Hindsight and Melbourne

 by Steve Dean
March 13, 2001

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"It's just like playing cricket and you get hit between the eyes by a cricket ball or if you're playing rugby and someone elbows you in the brain......There are more accidents in contact sports then there are in Formula One and there's nothing else we can do to make the track any safer." 
Ron Walker, Chairman, Australian Grand Prix

"You (also) have to ring-fence the racetracks with higher and stronger debris fences. You then have to police where the marshals stand....We've got to do even more about tying the wheels together - we need to do it even for wings and so forth"
Jackie Stewart

"I think the marshals will have to have more robust protection around them."
Patrick Head

"With the modern tendency, thanks to the media, to over-react to events and immediately look for someone to blame, one shudders to think how we would react to the 1955 Le Mans disaster when almost one hundred spectators were killed. A friend of mine who was there remembers seeing the rear axle from a car whirling through the crowd decapitating all in it path. The authorities decided against stopping the race and while the action continued on track, boys scouts were passing through the devastation putting body parts in to sacks. Do we truly believe this couldn't happen again?"
Chris Balfe, Editor, Planet-F1

Steve Dean: Once again, the belly of the beast has shown us its ugly, underside. Racing has been snakebitten this last year. That string of bad luck ran into the opening race of the Formula One season this Sunday in Melbourne, Australia. 52 year-old track marshal, Graham Beveridge was struck down by a loose wheel from Jacques Villeneuve's car. He died shortly thereafter. 

It is being reported that Beveridge was standing in an open gap of the safety fence, when Villeneuve ran his car into the back of Ralf Schumacher's Williams, sending he and his car into the air. The wheel that flew off Villeneuve's airborne car flew through the opening where Beveridge was standing, hitting him. That's all it took.

As sure as water comes from melting snow, the cries for a "change" in motor racing have been forced. That was inevitable. It always is. Something must be terribly wrong, the thinking goes, when someone loses a life at a motor race. SOMEBODY must be responsible, right? This is the point when the non-racing media becomes involved.

Surely, the mainstream media asks, a race can be held without fatalities? It never occurs to some that there exists a possibility of danger when cars are raced at high speeds in close quarters. Safety measures are measures, not guarantees. Catch fences could reach the sky, but there would still have to be a gap between sections, so as to allow those track marshals to reach an ailing driver. Safety measures don't allow for somebody to be standing between the fencing, especially during an accident. That is not to blame Beveridge. We may never know why he was in no-man's land when the incident occurred, only that he was.

Tragedy at a race track also makes intelligent men make ridiculous statements. Maybe they harbor fears toward their livelihood. Perhaps that is why they make statements that could have come from the non-racing world. Witness Patrick Head, saying, "There is no reason to have a man with a flag out there--you can have a button to push with an arm that come out with a flag on it." That's fine and dandy, but what happens when one of the Williams drivers is unconscious in his wrecked car, with fuel leaking? Are we asking the mechanical flag to extract the driver? Are we asking the trapped driver to wait for the pit-lane fire and rescue crew to drive around the track before they can offer assistance?

Then we have Jackie Stewart, the man with safety as a middle name, stating that more needs to be done with regard to wheel tethers, and I agree. I don't know whether wheel tethers can be improved during a high-speed shunt, but certainly, it needs to be looked at. However, Stewart didn't stop with wheel tethers. He went on to say, "we need to do it even for wings and so forth," and, "You (also) have to ring-fence the racetracks with higher and stronger debris fences. You then have to police where the marshals stand."

I'm not sure what Jackie is talking about when he says, "the wings and so forth". Does he mean he wishes for the wings and body parts to stay intact? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose of a race car designed to break apart to absorb energy? As far as higher, stronger fences, I was under the impression that Villeneuve's car was contained by the fencing. Again, the stray wheel went between the fence, not through it. As far as police go, it seems hard to imagine having huge police force on hand for the specific purpose of watching the track marshals.

The one thing that sticks in mind regarding these open areas of fencing: why couldn't a section of fence be placed behind the open areas? Like a baseball dugout, the protective fencing would act as a door to the open sections of fence. Track workers, like baseball players, would simply walk around the second barrier to get to the initial opening. That has saved a lot of foul balls from bouncing off a ballplayer's head. Perhaps, in racing, it could deflect stray debris from entering the existing opening. It's worth a look. (See bottom)

In the end, life goes on. I feel terrible for this man's family, but I won't be so naive to suggest this man "died doing what he loved". I plan on going to this year's Grand Prix in Indianapolis. If I get killed at the race, you can bet I didn't die a happy man. How can anybody say that? I'm just dead. Not happy, not sad, just dead. Could it be prevented? Sure, anything can be prevented with hindsight. That's what is happening now.

existing fence line
_____________       _____________
added safety fence

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Others by Steve

Backyard F1-II 3/1/01

F1 Musings 2/25/01

Backyard F1-I 2/23/01

Senna and Earnhardt - Rest in peace 2/19/01

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