Having grown up in motorsport, and having been involved across a number of categories, I have met many drivers from Karting to Formula One to the World Endurance Championship. I am even lucky enough to call some of these drivers my friends and having grown up with some they even feel like family.
The notion that racing is dangerous is forever present. We know that every time the driver gets in the car there is a possibility of an accident and potential injury. However, it is rare today that there is a fatality. The safety of the cars has become so incredibly good, that we have seen some young drivers think they’re invincible and more often than not lose respect for the danger involved. They are incredibly naive of the fine line between irresponsible behaviour and injury or death. We see huge accidents, cars in the air or barrel rolling along the track and the driver usually walks away without a scratch. There are no guarantees that this will always be the case.
So when we see a freak accident where a driver who has nothing but respect for the sport and his fellow competitors killed, through no fault of his own, it’s a very big shock because they are the ones we least expect to lose. Although I only met him a few times when he raced in F3000 and at Jaguar in Formula One, I was deeply saddened to hear that Justin Wilson had succumbed to his injuries following the events in Indycar at Pocono.
As a child I didn’t really think about the dangers, until that fateful weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix. Not only were there two serious accidents and two drivers who lost their lives, and in separate incidents spectators were injured, there were also four mechanics in the pitlane, who were struck by a wheel that had detached from a car as it accelerated away from it’s pit stop; two of whom were from Lotus. An awful, shocking and heartbreaking weekend, one of the darkest days of modern Formula One.
Just a year later, we feared for former Lotus driver Mika Häkkinen, who I had become very close to during his time at Lotus, after his frightening crash in Adelaide. But news of his quick recovery may have made it seem that, although still dangerous, the safety improvements meant that there was little to worry about.
That was until Laguna Seca five years later, when Gonzalo Rodrìguez lost his life during a practice session. It was the first time I had personally known a driver who had been killed. His infectious smile and personality made it so easy to like him. I was completely shaken, I couldn’t really wrap my head around it and began to fear for the other drivers I knew, especially those who my father had worked with or was currently working with. Then, just a month later, another fatality in the States almost cemented my fears, when Greg Moore lost his life at Fontana Speedway.
Two years later while driving to Hockenheim for a Formula Renault race we received news of Alessandro Zanardi’s horrific accident at Lausitzring. Alex had been a big part of our lives while he raced at Lotus. Dinners, holidays, he even occasionally picked me up from school when visiting the Team, so naturally we were all very distressed and concerned as we waited for news. Although the devastating injuries meant his life would never be the same, it was a miracle he survived and we were thankful.
A tragedy close to us truly made me question if I wanted to work in this sport when Allan Simonsen was killed at the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yes it is in my blood, it is highly satisfying and rewarding when you help drivers achieve their goals, or see your friends stand on the podium, but it can also be heartbreaking. Unfortunately it is an industry where the odds of serious injury of fatality are higher than most.
I was so happy for Allan when he took pole in his class for the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans. Allan’s path to a professional racing career hadn’t been an easy one, he had worked so hard to achieve his dream and he truly deserved to be recognised as the talented driver he was. His years of determination were about to pay off as he was on the brink of a factory contract. Having worked with Allan in karting and at the start of his career in singleseaters, we had stayed in touch as he forged his career. I can’t begin to describe the devastation I felt when my father called me to tell me the news. How could I continue to work in a sport that could be so cruel.
Yet I’m still here. Racing is in the blood and it’s a passion, one that is very difficult to walk away from. Even if I wasn’t working here the losses would still effect me. I drive every lap with Matteo (our current driver) when he’s in the car. I can’t help but panic a little when he has an accident, or be the first one sprinting to where his car has come to a stop. And I am sure I will be the same way with every driver I work with. I believe this passion is part of what makes us good at what we do and drives us to succeed.
Despite the losses and heart-in-mouth moments where you’re waiting for the news that a driver is OK, I am thankful to live in a time when these occurrences are few and far between when you compare them with the early days of Motorsport. I can’t imagine how drivers like Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Jack Brabham were able to get in the car after losing two or three competitors and friends in a season. In 1968 there were six drivers killed in just four months!
Motorsport is dangerous. It is written on the back of every paddock pass and ticket of every category, but it is also part of the appeal. Racing drivers are a breed all of their own, they are fearless, brave and courageous. Racing is their passion and they accept the risks, they greatly value the lives they live, whilst knowing their lives could quickly be cut short. They have skills and courage most of us don’t possess, they challenge their fears, something that makes them special. It sets them apart from us and makes them our heroes. We admire their passion and pray they will never pay the ultimate price.
The one consolation I take is that those we have lost, died doing what they love and I hope they are all having a great race together, wherever they maybe.