Saturday, 25 August 2012

9 Formula One Drivers Lucky To Be Alive

By David Galton-Fenzi

Racing is dangerous. It’s been a long time since the great Ayrton Senna died and it’s still, thankfully, the last time a driver has died behind the wheel in Formula One, but that doesn’t mean the sport hasn’t come close since. You can’t relax, not even for a second, or racing will bite you and sometimes you don't wake up. Just last year in the space of a week, the racing community lost Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli in two separate freak accidents. The drivers on this list are the ones who all had their bell rung since that fateful day at Imola but can still talk about it today, even if some of them still don’t quite remember the fine details.

#9     Karl Wendlinger

Karl Wendlinger was a ferociously talented young Austrian driver who was making waves driving for Peter Sauber’s team. Still reeling from the deaths of both Wendlinger’s countryman Roland Ratzenberger and the great Ayrton Senna at the previous race, the Formula One circus had rocked up at Monaco in a state of shock where Karl came within a hairsbreadth of making it a terribly tragic trifecta.

Thursday practice, and Wendlinger lost control under braking approaching the Nouvelle Chicane. His car slid down the track and impacted the crash barriers broadside at almost 280 kph. Medics were quickly on scene and arrived to find Wendlinger unconscious. They stabilized his vitals and transferred him to hospital where he stayed in a coma for several weeks. Thankfully when he woke, it seemed as though he’d made a full recovery.

The Aftermath

This was the very first day of Formula One action since Senna’s death. The paddock had well and truly been woken from its complacency with a bang. Even the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA), disbanded since 1982, was reformed at this very weekend to put the focus squarely back on to driver safety, and that happened before Wendlinger’s crash. Everyone knew there was work to do, but no one expected another horrific accident so soon.

No thanks to the low cockpit sides at the time, Wendlinger’s helmet had  made direct contact with the water filled crash barriers, resulting in a head injury that was so severe he didn’t race again in 1994. When he returned to Sauber in 1995 he was so uncompetitive the team replaced him after just four races. After an unsuccessful mini comeback at the end of 95, when his replacement was proving just as ineffective, he never raced in F1 again. Although he’s since gone on to have a very successful sportscar career, so perhaps having the ‘Big One’ knocked the wind out his sails for open wheeled racing more than even he knew.

The FIA made changes to the regulations regarding cockpit dimensions for the 1995 season to reduce the risks to a driver's head, as well as introducing side impact tests. But as the next entry shows, perhaps they could have gone further.

#8    Mika Hakkinen

After proving himself in a Lotus early in his career, The Flying Finn was in the third year of his tenure at McLaren and was very highly rated, despite not yet winning a race. It was nearly 18 months to the day since Wendlinger’s awful accident at Monaco and the teams were in Australia for the final race of the 1995 season, all looking to finish the season on a high.

It was early in the Saturday qualifying session and Mika was gunning for a quick lap. He was accelerating towards the fastest turn on the track, named in typical Australian fashion as Brewery Bend, when he suffered a sudden deflation of his left rear tyre. He didn’t have a chance. The back end whipped around as he turned in, Mika countered with an armful of opposite lock but to no avail. His car launched over the kerb that outlined the confines of the circuit and bunny hopped three times before impacting the single row of tyres on the concrete barrier at almost 200 kph.

His injuries were life threatening, including a skull fracture similar to the one that killed Roland Ratzenberger, and internal bleeding. Critically, Mika wasn’t breathing due to a blocked airway, so medics performed an emergency trackside tracheotomy to save his life then and there, before transporting him to Adelaide Hospital, thankfully only a couple of hundred metres away.

The Aftermath

Mika recovered miraculously well and went on to become a very worthy Double World Champion, his speed clearly unaffected by his near death experience. Unlike Wendlinger, it must have been immeasurably easier for Mika to carry on as he knew his accident was caused by a car failure. Wendlinger never had that comfort and it can only have shaken his confidence and ultimately affected his speed.

Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger had expressed concern at the single row of tyres on Brewery bend earlier in the weekend, and he was proven right as the tyres absorbed very little of the McLarens energy. Immediate revisions were made after qualifying as a knee-jerk fix. The FIA also standardized kerbing at all the tracks worldwide in response to Hakkinen’s car being launched before impact as it gave him no chance to slow the car down. Brakes don’t work too well if the tyres aren’t touching the ground.

In 1996 they also increased the mandatory cockpit protection around a driver’s head, and standardized the safety car and all medical cars, then further in 1997 they made it mandatory for all cars to carry an accident data recorder. I shudder to think what forces Mika’s would have measured had his car been fitted with one.

#7     Pedro Diniz

Probably the fastest ever pay driver there has ever been. Pedro was the son of a very wealthy Brazilian, and used his father’s money and connections to generate huge sponsorship income that was very attractive to Formula One teams on the breadline. The pay driver reputation was probably a bit unfair though. In 1997 he had out-qualified World Champion Damon Hill in equal machinery at two of the most respected ‘drivers’ tracks in the world, Spa and Suzuka, and despite always driving uncompetitive cars, would occasionally keep popping into the points with solid drives.

In 1999 at the Nurburgring, Diniz had out-qualified his more revered teammate Jean Alesi and lined up 13th in his Sauber-Petronas. The start was fairly clean until Damon Hill’s Jordan suddenly slowed with an electrical problem as they went through the left hander of the Castrol S . Alexander Wurz in his Benetton jinked right to avoid him and clipped the rear of Diniz’s car, pitching him into a roll onto the sodden outfield.

The car dug in, ripping the roll hoop off and compressing the engine cover flat, then just for good measure bounced a couple more times with nothing but Diniz’s helmet taking the impact, before finishing upside down. Marshalls ignored the other stricken cars and ran immediately to Pedro’s aid, righting the car and extracting him very quickly.

The Aftermath

Extraordinarily, Diniz wasn’t injured in the rollover, making him the luckiest man on the planet that day and the reason why he makes this list. I mean, just look at what was left of his car then imagine where his head would have been while it was upside down and pogo-ing off his neck. How he walked away we’ll never know.

Diniz raced on for one more year in 2000 before hanging up his helmet and now lives back in Brazil. According to Wikipedia he spends his time ‘running several companies’, because he can. In 2000 and 2001 the FIA moved, strengthened and changed the testing process for Roll Hoops fitted to all Formula One cars, probably saving Mark Webber serious injury or worse after his dramatic aerial Valencia accident in 2010. Watch it here and note the impact his roll hoop takes when he ‘lands’ it.

#6     Luciano Burti

Burti only raced in 15 Formula One races, but boy did he leave a lasting impression. In that short span he had two monstrous accidents, one he walked away from, the other he was carried away from.

Hockenheim 2001, Burti had qualified his Prost in 16th place at the old style ultra low downforce German circuit. Home hero Michael Schumacher was already cruising to his 4th World Title, but his car failed him at the race start, leaving him stuck in gear with nowhere to go as the field rapidly closed him down. Several cars managed to avoid him but Burti had no time to react. He launched over the crawling Ferrari, flying several metres in the air, before coming down on top of Enrique Bernoldi’s Arrows, eventually coming to rest in the gravel trap.

The race was red flagged immediately and Burti was got out of his Prost, uninjured. In this case, despite it looking spectacular, the long duration of the accident dissipated the energy gradually, so Burti experienced many smaller jolts rather than one big one, as Hakkinen and Wendlinger did in their accidents. Luciano went on to take the restart in the spare car although retired after spinning off later.

Two races later, they had arrived at Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix. The race started in wet conditions and on the lap 4 run to Blanchimont, a fearsomely fast left hander, Burti incorrectly thought he had a run on Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari so put his nose where it really had no right to be. Irvine turned in and they made contact, just enough to tip Irvine into a spin, but more than enough to detach Burti’s front wing from his car. In the slippery conditions, with no front downforce, Burti went straight off the track and speared the tyre barrier at 290 kph.

Irvine immediately bolted from his car to help the Brazilian, though together with the marshalls it still took some time to get the car out. The race was halted, and when they finally got to Burti under the mountain of tyres, everyone feared the worst, because this is what his helmet looked like.

The Aftermath

Luciano spent a couple nights in intensive care and was found to have ‘only’ suffered severe facial bruising and a concussion. David Coulthard stated at the time, “In previous years Luciano’s accident would have been fatal.” Indeed his injuries did mean he missed the remainder of the 2001 championship and Spa 2001 turned out to be the last time Burti ever raced in Formula one again, though it probably had more to do with his performances than any after-effects of his injuries.

The runoff at Blanchimont had already been altered in the previous years after requests from the GPDA, with more room given and a bigger tyre barrier installed. These arguably combined to save Burti’s life. Further progress was made in the next couple of years towards the safer construction of driver helmets, resulting in a new standard introduced in 2004. Work which paid off big time when you get to #2 on the list.

#5     Allan McNish

130R is the most fearsome corner on a classic track - Suzuka. It requires extreme commitment to master and when it goes wrong here, it goes wrong in a big way as veteran Scottish driver Allan McNish found out at the final race of the 2002 season.

It happened early in qualifying. Allan was on a hot lap exiting 130R at 300 kph. His Toyota oversteered and the rear end started drifting, which at those speeds can only really end one way. He over corrected and was pitched off the circuit before slamming into the barriers backwards.

There is not really a decent angle on the video where you can fully comprehend the scale of the impact, but there is this;

Just for a clue, anytime you’re in an F1 car and it’s pointing to the sky like that, you’re in for a bad time. McNish’s Toyota impacted the barrier at the exact point a tyre wall began, so rather than spinning and bouncing off the armco, it punched its way through it.

He ended up in an area reserved for the Marshalls, though thankfully none were injured. McNish staggering out of his car, clearly banged up and lay on the grass for quite a while soaking it in. He was more or less ok, but an extremely bruised knee did prevent him taking part in the race the next day.

The Aftermath

After his lucky escape, McNish made a full recovery, although he never raced in F1 again as Toyota replaced both drivers for the next season. He signed as Renault’s F1 test driver for the 2003 season then left Formula One completely to go back to sports car racing with Audi, ultimately winning the Le Mans 24 hour race in 2008.

The FIA ensured Suzuka re-profiled 130R for the next years race, reducing its bite quite considerably. These days, in qualifying, it’s easily flat and isn’t quite the beast of a corner it used to be. They also revised corners at Silverstone, Hungary, Magny Cours and Nurburgring that were designated ‘high risk’. After much development, the HANS system (Head and neck Support) was made compulsory from 2003 which probably saved the life of #3 on the list. Hey, no peeking!

Allan’s story doesn’t quite end there though. At the Le Mans 24 hours in 2011 he had, arguably, an even bigger shunt in his Audi R18 within the first hour. After clipping a Ferrari and losing control, his car came within inches of clearing the tyre barriers and taking out half a dozen photographers and press. Some of them must have thought their time was up as they didn’t even bother running. You can watch the terrifying video here and remember - Allan McNish is one lucky guy.

#4     Ralf Schumacher

The lesser of the Schumacher brothers had his brush with death in America. It was during the Indianapolis Grand Prix of 2004, on lap 10, and Ralf was careening around the famous banked turn 13. His left rear suddenly deflated, spinning him into the concrete wall which he hit backwards at 300 kpm.

There was an accident at turn one of the race which eliminated four drivers and necessitated the use of the safety car. It toured for 6 laps while they cleared away the debris, but it’s thought Ralf’s tyre sustained damage from a piece of carbon fibre at this point and folded under the extreme demands of Indianapolis’s banking when the race was restarted.

His Williams missed the energy absorbing SAFER barrier by 25 feet, thus it impacted pure concrete. Its peak G-force of 78 g’s makes it one of the hardest hits ever measured, but from his visor being flung open the force of the impact was plain to see.

It took 99 seconds for the first emergency worker to get to the motionless German, and a further 88 seconds until the doctor, Sid Watkins, was on the scene and any form of treatment commenced. As respected ex-racer Derek Daly said, "If Schumacher's car was on fire, he'd be dead now." They then extracted him from his car (which took another 18 minutes) and transferred him to the local hospital where it was found he had fractured his spine and suffered a fairly hefty concussion.

The Aftermath

His life was saved by a multitude of safety features including his car’s crushable rear crash structure, the HANS device and the mandatory safety seat, which allowed him to be removed from the car still attached to his seat meaning his spinal injury wasn’t aggravated further. Thankfully, his fractures were minor, although Ralf still missed 6 races (3 months) while he recovered, returning just in time for the first ever Chinese Grand Prix later in the year. He moved to Toyota for 2005, where at the same race he had an almost identical accident in the same spot that kick started the Michelin tyre controversy and the most farcical Grand Prix ever.

#3     Robert Kubica

You just knew this one was coming. Popular Polish driver Robert Kubica was midway through his first full season in Formula One driving for BMW Sauber. Earmarked as a future World Champion, he was on a solid streak of results leading up to the Canadian Grand Prix with three consecutive points scoring finishes.

On lap 27 Robert had a good run on the Toyota of Jarno Trulli on the approach to the hairpin. Kubica moved to the right to overtake, just as Jarno moved to the right to defend his line and contact was made. Much like Burti’s accident at Spa above, Kubica found out that a Formula One car doesn’t turn so well when the front wing is removed at high speed.

He went straight off the track, the car getting airborne over a hump in the grass before impacting the concrete retaining wall almost head-on at a tick over 300 kph. Robert was subjected to a peak G-force of 75 G with the car disintegrating around his survival cell. It violently careened back across the track before coming to rest on its side against the opposite barrier.

How big an impact was it? Just look at the picture below. See those white things just under the intel logo. Those are his exposed feet! And god knows when or how the steering wheel was ripped off!

He was taken to the circuit’s medical centre for an initial assessment, then onwards to the Montreal hospital. Later that evening it was announced he’d miraculously got away with only a slight concussion and a sprained ankle. This accident, above all others, is an absolute testament to the strength of modern Formula One cars and their construction. To think that Kubica could go through something so horrendously violent and come away with, what amounts to, a headache and a bit of a limp is mind-boggling.

The Aftermath

As a precaution, BMW Sauber decided Kubica should miss the next race at Indianapolis, which gave a chance for a certain young German by the name of Sebastian Vettel to get his first Formula One start. Vettel then bought Roberts car home in 8th place, becoming the youngest ever points scorer in F1 history.

The HANS system played a massive role in saving Robert’s life, and despite his minimal injuries sustained in such a violent accident, relentless safety improvement continues to be a high priority for the sport.

All of which doesn’t help if you pursue your adrenaline hit in other sports, as Kubica found out prior to the 2011 season when, like McNish above, he had a serious accident outside of Formula One. Robert was taking part in the Ronde di Andora rally. He slid wide on a corner on the very first stage in his Skoda Fabia and impacted the end of an armco barrier. It completely pierced the car, causing Robert extremely serious injuries. He had broken bones in his elbow, shoulder and leg as well as a partial amputation of his right forearm. His co-driver was able to walk away from what would have been a fairly innocuous crash, were it not for the barrier. Doctors managed to save his life, but many operations later he’s yet to step back into a Formula One car.

#2     Felipe Massa

Although Kubica's rallying accident was a pretty freak occurrence, the freakiest of all accidents happened in Hungary in 2009. Felipe Massa was having a difficult year in a Ferrari that was nowhere near the pacesetting Brawn or Red Bull teams, but the popular Brazilian had just scored his first podium of the year at the German Grand Prix so had arrived at Hungary hopeful of a repeat performance.

It was midway through the Saturday qualifying session. Massa’s countryman Rubens Barrichello was fighting the handling of his Brawn because, unbeknown to him and the team, his car had a loose rear suspension damper spring. As he made his way through turn 3 trying to improve his time the steel spring finally worked its way free and bounced onto the track.

Felipe Massa’s Ferrari was the next car along, and the 800 gram spring managed to bounce around long enough to wind up in the one spot where it would do the most damage.

It impacted Felipe’s helmet above his left eye at 260 kph, knocking him out cold on the spot. His car continued in a straight line with Felipe’s feet dragging the brake and accelerator at the same time. He eventually hit the barriers on the exit of turn 4 with the engine still shrieking on the limiter.

He was airlifted to the ÁEK hospital in Budapest and underwent immediate surgery to stabilize a serious skull fracture. Afterwards, the hospital’s medical director said his condition was “...Serious, life threatening but stable.”

The Aftermath

The revised helmet construction regulations introduced after Luciano Burti’s Spa crash undoubtedly saved Felipe’s life. Massa recovered, although he did miss the remainder of the 2009 championship. There was another operation to insert a titanium plate over the damaged area before he made a successful comeback in 2010 with a podium in his first race back and the championship lead after round three.

Massa’s accident came 6 days after Henry Surtee’s tragic death while racing in Formula 2 at Brands Hatch, where a tyre from a separate accident bounced across the track and struck him on the head. Both accidents served notice that something more needed to be done. Since then the FIA Institute have done a lot of research into head protection for drivers with canopies and, more recently, forward roll hoops being viewed as serious safety options for the future.

#1     Jackie Stewart

Now I can see what you’re thinking. So far all the entries have been rambling along in a nice chronological order and then this, but if it’s not already clear to you why Jackie Stewart MUST be number one on this list, then it will be very soon.

The 1966 version of Spa was so terrifying Eau Rouge wasn’t even the scariest corner. That honour belonged to the Masta Kink, an ultra fast left-right flick approached at over 300 kph in machines that more closely resembled bathtubs than modern day racing cars.

The race started dry, but by turn 4 there was torrential rain and lightning. Come the Masta Kink and Stewart slid off the track in tandem with team mate Graham Hill and American Bob Bondurant. Of the three, Jackie’s situation was the most critical. His car had collided with a telephone pole (knocking it down) and he ended up trapped in the twisted wreck with a broken collar bone and cracked ribs, upside down, while being drenched in fuel leaking from his car’s ruptured tank.

There were no marshals around, at all, so after nearly half an hour of effort Hill and Bondurant managed to free the Scot with tools they borrowed from a spectator. Jackie then lay on the bed of another spectator’s pickup truck while they waited for an ambulance to take him to the circuit’s first aid spot. It was here, whilst lapsing in and out of consciousness, laying on a canvas stretcher placed on the floor surrounded by cigarette butts and being tended to by the circuit’s “first aider” - a nun, that Jackie decided ‘enough was enough’.

Thus his personal crusade to improve safety in Formula One was born, right there on the floor of that ramshackle first aid post. Together with Professor Sid Watkins they pushed safety forward in the sport in leaps and bounds and as you’ve read above, it’s amazing, unending work that continues to this very day through the FIA institute.

Unfortunately for Jackie, his farcically inept Spa story doesn’t end there, but he could probably finish it best in his own words, I was put into an ambulance with a police escort and the police escort lost the ambulance, and the ambulance didn't know how to get to Liège. At the time they thought I had a spinal injury. As it turned out, I wasn't seriously injured, but they didn't know that. I realised that if this was the best we had there was something sadly wrong..”

Can you imagine a scenario like that these days? Of course not! That’s all because of the tireless work Jackie has put in to improve safety since. He was vilified at the time by other drivers, track owners, race organizers and even the press, with respected publication Motorsport labelling him as “a pious little Scot....with beady eyes”, but he carried on unperturbed and forced through many changes that saved countless lives. In 2001 he was rightly knighted for his efforts.

So now you know why Jackie Stewart makes number 1 on this list, because not only was he extremely lucky to survive that accident, but everyone on this list is lucky he survived on that fateful day.

It was the shunt that saved them all.

Although there has not been a driver fatality since 1994, there have been others who have not been so fortunate, with Paolo Ghislimberti and Graham Beveridge both receiving fatal injuries while marshalling at Grands Prix. Let us not forget.

It’s also worth noting this list is not definitive at all, there are plenty who could have made it on but didn’t. Villeneuve for his Spa accidents in 98 and 99 and his aerial assault on Melbourne's barriers in 2001. The great Michael Schumacher’s Silverstone crash in 1999. Two biggies in 2003, one for Ralph Firman in Hungary and the other for Alonso at Brazil. Even Mark Webber for his somersaulting antics in Valencia in 2010.... just to name a few.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Martin Brundle, Verstappen hit his Helmet with his left wheel, no one knows how he survived, i think it was Brazil 94.

    1. That was a truly sickening accident and Brundle's head did take a sizeable whack, but with the notable exception of Jackie Stewart, I was just focussing on accidents that occurred after Senna's death. That one misses by two races, although Barrichello only missed out by two days! 94 was an awful year to be a racing driver!

    2. Michael Schumacher, Abu Dhabi 2010. I´m surprised this one is not on your list.

    3. I know the crash your talking about, but its not in the same magnitude as these crashes.

    4. what about niki Lauda in the Nurbergring in 1976? he almost died! that must be the #1

  3. I just came to your post and reading above thing it is very impressive me and it is very nice blog. Thanks a lot for sharing this.

  4. You missed Martin Donnelly's crash in Spain 1990 and survived.

  5. Comprehensive, but I'd say Niki Lauda is the luckiest of all!

  6. How about Heikki Kovalainen and his crash in Spain 2008?

  7. The obvious one missing is Martin Donnelly, Jerez 1990. I still don't know how he survived that.