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Lest We Forget

FEATURE BY MIKE LAWRENCE
11/08/2013

Before the German GP, there was talk of a drivers' boycott following the tyre fiasco at Silverstone. A steel belt came close to hitting Fernando Alonso, never mind the danger to drivers whose tyres had broken. The tyres broke, there is no other word; they did not fail, they broke.

For those of us of a certain age, the threatened boycott revived memories of a time when motor racing was dangerous to the point of irresponsibility. All the time and not just when the FIA want to spice up the show.

Recently I watched a repeat of a BBC TV documentary: 'Grand Prix - The Killer Years'. In essence it went from von Trips (Monza, 1961) to Cevert (Watkins Glen, 1973).

Seeing Lorenzo Bandini, Jo Schlesser, Piers Courage and Roger Williamson being burned alive is not my idea of light entertainment. The tone of the programme, however, was not sensational, but measured. It could have said that drivers who passed the burning cars smelt human flesh being roasted, and they did, rather the programme concentrated on the main issues.

What got me is that I followed motor racing during the period and accepted the horrendous death toll, which included Jim Clark, Chris Bristow, Alan Stacey, Mike Spence, Jo Schlesser, Ludovico Scarfiotti, Piers Courage, Wolfgang von Trips. Jo Siffert, Ricardo Rodriguez, John Taylor. Lorenzo Bandini. Roger Williamson and Francois Cevert.

That list is not comprehensive and does not include drivers from American racing or sports cars (Pedro Rodriguez and Bruce McLaren included) and nor does it include numerous anonymous spectators or drivers like Chris Lambert who died before they reached formula One. It does not include drivers too badly injured to continue, Stirling Moss among them.

Circuits were unnecessarily dangerous. Whatever the reason why Jim Clark left the road, it was a tree that killed him. Even when Armco barriers were erected, there were instances of the holding bolts not being tightened, something that contributed to Jochen Rindt's death.

Organisers did not learn. Before the 1975 Spanish GP, people like Ken Tyrrell walked around the circuit with spanners and socket sets, making the Armco fit for purpose. At least by then there was Armco and not straw bales which have a tendency to burn.

Jackie Stewart was the main force behind reform, but trying to organise the egos which is a typical F1 grid was like herding cats. Organisers did not want to know because safety meant expenditure. Then there was the faction that reckoned that motor racing should be dangerous. The fiercest critic of Jackie Stewart was my mentor, Denis Jenkinson, and we never found common ground on the issue. Jenks was sometimes pretty juvenile in his attacks.

Motor racing was lucky to have Jackie Stewart, for six years he was the undisputed world number one and so could not be criticised for losing his bottle or for sour grapes. He had authority like nobody else.

I once heard a multiple Grand Prix winner of the period boast that he had faced the dangers with the implication that others should as well. He was able to say that because he had survived, and luck had played a part in that. If you are trapped under a car with no help to hand, I would say that it is luck that another car comes off at the same corner and knocks your car off you without hitting yourself.

Marshals are now trained and wear protective clothing. It was at the urging of Jackie Stewart that drivers donated old Nomex suits to marshals. When I first became a marshal in 1959, aged 16, I was given a cardboard armband and that was it. I would like to claim that I had special powers, or even a basic knowledge of first aid, but I was a teenager who got the gig because I had volunteered.

In 1973, when Roger Williamson was burned alive during the Dutch GP, a lot of money had been spent on improving the circuit, but no attention had been paid to the marshals. Another driver, David Purley, reached Williamson before a marshal did and David had to shout for a fire extinguisher.

The immensely talented Tom Pryce died during the 1977 South African GP when a teenage marshal ran across the track with a fire extinguisher to render aid to a car that was merely stationary.

There were Grands Prix when the primary medical care was in the hands of nuns. Not nuns chosen because they were qualified doctors or trained nurses, but nuns chosen because they were nuns.

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by GoodPublicity, 22/08/2013 16:21

"You're spot-on as usual, Mike!"

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2. Posted by MKI, 16/08/2013 15:44

"Another fine article Doctor! But are you being a bit tough on the FIA in this instance? As you explain, it took a massive effort by SJYS to get everyone involved to wake up to the insanity of the level of risk that prevailed in that period, but when they did the FIA backed his vision to the hilt. Safety is about the only thing many believe the FIA has promoted properly since then. But the problem we have now is understanding just what the FIA controls and does not control. One example. It's the FIA F1 World Championship, yet it has no control over where its own championship is contested, not the country, not the circuit. Could it be, to use your words, that the FIA has been 'bloody stupid' in finding itself the fall guy for a situation over which it has no control - but one everyone assumes, as the governing body, it does?"

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3. Posted by saaby1, 12/08/2013 9:59 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 12/08/2013 16:38)

" Well stated Mr. Lawrence. I recall clearly, the vilification of Jackie Stewart (I was one of those stupid fools who detested any thought of changes related to "safety". And then I also recall clearly that Saturday on October 6, 1973 at Watkins Glen, being a novice marshal on the next corner round from Cevert's horrific crash into the Armco at the bridge. All those drivers of that time were the absolute gods of my youth, and in the clarity that sadly only seems to come to some of us through the light of hindsight, none more so than JYS for his incredible bravery on all fronts, especially for his standing up to one and all in the name of safer conditions for all those very gods. "

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4. Posted by Gurney, 11/08/2013 19:35 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 12/08/2013 16:38)

"Another gem from the Doctor."

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