O Opinions & Commentary

Three more things that racing needs to fix

Oakville, ON, Sept 16/21 (GRW): Last weekend in the midst of the flurry of different races, I noticed a few things that told me that the quest for better racing safety is not finished. Here are the three issues that stood out to me.

1. Where was the ambulance at Monza?
At the Italian Grand Prix, Max Verstappen collided with Lewis Hamilton, the two cars’ tires made contact and Verstappen’s car vaulted over Hamilton’s sliding across the driver’s cockpit and coming to rest on top of the car. Afterward’s Hamilton (correctly) commented that he could have been killed. It was a serious accident and, as it turned out, he was lucky to have escaped without serious injury.

But then something strange happened. Nobody came to the drivers’ rescue. One track marshal showed up but he seemed to be afraid to touch the cars and he backed off. Verstappen climbed out of his car and, without hardly casting a glance in Hamilton’s direction set off on foot to return to the pits. A few moments later, Hamilton crawled out from under the Red Bull car. No one was there to check to see if he was okay or if he needed assistance. He then started on his walk back to the pits.

This walk took about ten minutes or so and all the way along the only people who came near either of them were photographers. A lone track worker wearing a vest that said ‘ACCOGLIENZA’ (hospitality !) walked alongside Hamilton for a while.

Why were no crash vehicles AND an ambulance not immediately dispatched to attend to the drivers? Why were the drivers not taken to the medical facility to be checked out afterwards? NASCAR once had a lackadaisical approach to looking after drivers who crashed but in more recent times they have taken a page from Indy Car’s book and the both series use the same dedicated crash rescue service to attend to accidents and they dispatch ambulances to attend to potentially injured drivers and they drive them back to the on-site medical centre.

Last year, when Romain Grosjean crashed at the Bahrain Grand Prix last year, the ‘medical car’ which follows the cars around on the first lap of the race was quickly on hand and the doctor rescued him from the fiery inferno – and then they loaded him into the back of their car and drove him back to base. Why a car and not an ambulance?

Who attended to the potentially seriously injured drivers at Monza, nobody!

Fortunately, both drivers were essentially uninjured and they managed to walk back to their pit stalls unassisted. But this is not good enough.

When, in 1966, Jackie Stewart crashed at Spa and he was trapped in his car with the fuel flooding out and filling up the cockpit, no official came to his assistance. His teammate Graham Hill, who had also crashed out of the race in the deluge, was able to borrow a ‘spanner’ from a nearby spectator, remove the steering wheel and help Stewart out of the car. If I remember correctly, a spectator loaded him into his own car and drove him back to the paddock. This potentially life-threatening incident was the impetus for Stewart’s like-long crusade for improved safety in racing.

How is it that over 50 years later, F1's safety procedures still have this big shortfall? It is sad that even NASCAR, which many of us criticized for being late to get serious about driver safety, is now so far ahead of F1 in this respect?

This seems to be a huge blind spot on F1's part. I’m not offering a specific solution, but I think the need is obvious and that there are many other examples that they could learn from.

DSC02278Sausage curbs at the first chicane at Monza

2. Sausage Curbs are an unnecessary safety hazard. Get something better.
When the NASCAR cars ran the Indianapolis road course this summer, we learned that the track was using a special kind of curbing to enforce the boundaries of some corners. In international racing, these lumpy obstacles are called ‘sausage curbs’ from their shape which resembles a huge sausage laid crosswise to enforce track limits. If you hit one of these fat sausages at right angles, your car will be bounced high in the air with undesirable results. Yes, it must dissuade drivers from cutting across these curbs – but, with the damage they cause, are they worth. Can’t they come up with a better less dire solution?

At IMS, the Indy cars seemed to be able to bounce up and over these barriers with little damage. On the other hand, the NASCAR cars , with their ‘splitters’ down on the track surface must have been catching these splitters and many of these cars were destroyed. What a mess. As the weekend went on, track workers removed the curbs that had been causing the worst damage.

At Monza, they also use sausage curbs and they had plenty of them in the first chicane. These big, high curbs do discourage anyone from trying to cut across them and gain an advantage. But, in F1, the ever-vigilant stewards, are more that willing to hand out warnings and penalties for ‘exceeding track limits’ so the physical barriers are redundant and can case damage – or, in the case of Verstappen’s accident, cause a dangerous accident.

His accident was caused when he put a wheel off on the inside and clipped one of the sausage curbs, causing his car to bounce sideways into Hamilton’s car when the rear tires on the two cars touched and the Red Bull was thrown up into the air.

Had there been a less aggressive style of curbing here – or none at all – Verstappen would have came out of this corner alongside or perhaps even ahead of Hamilton and, under the rules, he would have been required to give the race lead back to Hamilton. No harm, no foul. Instead, we got a life-threatening crash.

I say it is time for all racing authorities to review these sausage curbs with the view to completely eliminating them – or replacing them with a barrier that is less aggressive. What would Jackie Stewart say?

DSC02282The chicane at the Portland International Raceway

3. The infamous first-turn chicane at Portland
The track at Portland incorporates a drag strip that runs down the front straight past the pits. On the road course version of the track, presumably in an effort to slow the cars entering the right-hand corner at the end of this long straight, the track designers built a chicane near the end of the long straight – a hard 90-degree turn followed by even-sharper 60-degree turn back towards the drag strip.

This chicane does its job most of the time – but, on the first lap, when the cars are all bunched up it almost always causes a big pile-up – and this year’s race was no exception. A whole bunch of cars crashed – and ten laps of the race were lost to the yellow that followed.

This carnage was so predictable that the television producers sent Paul Tracy down to that chicane in anticipation of the big crash. And they were not disappointed. Surely racing is not about demolition derby smash-ups like this.

Given that these first-lap pileups occur with depressing regularity, surely the race officials at Portland can come up with better answer – and they should.

Since these big wrecks mainly happen on the first lap, perhaps they could let the cars bypass the chicane and continue along the drag strip into the next corner. This might require some testing to be sure that this was not just moving the risk of a big pile-up down the track to the next corner – but it’s worth looking into.

Perhaps a more conservative solution would be to reconfigure the chicane to be much less severe – a variation of the ‘bus stop’ chicane at Watkins Glen.

Surely, the racing brains with their over 100 years of racing history to draw on can come up with something better that this sad joke of a chicane at Portland.

-30-

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