Should motorsport be banned following the death of Dan Wheldon?

19 Oct

Dan Wheldon 1978 - 2011

This morning a friend sent me this article. In it, the journalist argues that, following the tragic death of Dan Wheldon last weekend, there should be a move towards banning motorsport. The journalist also argues that, failing the banning of motorsport, there needs to be a serious review of safety, at least within IndyCar racing.

Now the second point I get. Any sport where you have cars driving at 200+mph should be subject to the very highest levels of safety scrutinising. The fact that the drivers expressed concern about the Las Vegas Motor Speedway ahead of the race last weekend should have been enough to encourage a wide-scale investigation into whether very powerful, open-cockpit cars should have been green-lighted to race around that track – and even enough to have the race cancelled, should the track be found to be not up to scratch. In this instance, I would personally level a failure at the IndyCar administration, who have a duty of care to protect drivers involved in their series.

However, by using Formula 1 as a comparison, I want to show that the idea of banning motorsport because of the death of Dan Wheldon is inane. In Formula 1, the fatality rate has been declining steadily decade on decade for the last 60 years, as shown in the graph below.

The last recorded fatality was that of the great Ayrton Senna, who died at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, on the same weekend as Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger. That means that there have been no fatalities within that sport for the past 17 years. Now, this is by no means a chance for complacency. Safety should continue to evolve within Formula 1, as it should within all forms of motorsport. The injuries sustained by Felipe Massa in 2009 illustrated the dangers inherent in open-cockpit racing. The death of Henry Surtees in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch a week earlier made the point even more chillingly. But recent big crashes in F1, such as Mark Webber’s dramatic flip at the 2010 European Grand Prix, or the chaotic start to the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, illustrate how far safety has evolved in the sport.

Two particular events in Formula 1 come to mind when I think about this issue. One is the circumstances surrounding the 1976 Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. It was here that Niki Lauda, concerned with the lack of safety features at the track, proposed a boycott of the race. Other drivers vetoed the boycott and the race went ahead as planned. Lauda crashed on the second lap of the race, and the horrific burns he suffered in that incident still stand today as a totem to the folly of the decision to race that weekend.

The second event that I’m reminded of is the infamous 2005 US Grand Prix, when all cars running with Michelin tyres pulled out of the race due to fears, prompted by Ralf Schumacher’s massive crash during Friday practice, that the tyres would not be able to hold up for a whole race. Here, in stark contrast to the Nürburgring race 29 years previously, the teams and drivers exercised their free-will – in the face of much bloody-mindedness from the FIA regarding the installation of a chicane at the banked Turn 13 – in order not to race at a circuit where there was a serious concern about safety.

IndyCar really needs to look to the sophistication of safety within Formula 1 to show them the way forward. In addition, I would argue that two aspects need to be looked at in particular. One is the fact that 34 cars started that race in Las Vegas – a full 10 more cars than appeared on the grid at the Korean Grand Prix last weekend. And I would argue that that is simply far too many cars to have racing in that kind of scenario.

The second, and I think far more relevant, aspect that needs to be looked at it is the viability of continuing to race open-cockpit cars on oval, banked circuits. The stresses that banking puts on the tyres is, in my opinion, too dangerous, as is the fact that there are, clearly, no run-off areas on the outside of the track. This means that if a car loses control and is heading towards the outside wall, you run the risk of tyres and suspension arms coming into the cockpit – precisely what killed Senna in 1994. This is clearly a risk in all open-cockpit racing – but on an oval circuit with concrete walls, the incident seems to be invited. And interestingly, if you look at fatalities in Formula 1, which track has been the most lethal? The Indianapolis Speedway.

But is all this enough to prompt a worldwide ban on motorsport at all levels? That’s Formula 1, Formula 2, Le Mans, DTM, NASCAR, MotoGP, British Touring Car, World Touring Car, World Rally Championship and many, many more besides. Frankly, I think that that is a ridiculous notion, a knee jerk reaction to what definitely was a tragedy and a step that I feel certain Dan Wheldon wouldn’t have called for.

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2 Responses to “Should motorsport be banned following the death of Dan Wheldon?”

  1. Jeremy, son of Clark October 19, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    But most sports have resulted in fatalities of some kind, admittedly mostly from heart attacks, but not all.

    Here, for example, are the cycling deaths during races in the 2000s alone:

    Saúl Morales, Spain. Tour of Argentina 2000
    Nicole Reinhart, United States. Arlington Massachusetts circuit race. September 17, 2000.
    Brett Malin, United States, Race Across America, June 17, 2003.
    Andrei Kivilev, Kazakhstan, Paris–Nice, 2003
    Juan Barrero, Colombia, Vuelta a Colombia (Tour of Colombia), 2004
    Tim Pauwels, Belgium, a cyclo-cross race in Belgium, 2004
    Bob Breedlove, United States, Race Across America, 2005
    Alessio Galletti, Italy, Subida al Naranco, 2005
    Isaac Gálvez, Spain, Six Days of Ghent, November 26, 2006. Galvez died after coming into contact with Dimitri De Fauw and then crashing into a track railing.
    Bruno Neves, Portugal, Clássica de Amarante, May 12, 2008

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