July 26, 2009 Leave a comment
Imagine a large bag of sugar falling out of a cupboard onto your head. Now picture being hit in the head by someone throwing it as hard as they can. Finally, imagine the same thing happening at three times that speed.
Well, that’s pretty much what happened to Felipe Massa during qualifying yesterday for the Hungarian Grand Prix. An 800g spring became dislodged from Rubens Barrichello’s car in front of him, which then bounced up and struck the Brazilian driver, following behind at 150 mph, on the head. The blow rendered him immediately unconscious, and his car speared off into the tyre wall at the side of the track. Photographic images of Massa being lifted out of his car by paramedics clearly show both where the missile struck the left side of his helmet and a nasty-looking injury to his left eye. He was immediately helicoptered to a hospital in Budapest with ‘life-threatening injuries’, where after a successful emergency operation he is now apparently stable and in a medically-induced coma to prevent further cranial damage.
It is testament to the safety measures which have been introduced into Formula 1 over the last forty years that Massa is still alive.
In the days of Moss, Fangio and their black-and-white TV brethren with their leather helmets, the initial impact of the spring would certainly have killed Massa. And if by some miracle that hadn’t, the resulting crash in his car – probably with a concrete wall (no tyre barriers back then) – would have finished the job. Without the strength of carbon fibre monocoques and energy-absorbing collapsible designs, the impact would have shattered both legs and body. Debris from the shattering car – untethered wheels, suspension parts, bodywork – might have punctured or caved in his head or rib-cage. And if that wasn’t enough, there is a strong chance the unprotected fuel tank would also have exploded, possibly incinerating him before help could arrive.
As it was, the combination of a modern F1 design and the tyre barrier did their job in dissipating the massive energy involved in a 100 mph-plus crash away from the driver. And Massa’s helmet, shattered though it was, largely withstood the bulk of the impact and would also have absorbed a massive amount of energy. Without it, his skull might well have been shattered rather than fractured. In short, contemporary safety measures ensured Felipe Massa was taken from the Hungaroring to a hospital for an operation, rather than to the mortuary for a post-mortem.
40 years ago, maybe even as recent as 10-15, that would not have been the case. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, coming as it does at the end of a week when Sir John Surtees’ son Henry was killed by an untethered wheel in a crash at Brands Hatch, it is easy to over-react and point to the obvious dangers of competing in open-topped, single-seater racers. But danger is part of the excitement of Formula 1 – without it, it is little more than live action Scalextric – and while huge efforts have been undertaken (and continue to be) to mitigate the risks, it will never be possible to remove it completely.
Instead, I believe it’s more relevant to consider how few major safety incidents Formula 1 has experienced in recent years. Yes, we have had pit-lane fires, spectacular crashes (Robert Kubica’s terrifying end-over-end cartwheel at Montreal two years ago, for instance), and some quite nasty injuries (Michael Schumacher’s broken leg at Silverstone in 1999, say). But in reality it has been 15 years since the last driver fatality at an F1 race (Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994), and the last two life-threatening injuries in F1 were, I believe, Karl Wendlinger at Monaco in 1994 and Mika Hakkinen at Adelaide the following year. Both Wendlinger and Hakkinen suffered terrible head trauma but recovered fully enough to return to racing – Hakkinen went on to win world titles in 1998 and 1999. We have become accustomed to drivers emerging from the most horrific-looking incidents with little more than a broken fingernail, ruffled hair and a mild headache; it’s in this context that yesterday’s events seem particularly shocking.
Complacency is the enemy of progress, but in the specific area of safety this is one F1 really does have a good record. Now is not the time for finger-pointing and over-reaction. It is a time to acknowledge the massive safety advances made in F1 over the years. And for prayer. It is no miracle that Massa survivied yesterday’s freak accident; it is simply the appliance of science in a sport which is more than aware of its own dangers.
Best wishes to Felipe Massa for a full and speedy recovery.