Back in 2000 and 2001, two separate incidents claimed two lives. Both track marshals.
The first one was in the 2000 Italian GP at Monza when a trackside fire marshal lost his life when a rogue wheel lunged at him at a tremendous speed. The irony here was that the first chicane was deemed to be the problem by drivers when it came to collisions and its perils. This incident however happened at the second chicane when Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Jordan collided heavily in the back of his team mate Jarno Trulli’s car. Trulli’s left rear tire was hurled to the outside of the track at head-height and hit Paolo Gislimberti, mortally injuring him.
A similar incident reared its ugly head in the opening round of the 2001 season. Six months on, a volunteer safety worker Graham Beveridge, 52, met a similar fate. In this case the loose wheel, the culprit again, from the Ralf Schumacher-Jacques Villenueve collision got past the enclosure through a gap meant for photographers, hitting the marshal in the chest. Several others suffered minor injuries.
This year the loss of Henry Surtees, son of 1964 world champion John Surtees, in Formula 2 was attributed to a loose wheel yet again. All the three cars involved in the incidents were equipped with wheel tethers. For those uninitiated about wheel tethers, rewind back to the 2005 Grand Prix at Nurburgring when Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren held onto its wheel by its tethers when it blew up on the last lap.
Wheel tethers have been mandatory in Formula 1 since 1998 and the Formula 2 regulations include the 2005-standard Formula 1 requirement for wheel tethers. In spite of this lives were lost due to stray wheel. Can this be a freak accident or does it imply that multiple wheel tethers need to be employed? Henry Surtees’ incident was similar to that of Markus Höttinger, 23, who was fatally hit on the head by a wheel from Derek Warwick’s car in the 1980 F2 season. Tethers were not implemented then.
After the episode there were serious considerations for windscreens and canopies. A whiplash criticism followed the sport on grounds of safety. The 2007 Australian GP had seen David Coulthard's Red Bull, a former GPDA director, nearly decapitating Alexander Wurz in his Williams. Felipe Massa's incident in the Hungarian GP stirred the possibility further for a windscreen or a canopy. Rubens Barrichello's Brawn GP car saw a spring detach itself and rolled downhill to meet Massa's face. “You can have covers, you can have canopies, but you have got to get at the drivers to extract him if there is a problem. So you don't want a structure that collapses down on the driver, and there are a lot of secondary considerations” said Ross Brawn after the incident. Fernando Alonso was penalized later in the race when his right-front wheel came away from the car, in an incident which has been labeled by governing body the FIA as dangerous and avoidable. A knee jerk response to the week’s incidents.
David Coulthard animadverts on his website, “During my career it was not all that unusual to be hit by bits of flying debris; stones that were kicked up by cars ahead and so on. It is an inherent weakness in the design of a Formula One car and a basic risk of open-cockpit racing…We could close the cockpit and build machines that are more like touring cars, but that would go against the essence of our sport.”
Exposed risks in open-wheel racing
Twenty four drivers have lost their lives in a Formula 1 in a Grand Prix weekend. Many others were lost in other racing series or during testing. However impacts now, such as faced by Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, have minimized in resulting serious injuries. Mika Hakkinen in the 1995 Australian GP at Adelaide suffered a horrific accident during practice. Luciano Burti's Prost plowed the back of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari in the 2001 German GP and later in Belgium was taken to a hospital after a meeting with the tyre barriers. Ralf Schumacher's car flew in the opening lap of the 2002 Australian GP and he walked away. Robert Kubica's 2007 Canadian GP incident bore witness to the strength of the car as well. And last year, Heikki Kovalainen's crash at Spain was a testament that constant efforts are placed on safety. It is obvious that safety developments are much better now but there will always be an associated risk with the sport. And not just Formula 1, any sport for that matter.
Co-incidentally both Senna, the last man to lose his life in Formula 1 and Henry Sutees' F2 car were a Williams product.
Safety initiations: where it began?
1994 was a terrible year. It all started with the San Marino Grand Prix of course. Imola's practice session saw Barrichello crashing heavily at a fast corner before the pits and lose consciousness as the car landed upside down. This was followed by Ratzenberger's death in Qualifying. A disastrous race start saw four people in the grandstand hit due to debris from a collision. This was followed by Senna's crash. And then Michele Alboreto's lost a wheel and slewed into Ferrari's mechanic. A Lotus mechanic was also hit due to the resultant debris.
The next race at Monaco saw Sauber’s Karl Wendlinger suffering with serious head injuries due to a heavy impact and was out for the season.
In Spain, Andrea Montermini piled his Simtek sending him to the hospital. And to add fuel to the fire, literally, the German GP saw Jos Verstappen's car engulfed in flames due to a fuel leak.
The Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) was reformed in 1994 over the Monaco Grand Prix. Since then, although accidents have occurred, freak or otherwise, no Formula 1 driver has ended his career due to those incidents.
Robert Kubica, 2007 Canadian GP