Carl Edwards’ crash in the closing stages of last weekend’s NASCAR race at Talladega has sparked debate among racing fans:
Was this just a freak accident in a championship that engineers crashes for the entertainment of its fans – or are there lessons here for Formula 1 too?
Racing for the lead with the chequered flag in sight, Edwards was tipped into a spin by rival Brad Keselowski, then launched in a terrifying flip by the onrushing car of Ryan Newman. The only thing keeping the 99 car from landing in the crowd was a row of safety fencing, and despite that seven fans were injured by a shower of debris.
F1 and NASCAR are as different as two motor sports can be. So it’s tempting to conclude that F1 could never see something similar to Edwards’ crash: the cars don’t race so close to each other, and there is much more run-off between the track and the spectators.
Perhaps. But the welcome sight this year of cars being able to race each other more closely raises the possibility of such a crash happening in F1 – consider Robert Kubica and Jarno Trulli’s collision at Shanghai.
And Bernie Ecclestone is increasingly keen on adding street races to the calendar. Again, this is no bad thing, as it may allow spectators to get closer to the action – but that brings an obvious added danger.
Among NASCAR commentators reaction to the crash has centred on the wisdom of allowing drivers to ‘block’ (i.e. defend) their position. This has occasionally been a cause of concern in F1 as well, with driver being allowed to get away with some manoeuvres that seem exceptionally dangerous – Michael Schumacher’s infamous swerve at Mika Hakkinen at Spa in 2000 being an especially infamous example.
When the FIA is so preoccupied with improving safety by cutting cornering speeds and neutering circuits, it defies belief when drivers are allowed to go unpunished for such actions.
But in NASCAR’s case I don’t think driving standards is the real culprit. This crash again questions the wisdom of ‘restrictor plate racing’. These devices are mandated by NASCAR at larger ovals like Talladega and Daytona to limit speeds but also guarantee the racing pack remains close.
The Talladega race has spawned a cult following among fans eager to witness ‘The Big One’ – a huge multi-car collision that inevitably occurs, often involving dozens of cars. But this time it was fans that paid the price – and had Edwards’ car gone a metre or two one way or another the carnage might have been unimaginable.
Since Ayrton Senna’s death 15 years ago today, F1 has seized every opportunity to examine and improve its safety preparations. It’s important that includes observing how other motor sports handle major accidents like this, and how well their safety procedures coped.
Had NASCAR taken note of lessons learned by rival championships a decade ago, it might not have lost one of its most famous drivers, Dale Earnhardt, in a last-lap crash at Daytona 2001.
Perhaps the Edwards crash couldn’t happen in F1. But safety isn’t about leaving things to chance.
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