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The motor racing year of 1970 is not yet over, but already it has proved to be one of the most tragic in the history of the sport. In Europe alone some two dozen drivers have been killed. This total includes three of the world's top Grand Prix drivers: Jochen Rindt of Austria, who had virtually clinched this year's world driver's championship at the time of his death; Bruce McLaren of New Zealand, a great driver as well as brilliant designer of cars: and Piers Courage of England, who was just on the verge of establishing himself in the front rank of Grand Prix racing.
Perhaps more people die falling off mountains than sitting in racing cars, and perhaps many people think that dangerous accidents are a built-in hazard of motor sports. True. And true again. But the terrible thing is that motor racing has the money and the facilities to drastically reduce the number of deaths—both to drivers and spectators. And yet nothing is done.
When an accident occurs in motor racing it is almost always the result of one of two things: driver error or mechanical failure. Obviously, human error can never be completely tailored out of a sport as demanding as modern race-driving. Mechanical failure can be reduced, but this is an extremely difficult thing to do. Even the strongest part will sometimes break when stretched to the limit of its endurance under the stress of today's cornering speeds, and very few constructors have been able to press such parts to their limit in any sort of test rig prior to testing them in the car itself. In Grand Prix construction, much has been developed that makes the race car itself safer to drive: rubber fuel tanks, blowout-proof tires, the monocoque chassis, special safety equipment for the driver to wear, and more. But nothing can eliminate accidents entirely. What is needed are firm steps to make sure that accidents are not always disasters when they do occur. Everyone in every profession has made mistakes. Why should a driver have to run the risk of paying for his with his life?
There are three areas to consider where safety is concerned. What will the car hit, if anything, when an accident occurs? What fire-fighting equipment is available in the likely chance that the car catches fire? What kind of medical attention will be available to injured drivers or injured spectators?
At present the answers to these questions are discouraging. Except for the size of the trees bordering them, most racetracks, particularly in Europe, have changed little since the 1920s and '30s. They have not kept pace with the rest of what has become a finely engineered, highly sophisticated sport. This is an impossible situation.
The first thing that must be constructed, on all corners, are safety barriers that a car can hit without demolishing both the machine and the man. Trees, needless to say, are not good safety barriers. The best device in some cases would be nets that could catch a car in much the same way a tennis net stops a tennis ball. These catch nets are normally used in rows of three. I've seen a driver go into them at 130 mph. He wiped out the first two barriers, but the third stopped him. The driver was unharmed, the car was repairable and the spectators around the track were not endangered.
Even with such an efficient system of safety fences, all accidents are not going to conclude so happily. It is at this point that an adequate warning and alarm system should be available to insure that one accident does not become a series of accidents. In countries like Britain and America, where auto racing is a weekly occurrence, the old-fashioned system of using marshals to wave flags still works well. In many countries, however, it is a total failure. Marshals get excited, drop their flags and run to the accident. Or worse, they freeze.
What is needed is a system of warning lights located well ahead of each corner that can be activated by someone merely pushing a button. Each set of signals could easily contain all the colored lights necessary: Yellow, to indicate that an accident has occurred up ahead: white, to show that an ambulance or a service vehicle is out on the track; blue, to let a slow driver know that a faster car behind him is trying to pass.
These are basic methods of prevention. A few cures are needed as well. Strategically placed fire-fighting and rescue equipment is vital. Even with the fiber glass suits drivers now wear, you can stay in a burning car no more than 45 seconds and still live. But this might be just enough time for a well-equipped fire marshal in a special rescue suit to wade through the flames and cut a driver out if he is trapped or pull him out if he is unconscious. Fire engines with their motors running at all times should be located within sight of every corner, so that one is able to get quickly to the scene and quench the flames. The latest in flame deterrents must be used.
Perhaps the saddest situation of all exists in the area of medical attention. What we need, first of all, is a mobile intensive-care unit that is fully equipped and staffed by an anesthetist and a surgeon capable of dealing with burns, head injuries and internal injuries. What we often get is a general practitioner located in a tent that contains a cot and a pot of hot coffee. That kind of arrangement is an insult to racing and to the medical profession. Barely equipped to cope with a spectator who has fainted, how can it serve a driver who has hurtled off the road in his car at 150 mph, or someone who has been in his path? We also need medical personnel spotted around the track who can give emergency first aid, an ambulance to get the injured quickly to the mobile intensive-care unit and a helicopter to transfer patients to the nearest major hospital.