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When death cuts the race short

Brad Spurgeon, June 30, 2013, International Herald Tribune

Motor sport

It seems to go without saying that crashes are an integral part of auto racing. But in recent decades, racing organisations have managed like never before to vastly reduce the number of driver fatalities and serious injuries that result from those seemingly inevitable accidents.

 Unfortunately, as Formula One teams take to the Silverstone circuit for the British Grand Prix, the eighth race of the season, they do so overshadowed by the death of an experienced driver, Allan Simonsen, 34, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race last weekend in France.

 Even though the Le Mans race and Formula One are different racing series, many drivers have raced in both.

 Simonsen’s death was the first fatality at Le Mans since Sébastian Enjolras was killed in an accident there in 1997. Formula One’s recent safety record is slightly better: There have been no deaths in the series since Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died in separate crashes at the San Marino Grand Prix in May 1994. While Le Mans runs only once a year, Formula One has run 16 to 20 races per season since 1994.


 “We are no longer used to having death in the races,” Henri Pescarolo, a former Formula One driver and four-time winner of Le Mans, said after the Le Mans race. “It was a black edition of the race.”

 Fatalities at the highest levels of racing are less and less frequent thanks to safety measures, developments in the racing cars, driver protection — like helmets and neck braces — and circuit modifications. But accidents are nonetheless expected, taken into account in team budgets and considered an aspect of the sport that has to be managed at every level, from drivers to mechanics to team directors and even spectators.

In a series of interviews before the fatal accident at Le Mans, Formula One drivers were asked how they approach the subject of accidents at the highest level racing. The responses ranged from the frank, cold and calculated to refusal to discuss the subject at all.  “I don’t really think that’s an appropriate topic at the moment,” Paul di Resta, a driver at the Force India team, said before the Canadian Grand Prix, which was held in Montreal on June 9.

“I’m not comfortable talking about accidents at the moment — it’s the Friday of a Grand Prix weekend.”

 One thing on which all drivers agreed, however, was that they do not think about accidents while driving. If they did, they said, they would be better off not being in the car. “If you think about that, you better stay home,” said Giedo Van der Garde, a driver at the Caterham team. “As soon as you start thinking about that, it’s not a good thing. So you just go for it and see where you end up. Sometimes you go over the limit and sometimes you just make it.”

His teammate, Charles Pic, described the same approach, but with more precision as to why it is not advisable to think about an accident while driving.  “You think of just driving,” Pic said. “Because if ever you start thinking of that, it is concentration that you don’t have for optimising your driving.”

 Esteban Gutiérrez, a driver at the Sauber team, said that accidents are not only a risk that go with the job, they are central to a driver’s growth and development. But this was more the case at the lower levels of racing, he suggested, than in Formula One.  “In the lower categories, as a driver you have to learn and you have to practice pushing on the limits, and crashing is part of the learning,” Gutiérrez said. “If you never crash, you never make mistakes, you never make progress.”

 But he added that even in Formula One there is a link between accidents and the level of commitment in racing. “You have to push with no compromise because you are competing and sometimes pushing at the limit, and sometimes at the limit you are in a very delicate position and can make a mistake,” he said.

Kimi Raikkonen, who won the world drivers’ title with Ferrari in 2007 and who now races at the Lotus team, agreed that it was all about finding the limit - but also about knowing where on the track and when it is safer to push for that limit.

“More or less, you know where to push, and where to take a chance because you can get away with it and not destroy your car,” Raikkonen said. “Sometimes you push a bit too much and go off. But there are certain places that you take a chance because you know you will just run wide and you come back on the circuit and nothing happens.”

 That, of course, depends on the individual circuit and how much safety run-off area it has. A science of risk-taking that has evolved out of road safety research, called risk compensation, or risk homeostasis, has noted changes in human behavior toward levels of perceived risk. People have been found to show less caution when they feel more protected and more caution when they feel at greater risk.  In other words, the introduction of safety measures or better technology — like safety belts or anti-lock brakes, or even bicycle helmets — can lead to driving more dangerously.  Drivers today appear to care little for analyses of risk behavior and the potential physical consequences of an accident. For them, the most immediate sanction of an accident is the end of their race or other track time.  

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