“There is no such thing as accident, it’s fate misnamed”. That’s one of the famous quote of Napoleon Bonaparte. The impact of accidents as we know can cause a very deep impact on everyone involved, both physically and mentally. We had fatal accidents in Formula 1, and there were near fatal accidents as well. It’s not just in Formula 1, Racing itself is dangerous. Motor Racing can never be totally safe, and as in the opinion of Murray Walker, it never should.
Going down the history books, we have often found some inspirational stories on racing, the ones who arose from the jaws of death were even more inspirational. Safety was never the priority of yesteryear racing, some always claimed that the purest form of racing was those years where the safety belt wasn’t even mandatory. Other than the fact that racing itself is dangerous, the modern day Formula 1 or most series for that matter have improved a lot on safety, but after all, one can never say never in Formula 1.
We always remember those people who had fatal accidents, and also those who had near fatal ones, but there are stories beyond this part of focus. When we look at Formula 1, we look at drivers and their rivalries, so much so that we sometimes forget that there exists a bond among these drivers. Alright, majority of the drivers don’t share a deep relationship with others, but there is always a case of mutual respect which one can’t ignore. It’s definitely a privilege to be part of Formula 1 where only a selection of drivers across the World drives the pinnacle of automobiles, and this obviously leads to a bond between the drivers. Again, these things not happen only in Formula 1, but also in other Sports or Industry, where the peers share a great deal of respect. When these celebrities belong to one particular league, it’s difficult to ignore the accidents or fatalities that happen to other drivers. There always have been a case of several drivers/designers and other people in the World of Formula 1 who quit the sport or considered quitting, they decided that enough is enough, and wanted to lead a life away from the spotlight.
Five time World Champion, Juan Manuel Fangio’s record was unmatched for 46 years. He still holds many records in this sport. Often considered as the greatest driver of all time, Fangio’s finesse handling of the cars awarded him many glory within the sport. He did suffer a near fatal accident in 1952, when he drove all night long to compete in a non championship event. With severe fatigue from the journey, Fangio lost control of his Maserati and crashed heavily in just the second lap of the race, and thus suffered a broken neck that permanently left him with a stiff upper torso. He did come back from this injury, and went onto add more championships to his name, but he finally retired from the sport at the age of 47 in the year 1958. Although there were more than one reason for his retirement, he was saddened by the loss of his peers, as 30 of them died during his tenure. It’s been said that the drivers in his era, majority of them, were less than half of his age, and it was highly difficult for Fangio to see the fatalities.
Another legendary driver Jim Clark was known for his rolling contract with his team, he ensured that no one would be capable of stopping him from leaving the sport on any occasion. Jim Clark’s second race in Formula 1 was fatal for two drivers, as Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey succumed to their injuries with their two seperate accidents. In 1961, which was his second year in the sport, Clark was involved in a fatal crash that took the life of Wolfgang von Trips and fifteen spectators. These two accidents were too much for someone who had a peaceful life back in the farm in Scotland, and Clark considered to leave the sport on both these occasions. It was Colin Chapman who asked him to stay in the sport, and these two shared an amazing bond which fetched them both the driver’s and the constructors championships. If not for an oil leak in the 1962 and 1964 seasons, Clark could have won two more championships, and it would have elevated him into an league of his own, although he is still a legend irrespective of the championships that he clinched throughout his career. Clark was originally stated to drive for an sportscar event in Brands Hatch but due to contractual obligations, Clark took part in the ill-fated Formula Two race at Hockenheimring where the deflating rear tyre of his car caused a fatal accident, and his death shocked the racing community. The real cause of his death was never known, it was speculated that it could be a deflating rear tyre, only because his peers considered someone’s of Clark’s stature couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Several drivers who were close to Jim Clark were deeply affected by his fatal crash, two of them being Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart.
"If it could happen to him, what chance do the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we'd lost our leader." - Chris Amon
Two more deaths (Piers Courage and Jochen Rindt) around this same timeframe further shook the life of Jackie Stewart who himself had a date with death in the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix. With a heavy downpour, majority of the field were finding it difficult to keep the car on the track, and Stewart’s BRM was struck in a drainage with a heavy oil leak, and it took two other drivers who also crashed near him to help him out of the wreckage, as there were no track marshals to help the drivers. He was taken in an ambulance which lost its way enroute to the hospital. Clark suffered a broken collarbone, but he understood that the sport needs safety guidance and he had to do something for the sport. Stewart was responsible for several safety measures in the sport which as of now have saved several lives. He pledged for the introduction of Safety belts and Helmets which was a rarity in that period, and further agitated for the introduction of Safety barriers, and greater run off areas which is what the tracks are made of in this era of racing. Stewart was always criticised for taking away the dangerous quotient of the sport, and the word racing and danger as we know are so married to each other and this prompted many to question his moves. But it wasn’t the case that the fatalities never happened after his measures, fatalities to a large degree happened until Senna’s death which was when the authorities ensured there was a large overhaul of the safety measures of the sport. We can say that the measures taken by Stewart was a start of a large quota of measures that had to be performed for making the sport as safe as possible. Unfortunately during his tenure, not many understood the importance of the safety measures that had to be performed. Needless to say, Stewart had a huge impact on the crashes that happened to him and his peers. Years later, In 1973, When Stewart was on the final leg of his career, his teammate François Cevert succumbed to a severe injury that he suffered in a qualifying event at the Watkins Glen circuit. François Cevert suffered a deadliest crash, and was dead on the spot due to the massive scale of injuries that he suffered. As a result, Tyrell withdrew from the race, and Stewart didn’t compete in his 100th Grand Prix.
Another of Clark’s friend, Graham Hill was a media hero before he put himself into the league of those mighty champions. Hill’s antics at the after race parties, and his exhibitionist lifestyle on many occasions blinded off his other face which was his fierce attitude that was brought to limelight when BRM was so off the pace of others. Despite the highly contrary lifestyle between Clark and Hill, they had a massive mutual respect to start off which itself transformed into a bizarre friendship. Hill found himself leading a distraught Lotus at a time when both the prime drivers (Clark and Mike Spence) faced their fatal crashes, and that was the very first year of Hill returning back to the Lotus team. The Lotus team lacked morale after these crashes, and if it wasn’t for Hill, things could have been so different in this modern day. But then fate had its own scenario, Hill was killed in a plane crash few years after the Clark’s saga. Millions of people were once again shocked at this accident. Hill along with few other members of his own team were dead on the spot when a lightweight plane that they were travelling crashed onto the trees due to a dense fog. Hill’s team was left with his deputy and few other mechanics, and they had to shut down the team’s operations.
To this day, there has been several records of Clark’s peers and others who have publicly stated that Clark’s fatal crash was a catastrophe in their lives.
In 1967, Ferrari were in their worst possible shape. Chris Amon, Bandini, Mike Parkes and Scarfiotti were roped in to drive for the team on various rounds. Bandini succumbed to his injuries which he suffered when he was trapped in his burning car. A couple of rounds later at Belgium, Mike parkes suffered career ending injuries, and Ludovico Scarfiotti who witnessed the crash, decided to temporarily retire from racing. Ferrari were totally devastated but they just managed to continue racing, before their large overhaul three seasons down the line. Ludovico Scarfiotti came back to racing lines a year later, and became the third victim of the 1968 fatalities when he had a malefic crash at a hillclimbing event. The accident was a horrific one, as the Porsche that Scarfiotti was driving in that event was hanging among the trees, and Scarfiotti’s body was thrown 50 yards away from the spot. Fritz Huschke von Hanstein who was the team manager was totally devastated as it was the first fatal accident in his 18 year tenure.
Joseph Schlesser was a French driver who was fighting hard to drive an Formula 1 car. In 1968, Honda was experimenting with an air cooled car, and they were trying to race it earlier than planned. John Surtees was their test driver, and immediately suggested that the car wasn’t ready for racing. Honda paid no heed to the warning of Surtees, and enrolled to take part in the French Grand Prix. With no proper backup to Surtees, Honda hired Schlesser who was the local entrant and he crashed the car within two laps into the race. The air cooled car had a magnesium touch to its make, and also was filled with race fuel. The car crashed into the barriers sideways, and instantly got ignited. Schlesser was dead on the spot. Apparently, Surtees was asked to take part in the Italian Grand Prix later that year, and obviously, Surtees refused to drive that car ever again. Honda’s project was abandoned. Guy Ligier who formed a partnership with Schlesser decided to retire from racing, and pursued a career in building the Formula 1 cars. As a tribute to Schlesser, all of Ligier cars had JS as the Chassis Initials. The partnership of Ligier and Schlesser started earlier in the year, as Ligier and Schlesser brought a McLaren Formula 2 cars to pursue their racing ambitions, and give themselves a chance to fight in Formula 1.
Often considered as the best German in his class, Gerhard Karl Mitter had an impressive record in Formula Junior and was always knocking on the doors of a Formula 1 entry. Mitter was initially racing for motorbikes before making the jump. Driving for an F2 project of BMW, Gerhard Mitter suffered a fatal crash due to a broken suspension, and as a result, the BMW team withdrew from the race. Hans Herrmann who was Mitter’s teammate and a neighbour retired after winning the Le Mans 24 hours in 1970. Another driving partner of Mitter, Udo Schütz too retired from competitive racing, after witnessing the crash.
One person who suffered painful death was Joseph Siffert. "Seppi" as he is called affectionately shot to the spotlight by outclassing some of the established names in the racing fraternity on more than one occassion, including the likes of Jim Clark and Chris Amon. Unfortunately though, he retired in the majority of the races that he contested, but also challenged for the points in the races that he finished. At the 1971 Brands Hatch non championship event, Seppi suffered a heavy crash on the opening lap due to a broken suspension, and his car got inflated almost immediately. It was revealed later in an investigation that the crash wasn’t responsible for his fatality, but he suffered death due to the smoke inhalation. Joseph Siffert was trapped in the burning car, and he couldn’t come out of the wreckage. Due to the intensity of the fire, the marshals couldn’t reach his car and the fire extinguishers at that spot weren't in the working condition. It has to be said that Joseph Siffert’s death was due to the poor state of safety measures. After this accident, the safety measures were improved significantly on the circuit. The overalls were improved to ensure that it could withstand the fire, and onboard fire extinguishers were introduced, and became a mandatory component of the car. But then, fire resistant overalls wasn’t introduced or wasn’t mandatory for the crew or the marshals, and it took two more years and another victim to make it mandatory for the marshals to have fire resistant overalls. It was the sad case of Roger Williamson that prompted the authorities to introduce this change. Roger Williamson was competing in his second race at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix when his car flipped upside down due to a suspected tyre failure. Again, as in the case of Seppi, Roger Williamson wasn’t seriously injured, but was trapped under the debris, and in this case, there were many track marshals on his side, but again, they couldn’t offer help as they were badly equipped. Seeing this state of his friend, David Purley stopped his race, and ran to help his friend out of the debris, but with the heavy intensity of fire, he had to run to the other side to get an extinguisher, and tried to upright the car. Purley received no help from the marshals or other drivers, as the drivers thought that the driver of the car that was flipped upside down was Purley and they considered him safe to offer him any help. By the time the fire was put down, Williamson was declared dead due to asphyxiation. Many years later, and in many interviews, Purley stated that Williamson screamed from underneath the debris. Purley was awarded the George Medal for Bravery. Ironically, Purley lated died in a aerobatic biplane crash, a career that Purley undertook after he quit racing in 1977. Purley also suffered a major crash in 1977 which was his return to Formula 1 after a span of three years. In that crash at the British Grand Prix pre qualifying event, Purley decelerated from 108 mph to zero in 26 inches and thus suffering from a severe G-Forces, which was due to a result of his throttle getting struck and sprung wide open and this left him with far too many fractures across his body.
The case goes on as several drivers were impacted with the crash of their peers. It was very hard for some to digest the fact, even if it was the case of celebrating the win or even the Championship as from the cases of Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti. Niki Lauda’s first win after his near fatal crash was at the 1977 South African Grand Prix which saw the terrible death of Tom Pryce. The Brit was actually replacing another driver (Peter Revson) who had suffered a fatal crash three years earlier at the very same track during a private testing. On lap 21, Tom Pryce hit a 19 year old marshal who along with another marshal were carrying fire extinguishers to the opposite side of the track to blow out the fire coming out of Renzo Zorzi’s car. Pryce was behind Hans-Joachim Stuck, and Stuck himself narrowly missed hitting the two marshals who were crossing the track, but Pryce couldn’t manage to make a move, and hit the 19 year old at a staggering speed, and his body was thrown into the air, and the fire extinguisher that he was carrying across hit Pryce’s helmet and with this heavy impact, the extinguisher bounced off to the adjacent Grand Stand. Tom Pryce died instantly. At the podium celebrations, when Niki Lauda was told about these fatalities, he said that there was no joy after hearing the news.
Mario Andretti clinched his championship at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix which saw a huge pile up at the start that killed the upcoming and promising talent Ronnie Peterson. The person who was in charge for the race start seemed to be in a hurry as he gave the green light long before the drivers rolled into their position, and this meant that the drivers from row two got a jump start on those in the front row as they were the only two drivers who were perfectly rolled onto the grid. This jump start created a massive pile up that involved close to 7 drivers, and Ronnie Peterson was unfortunately a victim of a man-made error as his Lotus went into the barriers and instantly got ignited before rolling back onto the track. It was James Hunt who first rushed to the car along with the marshals and those drivers who crashed out due to the pile up. Peterson was rushed to the hospital with multiple fractures across his body, and was declared dead on the following day.
"It was so unfair to have a tragedy connected with probably what should have been the happiest day of my career. I couldn't celebrate, but also, I knew that trophy would be with me forever. And I knew also that Ronnie would have been happy for me" - Mario Andretti
As stated earlier in the article, perhaps that death which shook the Formula 1 World, and called in for a large overhaul of the sport’s safety was that of Ayrton Senna. The suggestions from various sections of the media and also from celebrities ranged from banning the sport, and to an extreme improvement of safety in the sport. Some of the most notable safety improvements on the tracks that followed the accident include the introduction of more improved crash barriers, along with the use of tyre barriers to a maximum extent. It was also told that the crash tests were improved and extended to a large degree. Further, the trail went on for years to follow and the Williams team took the brunt of the charges that was levied by the court and also by the general Public. Adrian Newey still states that Senna’s death is haunting him, and he along with Patrick Head were questioning themselves on their future in Formula 1, and they were almost certain to quit the sport.
Fatalities have definitely changed the course of several drivers and to a large extent, it did improve the sport from time to time. Jackie Stewart started the unthinkable by filing for a divorce against the word danger. Those people who were against his measures should have supported him. Maybe, certain drivers could have definitely lived with us. History could have been a lot better without these fatalities. Maybe, several marshals should have been more human or they should have been given the chance to fight the fires. But this is what we’re forced to witness and read about the sport we love. Nevertheless, the impact of fatalities are mostly lost in the modern era.