerged that an insurance company, not a business tycoon, would have paid out the winnings and with the split, Wheldon was only in line to received about a tenth of that figure. Whilst money may have caused him to enter the race, one could assume it wasn’t his main motivation.
The tragedy is tinged with the irony that earlier that week, Wheldon had been testing a raft of safety measures being introduced to cars to avoid the exact problem that killed the Englishman.
Protectors behind the back wheels to avoid cars becoming airborne are one of the features Wheldon tested, one that would have saved his life in Las Vegas.
In my opinion, IndyCar are going down the right route for their sport. Modifying the cars to reduce fatalities is the first step. The cars have been relatively unchanged since 2001, in which time the sport has lost Paul Dana and Tony Renna. Indycar are going down the right route – but, perhaps somewhat ironically in a sport where speeds reach in excess of 225mph, too slowly.
The FIA, the world motorsport governing body, are heavily involved in Formula One’s safety and haven’t rested on their laurels since Senna’s death, increasing head protection for drivers, wheel teathers and raising front wings in recent years. Yet why, following three deaths in 11 years, has IndyCar sat still?
The concrete walls that lined all of the oval circuits have been improved but Wheldon’s death was caused when he went head first into the fencing designed to protect spectators from flying debris. When cars have the capability of flying 20 feet into the air, above the concrete walls, why has nothing been done to alter this design to protect both drivers and spectators?
One of the main attractions on IndyCar is the speed. Indeed for any form of oval racing, there’s not a great deal else to the sport. Reducing the speeds will not reduce the accidents. Whether you hit the fencing at 220mph or 190mph, the odds are stacked heavily against the driver.
And if you take away one of the main facets of the sport, you take away the sport itself. Is Rugby Union worse off now scrum safety has improved? Is skiing any less thrilling with catch fencing rather than trees to hit after crashing?
Formula One has introduced a raft of changes to rules, cars and tracks in recent years and the racing is still as ferocious as ever and the cars are no slower.
IndyCar must take note and take action. And be speedy about it.
Thursday, 20th October 2011