In my last mclaren.com/formula1 blog I wrote about some of my inner-most feelings, including my religious faith.
In this mclaren.com/formula1 blog I’m going to write about racing safety, which probably has more to do with my religious faith than might at first appear obvious; but I’ll explain that connection a bit later on.
During my very long racing career, which began on two wheels in my native Brazil, when I was a teenager, and ended with a massive shunt at Michigan International Speedway, USA, when I was nearly 50, the biggest changes I’ve seen have concerned safety.
Think about it. Even 80 years ago, grand prix cars were incredibly fast. Take, for example, the Mercedes-Benz W125, which was driven by the great Rudolf Caracciola to first place in the 1937 European Championship, the precursor to today’s Formula 1 World Championship.
That monster of a car had a front-mounted 5.7-litre (348 cubic inch) straight-eight engine that belted out more than 600bhp. In race trim, on skinny cross-ply tyres, it was easily capable of 185mph (298km/h). Indeed, a specially adapted version of the car, named the Rekordwagen, attained a speed of 268.9mph (432.7km/h) over a timed kilometre that year: not what you’d call slow. In fact, in terms of straightline speed, it was no slower than today’s Formula 1 cars and Indycars.
And yet, if you look at old photos of the W125 in action, you’ll see that the helmetless heroes who drove it were almost totally unprotected. And if the car’s acceleration and maximum speed were impressive even by modern standards, its braking, steering, handling and roadholding were not.
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And as for the circuits, well, words fail me. They were ridiculously dangerous.
I drove a W125 in a demo run for Mercedes-Benz, at the old Hockenheim, during the 1997 German Grand Prix weekend. I wore a leather skullcap rather than a helmet, to make the photos look more authentic, and I had a few puffs on one of my own-brand Fittipaldi cigars as I climbed aboard.
I’d retired from racing, and I’d intended merely to pootle around, but, as soon as I gunned that big old straight-eight and powered out onto the circuit, adrenaline began to pump through my veins and there was simply no way I was going to be able to resist the temptation to go for it.
I’m told that I reached speeds of more than 170mph (274km/h) at the braking areas for the chicanes, and I can tell you that it was important not to get confused as I did so. Why? Because the clutch on a W125 is on the left, the brake on the right, and the throttle in the centre. So you don’t slow down much by stamping on the middle pedal!
I absolutely loved it.
But was it safe? No, undoubtedly, it wasn’t.
As you read these words, our modern-day Formula 1 heroes are testing at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), which is one of only a handful of racetracks in the world to have been accorded ‘FIA Institute Centre of Excellence’ status.
The FIA Institute website explains what that means as follows: “The Bahrain International Circuit was appointed as the FIA Institute’s Centre of Excellence for 2007 because of its ongoing commitment to improving safety facilities as well as educating and training trackside staff. The circuit’s facilities epitomise the high standards expected by the FIA Institute and are being used as a foundation to develop and deliver safety training and educational activities. The circuit also acts as a hub for improving motorsport safety standards across the region.”
Impressive stuff. So, as Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen drive their brand-new safety-optimised McLaren Mercedes MP4-29s around the superlatively appointed BIC this week, what they’re doing is a world away from what Caracciola did in his Mercedes-Benz W125 at the old Nurburgring Nordschleife, for example, isn’t it? Well, yes, and yet racing can never be truly safe, and undoubtedly today’s Formula 1 drivers are also taking a risk with every lap they drive; but, again, I’ll say more about that a bit later.
But, first, here’s a bit more history, for the sake of context. The first ever grand prix took place in France, on public roads, just outside Le Mans, in 1906. Far too many drivers lost their lives in racing cars in the first 60-odd years of our sport’s existence, and, by the 1960s, Formula 1 drivers had decided that they would have to improve safety levels themselves.
In 1961 they founded the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA), which still exists today, and of which all Formula 1 drivers should be members, and of which almost all Formula 1 drivers are members, and of which I was a very proud member during my Formula 1 career, which began in 1970 and ended in 1980.
The three GPDA men who did most to campaign for improved safety in the 1960s were Jo Bonnier, Jochen Rindt and Jackie Stewart. It’s doubly tragic, therefore, that Jochen was killed at Monza in 1970 and Jo lost his life at Le Mans in 1972.
Jackie is still with us, thank God, and I regard him as one of the greatest figures in the history of racing.
Not only was he the rival I respected most during my own racing career; not only is he a dear friend still; but also he did more than any other driver to make racing safer for the men in the hot seats, and every single one of the super-quick guys who are in Bahrain this week – yes, including Jenson and Kevin – owes a debt of gratitude to Jackie for his immense contribution to the evolutionary process that has made the sport they love, and from which they earn their big bucks, so comparatively safe today.
When I arrived in Europe in 1969, first to race in Formula Ford, then in Formula 3, and the following year in Formula 1, the cars were no faster than the 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 – slower in a straight line, if anything, and certainly less powerful – but they braked, steered and cornered far better. As a result, their lap speeds were much higher.
But, unbelievably, some of the circuits on which we were racing in the late 1960s and early 1970s were barely safer than the racetracks on which Caracciola and friends had driven 30 years previously.
The obvious example was the Nurburgring Nordschleife. It may have been magnificent – and it still is – but it was also a deathtrap. There’s no other word.
But the Nurburgring Nordschleife wasn’t the only one. The safety provisions at Montjuic, in Barcelona, Spain, were also woefully inadequate – I boycotted the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix as a result – and I also always regarded Rouen-les-Essarts as unacceptably unsafe.
I never drove in a French Grand Prix on that daunting 4.0-mile (6.5km) road course – the last one was held in 1968, the year before I arrived in Europe, and it accounted for the life of poor Jo Schlesser – but it continued to host Formula 2 events until 1978, and I drove in a number of those races.
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It was an exciting circuit, and a difficult one too, but as I say it was far too dangerous. One of its corners was cobbled, believe it or not, and it contained a number of extremely fast yet totally blind bends in a heavily forested section, with exposed trees on each side of the asphalt. To be frank, looking back on it from a 2014 perspective, it was insanely dangerous.
Unsurprisingly, the GPDA began its campaign by focusing on circuit safety, which was in truth the area that required attention most urgently. Guardrails and catch-fencing were either absent or flimsy, and run-off areas usually non-existent. Medical facilities were variable – some appalling, some poor, some reasonable, none what you could call good – and, as I say, Jackie was at the forefront, leading the charge.
In the next decade, the 1970s, we, the GPDA members, began to focus on the cars. One of the main dangers had previously been the fact that, in an accident, a car’s fuel line would often break. In turn, the contents of its fuel tank – up to 40 gallons (182 litres) of high-octane petrol, considerably more in the case of Indycars – would then be ignited, turning even comparatively minor shunts into lethal infernos.
Far too many drivers were burned to death like that, and I shudder to think of it still.
It was the American tyre company Goodyear that finally developed a safer fuel tank, which was designed with helicopter crashes in mind, and one of its features was a one-way valve, which prevented fuel from leaking out of a fuel tank whose fuel line had been disconnected under impact. That was a massively important development, which immediately made racing significantly safer.
The cars’ cockpits were made safer too – we campaigned for them to be designed so as to make our heads less exposed, and we improved the spec of each car’s safety harness. Helmets became more sophisticated, too.
I first toyed with the idea of racing in Indycars in the mid-1970s, but in fact I didn’t do so for another 10 years after that. My reasoning was that, bearing in mind the very high speeds of mid-1970s Indycars – Johnny Rutherford took the 1973 Indianapolis 500 pole, in a McLaren M16, with a lap whose average speed was 198.413mph (319km/h), for example – it was simply too dangerous.
Google ‘1973 Indianapolis 500’ and you’ll discover that, despite Johnny’s scintillating pole lap, the race was won by Gordon Johncock in an Eagle-Offy. Read a bit more and you’ll also find out that Art Pollard was killed in practice, and that Swede Savage later died in hospital of injuries he received in an accident in the race itself. As I say, it was just too unsafe.
So what changed my mind in 1984, enabling me to tackle Indycar when previously I'd regarded it as unacceptably risky? In a word, carbonfibre.
Carbonfibre was first utilised in Formula 1 in 1981, by McLaren, whose revolutionary MP4/1 car, designed by John Barnard under the guidance of Ron Dennis, pioneered techniques that are still used now, more than 30 years later.
The MP4/1 won the 1981 British Grand Prix in the hands of John Watson – Ron’s first ever victory in Formula 1 – and, later that year, at Monza, its ultra-rigid carbonfibre monocoque saved Wattie’s life, when he crashed on the exit of the second Lesmo corner, the impact ripping his car in two.
Crucially, he remained inside the MP4/1’s carbonfibre monocoque, which was still intact, and thus was born the racing phrase ‘survival cell’.
Ever since the widespread adoption of carbonfibre chassis construction in racing, which was as I say pioneered by McLaren, drivers have walked away from accidents that would have killed them had they been driving metal-chassis cars.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of that kind of miracle was the accident that befell BMW-Sauber driver Robert Kubica during the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. When I watch the footage of that shunt now, seven years later, I still find it difficult to believe that he survived such a violent impact, but survive it he did. Indeed I gather that, having been kept in hospital overnight as a precaution, he was discharged the very next day and drove back to his hotel himself. Amazing.
By 1984, carbonfibre chassis were de rigueur in Formula 1 and Indycar, and as I say that was what gave me the confidence to resume my racing career, after a three-year sabbatical, this time in Indycar rather than in Formula 1.
I had a fantastic Indycar career, and enjoyed it immensely, winning 22 races including the Indy 500 twice. I was still enjoying it, and still driving well, when, after 12 years spent in the United States' premier single-seater series, in 1996, at Michigan, I had the shunt that ended my racing career.
I remember it incredibly well.
I’d qualified fifth, the Mercedes engine in my Penske not as powerful as the Honda engines in Jimmy Vasser’s and Alex Zanardi’s Reynards, which had duly qualified first and second. Third on the grid was Greg Moore, a rookie that year, in a Reynard-Cosworth, and fourth was my Penske-Mercedes team-mate, Al Unser Jnr.
Even so, I was reasonably confident that I could compete for the win. It was a 500-mile race – 250 laps – and a lot can happen in a race of that length. Moreover, I was one of the most experienced drivers in the field, well used to super-speedways such as Michigan, where the average lap speed was in excess of 230mph (370km/h).
My strategy was to try to get a good start, so as to finish lap one in third place, just behind the two Honda-engined cars. Once I’d done that, I figured I’d be able to plan the next phase of my race from there.
In the race-day warm-up, I practised my start, getting away fast and well, and running high onto the Turn One banking, carrying great speed into and through that first corner. My plan would work, I felt sure.
In the event, it almost did. I got away well, as planned, and duly pointed the bright-red nose of my Penske high onto the Turn One banking, shaping to pass Greg’s Reynard, which was running lower down, below me, as I did so.
But Greg was a rookie – and, although he was very quick, he wasn’t used to running wheel to wheel on super-speedways and he definitely wasn’t expecting me to push past him, high on the Turn One banking, on the very first lap.
When you’re running that fast and that close, you have to be incredibly precise. Your car is twitchier than perhaps you realise, and all your throttle and steering inputs therefore have to be meticulously accurate. And, at that sort of speed, you can feel weird turbulence effects that drivers who haven't done time on banked turns on the far side of 200mph (322km/h) know nothing about. You’re piloting as much as driving.
Greg was new to all that, and, as we all poured into Turn One, he allowed his car to drift ever so slightly up the banking, towards mine, just as I was overtaking him. As I was about to complete the pass, our cars touched – and at that speed any contact almost always causes an almighty shunt.
Instantly, I was a passenger, my car slamming into the outside wall with a force that was later revealed to have been 118g.
I was still conscious as my car slewed to a stop in the middle of Turn Two, but I was immediately aware that I’d had the biggest shunt of my career.
I couldn’t see properly – the massive g-force had detached a retina in one of my eyes – and my back and neck were in great pain owing to what I later learned were two broken vertebrae.
I was 49, but I was extremely fit, and in the first few seconds after my car had come to a halt I was able to speak on the car-to-pits radio to my team boss, Carl Hogan. Although I knew I was in a serious situation, I felt oddly calm.
Then I began to feel nauseous and dizzy – a strange feeling, a feeling unlike any I’d ever felt before – and I started to have trouble breathing. What was happening was that I was suffering internal bleeding, and my lungs were filling with blood, preventing them from being able to take in air. Then one of my lungs collapsed.
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I vividly remember thinking the words “I’m dying”. I even had the time, and the mental capacity, to ponder that outcome. Then I passed out.
The rescue team were at my side by then, and they saved my life. They treated me first at the infield medical centre, after which I was taken by helicopter to Foote Hospital at nearby Jackson. I was kept there for a short while, undergoing further life-saving treatments, and was then transferred to St Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, a specialist spinal trauma centre.
It was there, a few weeks after my accident, as I was lying on my hospital bed, still in a lot of discomfort but determined to fight my way back to full fitness, that Jesus Christ came into my life. Suddenly, I felt his presence. Unmistakeably, I knew that it was he who had saved me.
Every cloud has a silver lining, they say, and in my case undoubtedly that’s true. My accident taught me a lot. In many ways you could say that it taught me everything.
As I said earlier, racing is still dangerous. It always will be. You should never forget that, and you should always respect all drivers for taking on that risk. But the enormous progress we’ve made during my lifetime has had two profound effects: first, it’s made racing immeasurably safer than we’d ever imagined it might one day become, which is a wonderful thing in and of itself, and, second, it’s given racing a role that goes beyond providing mere entertainment.
Many major car manufacturers have been, and remain, involved in top-flight racing, and their participation definitely teaches them lessons that eventually translate into features that find their way into their future passenger cars.
Some of those features are performance-oriented, others are economy-focused, but undoubtedly companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Honda, and many others besides, are constantly and consistently learning more about how to make racing cars safer.
In turn, in time, those same lessons will make safer the cars that we’ll be driving in the future.
Indeed, in turn, in time, those same lessons will make safer the cars that our children and grandchildren will be driving in the future.
And that makes me very proud of the sport I love, the sport I firmly believe that God put me on Earth to do.