Protecting the Vulnerable

A marshal at work in Barcelona. © Sutton Images

At the beginning of yesterday morning’s Korean Grand Prix, the race was held stationary for over an hour as organisers assessed what were, in reality, crazy conditions.
Such was the lack of drainage from the Yeongam circuit, that spray was a large problem, despite there not being excessive rain.

However, during the long stoppage, it was very noticeable how many tweets and messages that seemed to pass through my Timeline that declared that the drivers should “man up” or that they “earn enough to take risks in difficult conditions.”
Quite frankly, this is absolutely absurd. It was instantly obvious that those were not the words of experienced racing drivers, but rather frustrated armchair supporters desperate to catch some early hours action. There has been far too many serious accidents in treacherous conditions over the years to warrant such a blasé attitude to safety in motor racing.
Even on their laps to the grid yesterday, both Timo Glock and Felipe Massa had minor offs and while these were not serious incidents, they did realise the potential for accidents to happen – even at the slowest speeds.

Indeed Formula 1 only needs to look back at the career-ending accident that befell Didier Pironi at the Hockenheimring in 1982 to realise that driving into spray blind, can only heap bad PR onto the sport. There have been similar incidents over the years too – most memorably a blinded Ayrton Senna ramming Martin Brundle’s Tyrrell at Adelaide in 1989.
More recently, there was also the now famous incident where Michael Schumacher slammed into the back of David Coulthard at Spa-Francorchamps in 1998, because he simply did not know Coulthard’s McLaren was in that spot.

Didier Pironi's accident was a horrific reminder of the sport's danger. ©

As for Yeongam, while it is an intriguing idea to have a city built around a race circuit (specifically the final sector), it has created problems of its own. The last few corners are surrounded by concrete barriers that block crane access to the circuit – this resulted in Friday afternoon practice being red flagged, while marshals scooped up the stalled Hispania Racing machine of Sakon Yamamoto.
However there are additional problems. The closeness of the walls also exposes the trackside marshals to unnecessary danger. Anyone that can remember the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix may recall the horrific scenes when Martin Brundle (then driving for McLaren) aquaplaned exiting Suzuka’s famous 130R corner and ploughed into a marshal that was helping to recover Gianni Morbidelli’s crashed Footwork machine.
In that instance, the marshal was lucky – the volunteer came away from that incident with only a broken leg, but it caused the red flag to be brought out instantly as it became obvious that track workers were in danger from out-of-control cars.

Over the Italian Grand Prix weekend in September, I wrote of the tenth anniversary of Paolo Ghislimberti’s death – the unfortunate trackside marshal who succumbed to head injuries from flying debris following a huge opening lap accident.
These are often the people that are the most vulnerable at a circuit and the ones that need the real attention. Unlike drivers, they are not cocooned in carbon fibre tubs and any time marshal’s are on track track clearing a stricken vehicle, they are in the line of fire – regardless of what speed a Formula 1 car is travelling at under yellow flag conditions.

Motorsport is not a simple game that anyone can take up on a Sunday afternoon – it is a very dangerous sport, regardless of the formula in which one competes and it is just as dangerous to those at the fringes of the circuit as it is to those driving.
When it comes to safety, this sport must not become complacent again.

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