Top ten… First lap crashes

Top ten

An F1 standing start is one of the great spectacles in sport. But it doesn’t always go according to plan as guest writer Greg Morland explains.

First lap collisions are an occupational hazard for F1 drivers. Keeping a cool head and staying out of trouble during the hustle and bustle of the opening lap is an essential skill that all successful drivers must possess.

When it all goes wrong, it goes wrong in a big way – as you can see in this selection of ten of the most spectacular first lap pile-ups.

In the heat of the moment even the greatest racers have failed to temper ambition with pragmatism, and race after race drivers charge into the first corner with disregard to their cold tyres and brakes. Barely a race goes by without some form of contact between cars on the first tour of the circuit.

Usually, damage sustained in these accidents is minimal – a punctured tyre here, a broken front wing there. But in the very worst cases drivers have lost their lives in a first-lap melee and for obvious reasons those sad tales are not recounted below.

2002 Australian Grand Prix

Eight retirements, race not stopped

The 2002 Formula 1 season began with a bang. Ralf Schumacher, who had started brilliantly from third on the grid, was caught out by the early braking of pole sitter Rubens Barrichello on the approach to turn one and was launched over the Ferrari into the air. Both were out on the spot.

Behind them, chaos broke out. Nick Heidfeld lost control of his Sauber and veered across the grass across the inside of the first corner straight into the middle of the pack.

In the chain reaction that followed, six more drivers were eliminated: Heidfeld, Olivier Panis, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jenson Button, and F1 debutants Felipe Massa and Allan McNish.

The instant elimination of more than a third of the 22 starters led to a fairytale debut for Mark Webber. Racing for perennial backmarkers Minardi he held off a late attack from Mika Salo to secure a famous fifth place in front of his home crowd.

Read more: 2002 Australian Grand Prix flashback

1998 Belgian Grand Prix

Four retirements, race stopped

Spa Francorchamps has seen its fair share of accidents since it was created 90 years ago, but few could match the sheer scale of the infamous first lap pile up of 1998.

The race began in the type of biblical deluge which regularly affects the Belgian Grand Prix. But race control called for a normal standing start instead of commencing the race behind the safety car.

Initially, all went well, as all 22 cars negotiated the tight La Source corner successfully. But on the run down the hill towards Eau Rouge, all hell broke loose. David Coulthard?s McLaren snapped sideays into a barrier.

On the narrow track, shrouded by a wall of spray, the consequences were inevitable – all but a lucky handful of drivers behind Coulthard escaped from the clutches of the multicoloured mass of carbon fibre sliding down the hill.

In total 13 drivers were caught up: Coulthard, Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello, Alexander Wurz, Olivier Panis, Jos Verstappen, Johnny Herbert, Jarno Trulli, Shinji Nakano, Ricardo Rosset, Tora Takagi, Pedro Diniz and Mika Salo. But most were able to join in the restarted race.

1980 Monaco Grand Prix

Four retirements, race not stopped

Tyrrell duo Jean-Pierre Jarier and Derek Daly qualified ninth and 12th at Monaco in 1980. Team boss Ken Tyrrell, well aware of Monaco’s perils, warned both to take it easy at the start.

Daly should have paid closer attention to his boss’s words for, as the pack headed towards the first corner, he was caught out by how quickly those in front of him braked.

He piled into Bruno Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo, flipped through the air, and landed on his team mate, ending both their races. Making matters worse, FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre was standing on the inside of the corner, and launched into a tirade against the driver.

Daly found few comforting words from Tyrrell after he slunk back to the pits, so he began the lonely walk back to his Monaco apartment. He stopped at a Ferrari dealership on the way and bought a Dino 246 to cheer himself up. How F1 is that?

1950 Monaco Grand Prix

Ten retirements, race not stopped

The Monte Carlo street circuit was the scene of one of the most bizarre pile ups in F1 history. In the 1950 race, which was the second world championship Grand Prix, ten of the 19 starters were eliminated from the race on the opening lap.

What triggered the mass carnage was a wave in the harbour which crashed over the sea wall and flooded the circuit at the Tabac corner. Fortunately, despite the fragile nature of 1950s racing cars, no drivers were injured.

Among the drivers who crashed out were Giuseppe Farina, who went on to become the inaugural world champion. Jose Froilan Gonzalez, the man who scored Ferrari?s F1 victory, was also eliminated.

One of the drivers who escaped was pole-sitter Juan Manuel Fangio, who went on to win the race. He made his way through the melee by leaning out of his car to push the wreckage out of his way

1973 British Grand Prix

Nine retirements, race stopped

One of the most infamous pile ups in F1 history occurred at Woodcote corner during the 1973 British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

This was before the passage through Woodcote had been slowed by chicanes or Luffield corner. It was a fast and difficult right hander rather than the flat out curve it is today. Running in fourth place at the end of the opening lap was 23 year-old Jody Scheckter, racing in the fourth Grand Prix of his career.

Heading out of Woodcote onto the pit straight, Scheckter put a wheel on the grass and lost control of his McLaren, eventually spinning to a halt some way up the road with his car blocking half of the track. With most of the field behind the incident and approaching the scene at speed, the consequences were inevitable.

Eight further drivers were caught up in the ensuing carnage, one of whom – Italian Andrea de Adamich – suffered a broken ankle. Scheckter himself escaped from the accident unscathed, despite being collected by several cars at high speed.

1989 French Grand Prix

No retirements, race stopped

The worst crashes at the start are usually caused by someone failing to get on the brakes soon enough for the first corner. At Paul Ricard in 1989 Mauricio Gugelmin took a wild ride through the air after doing just that.

He hit Thierry Boutsen’s Williams, took off, plucked the rear wing from Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari and skidded to a halt in the run-off area.

There were no injuries but, this being before the safety car was widely used, the race was red-flagged. Every driver took the restart including Gugelmin, who set the fastest lap of the race.

But the crash may have had an indirect effect on the world championship. The differential on Ayrton Senna’s McLaren couldn’t cope with a second start and he retired as the cars pulled away from the grid.

1987 Austrian Grand Prix

Two retirements, race stopped twice

The 1987 Austrian Grand Prix at the Osterreichring is unusual in that it was restarted twice due to first lap collisions, both partly due to the difficulty of starting a race on the track’s narrow grid.

The first accident occurred on the run up the hill towards the Hella Licht chicane, as Martin Brundle suddenly veered left into the barrier before rebounding back onto the track. Several more cars spun off while attempting to avoid him, blocking the circuit and bringing out the red flags.

The second pile-up was far worse. Starting from second place on the grid, Nigel Mansell crawled off the line, bunching the field behind him on the narrow track. Many drivers were forced to slow dramatically to avoid the stricken Williams, but with some cars arriving at the scene at considerable speed a collision was unavoidable.

Unsighted cars from the back of the grid began to pile into the backlog. Within a matter of seconds of the start, 11 cars were out, and the circuit was blocked again.

The two accidents highlighted the shortcomings of the Osterreichring for F1 cars of the time. The circuit was dropped from the F1 calendar at the end of the season, and it was not until 1997 that Grand Prix racing returned to the circuit, albeit on a shortened and slower layout which also featured a wider pit straight.

1998 Canadian Grand Prix

No retirements, race stopped

In its 32-year history, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal has developed a reputation for causing chaotic races. The 1998 Grand Prix was no exception. The race saw numerous accidents and overtakes, four safety cars and even a long overdue penalty for reckless driving for Michael Schumacher.

But many fans will remember the race for one thing – the sight of Alexander Wurz barrel-rolling into the gravel trap at the first corner of the race.

The Austrian started well from 11th, but tried too hard to squeeze down the inside of Jean Alesi and ended up on the grass. Their wheels connected and Wurz was flipped upside down, taking Johnny Herbert and Jarno Trulli with him.

Fortunately for these four, the race was red-flagged and all four were able to take the restart in their spare or repaired cars. Incredibly, Wurz, Alesi and Trulli tangled again at the second start.

This time Wurz edged Trulli into the path of Alesi at Turn 2, causing him to park his car on top of the Sauber. Despite all this, Wurz went on to finish an excellent fourth place.

2006 United States Grand Prix

Seven retirements, race not stopped

After the disaster that was the six-car 2005 United States Grand Prix, the onus was on Formula 1 to put on a good show at Indianapolis the following season. The elimination of more than a third of the field in two separate first lap accidents was hardly a ideal start.

At the back of the field, Mark Webber, Franck Montagny and Christian Klien retired after the latter clipped Webber?s rear wheel going into Turn 1. He spun into the path of the oncoming pack and almost tipped Webber?s Williams.

Yet this incident appeared tame in comparison to the shenanigans just up the road at Turn 2, as Juan Pablo Montoya unwittingly set off a devastating chain reaction.

Montoya, racing in what we later learned was his final Grand Prix, ran into the back of his McLaren team mate Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2. The contact pushed him across the track into the path of Jenson Button, who was then nudged into the side of Nick Heidfeld, flinging the BMW up and into a terrifying barrel roll across the gravel trap.

Fortunately no-one was hurt, and the spectators were at least left with a slightly less depleted field than the one they’d seen the year before.

1994 German Grand Prix

Ten retirements, race not stopped

The first lap madness of 1994 German Grand Prix was just another chapter in a chaotic season. Of the 26 cars which entered the race, ten had fallen by the wayside within seconds of the start.

The first accident began almost immediately after the lights went out. Andrea de Cesaris – living up to his nickname ??de Crasheris? – drove straight from his starting position into the path of Alex Zanardi, causing chaos at the back.

Nearer the front David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen made contact sending Hakkinen spearing across the track and into a heavy collision with the tyre wall. Several more drivers collided while trying to avoid the out-of-control McLaren.

The high rate of attrition produced one of the most surprising results of the modern era. Ferrari ended their four year win drought, both Ligiers reached the podium, and Footwork and Larousse scored rare points. For a fleeting few moments Ukyo Katayama even managed to run in second position for Tyrell!

The authorities came down hard on Hakkinen, banning him for one race after the collision. He had already been under a suspended ban following a collision with Barrichello at Silverstone.

Over to you

Which other pile ups have rivalled the ten above? Are there any from other series which deserve a mention (I?m looking at you, NASCAR)? Let us know in the comments.

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108 comments on Top ten… First lap crashes

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  1. Rhys said on 5th August 2010, 12:00

    Belgium gp 1998 – Four retirements, race not stopped

    The race was stopped and I am sure there were more than four retierments.

    • sojcarter said on 5th August 2010, 12:25

      At the restart only 4 drivers couldn’t participate because in some teams, both cars were taken out at the initial start and they only had a spare car for the teams lead driver.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 5th August 2010, 12:38

      Yes, the race was stopped – you’re right about that (and I’ve changed it) – but there were only four retirements as a consequence of that crash.

      However there was a smaller crash at the second start which eliminated a few more cars including Mika Hakkinen.

      • Yorricksfriend said on 5th August 2010, 13:54

        And Coulthard crashed twice in the race and still finished

        • He didn’t finish the race – he retired after the crash with Schumacher.

          • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 5th August 2010, 14:38

            Actually I think after he was hit by Schumacher his car was repaired and he went back out. There were hardly any cars left by that stage, and McLaren figured he might end up in the points even if he finished last

          • Robert McKay said on 5th August 2010, 15:03

            Coulthard just missed the points, he finished 7th, albeit 5 laps down.

          • Adrian said on 9th August 2010, 11:11

            And then the infamous pit-lane bust-up between those 2 ensued..!!

      • mateuss said on 5th August 2010, 14:31

        The 1998 Belgium GP pileup is my only F1 memory before school. I was five years old back then and even can remember where I were exactly, and what I was doing, that says a lot given the fact that I can hardly remember anything else specific from that age or even much later age.

        • his_majesty said on 6th August 2010, 16:41

          I was in boot camp! I went to the 98 canadian race though, and was sitting at that corner and have a photo of him (wurtz)in the air on his side! I just was snapping the button over my head, I didn’t want to miss the action! Plus I’m only 5’5″ on a good day. I also have photos of alesi with the ligier on his airbox. That ligier was beautiful that year.

      • Spectator said on 6th August 2010, 4:35

        schumacher and thomas enge on hockenheim was a nice accident and pretty convenient to relive after the german gp

        • Dan Thorn said on 6th August 2010, 11:13

          Coulthard also went off into the gravel in the early stages in an unseen altercation with Wurz, but managed to get going again. Not his best weekend!

        • Tom L. said on 7th August 2010, 19:03

          You mean Schumacher and Luciano Burti?

  2. Rhys is right, I think you got the Monaco part twice.

  3. TommyB89 said on 5th August 2010, 12:09

    Great post. I remember Germany 2001 with Burti going airborne.

    Never seen Germany 1994 before. I guess that race is always remembered for Jos’s pit fire.

  4. Bullfrog said on 5th August 2010, 12:10

    Melbourne 1996, starring Martin Brundle:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItC4s1WDAbU

    As he said later (about the state of his car), “they won’t be using that one again”.

  5. MattM said on 5th August 2010, 12:16

    All good choices, no Nurburgring ’99?

  6. rich said on 5th August 2010, 12:56

    Great post Ned! On the British GP 1973 clip — it’s weird that around 0.51 secs onwards you can see a driver in a seemingly undamaged car (car 28?) running down to Copse trying to get out of the cockpit…! What on earth was going on there?

    • Joey-Poey said on 5th August 2010, 15:10

      a lot of times in those days, if there was a serious crash, it wasn’t uncommon for a driver to stop their car to help their fellow driver to make sure they’re okay.

    • Tim said on 6th August 2010, 8:19

      Car 28 was Ricky Von Opel’s green and yellow Ensign. The car wasn’t damaged and went on to finish the restarted race, albeit 6 laps down.

      In the 1970s races were routinely red flagged rather than continued under caution. Indeed, the safety car’s debut in F1 wasn’t until later that year in Canada when it caused absolute chaos.

      I suspect Von Opel was simply undoing his belts in preparation of stopping and waiting for the restart.

  7. Robert McKay said on 5th August 2010, 12:59

    Spa 1998 crash is the daddy. Perhaps you shouldn’t laugh about it, but it’s just the way the Tyrrells, and especially the Minardis, are so late to the party. The crash is just starting to die down and then they plough in and make it even worse.

    Having said that, given the amount of flying debris – tyres in particular – it’s a wonder noone was seriously injure.

    • Yorricksfriend said on 5th August 2010, 14:01

      It was like a ballet almost, I’ve watched that crash so many times, choosing to focus on one particular car each time and how it was involved.
      One part I noticed was near the start of the crash, after Coulthard hit the wall and his nose whacks one of his tyres across the road, which hits a car (a Sauber I think) which looked to have made it through but the impact from the tyre appears to have made him spin

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 5th August 2010, 14:42

      Haha in my original write up I mentioned how Ricardo Rosset goes piling into the back of the accident at full speed… it was pretty hilarious, although had someone have been seriously injured it certainly wouldn’t have been

      • tombo said on 5th August 2010, 21:50

        i thought it was takagi who was the one still apparently accelerating normally when he first reach the melee. i remember someone (Nigel roebuck?) writing about it in autosport – i probably have the magazine somewhere

  8. The first lap crashes that stand out in my memory are Melbourne 1996 with Brundle crash and the chaos at the start in Belgium 1998.

    Can anybody remember when the last restart was in F1, with increased use of the safety car and the need to not delay the race to keep to international TV schedules, restarts seem to be a thing of the past.

    In the 1990s it seemed that there would usually be at least one restart per season with drivers who had damaged their car running to the pits to get in the spare car, and have it setup for them if it was setup for their teammate at that race.

    It also seems that there are less first lap crashes now, I don’t know if this is actually the case and driving standards have improved or if it just my memory playing tricks on me.

  9. if only this happened every race weekend?

  10. Magnificent Geoffrey (@magnificent-geoffrey) said on 5th August 2010, 13:16

    Ned writing an article about crashing? I’d never have guessed…

    Nice one though, Ned. We could do with a a few thrills and spills during this Summer break!

  11. David B said on 5th August 2010, 13:49

    Unfortunately there has also been Monza ’78.

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 5th August 2010, 14:47

      I originally planned to include that accident, but we decided it wouldn’t really be appropriate in a ‘top ten’. Here’s what I wrote about it:

      The opening lap collision in the 1978 Italian GP has gone down in infamy as the crash which ultimately led to the death of the great Lotus driver Ronnie Peterson. Both the accident itself and Peterson’s subsequent death were entirely avoidable.

      At the start, a misjudgement by the race director saw the grid lights go out prematurely, as the second half of the grid was still forming. This meant that the cars at the rear of the grid invariably had better starts than the frontrunners, causing the field to bunch up on the run down to the Retifillo. The inevitable disaster occurred when James Hunt and Ricardo Patrese touched wheels; the collision pushed Hunt into the side of Peterson’s Lotus, which in turn slid off into the barriers and burst into flames. Eight further drivers were caught up in the chaos.

      However, the accident alone- horrific though it was- was not actually the cause of Peterson’s death. The Swede suffered two badly broken legs and minor burns in the incident, but there was no apparent risk to his survival. It was to huge surprise, therefore, that Peterson was declared dead the following day; an operation on his injured legs had gone wrong and he had slipped into a coma from which he was unable to recover.

      • David B said on 5th August 2010, 15:28

        Yes, Ned. Ronnie died for very unlucky surgical complications.

      • Rick DeNatale said on 5th August 2010, 18:09

        I was a bit surprised not to see Monza 1978 here. Quite a tragic start. I wonder if things had been any different had not Ronnie crashed his Lotus 79 in practice and had started in it instead of the old 78. I’ve always thought it a bit ironic that both times an American has won the driving championship, his team mate was killed at Monza.

        On a lighter note, how things have changed since the late 1980s, spare cars for drivers to run back to the pits for, David Hobbs and Bob Varsha commenting on the race for American viewers. Oh wait! Well at least they sounded younger back then!

      • Tom L. said on 7th August 2010, 19:14

        There was also Monza 2001 when Paulo Ghislimberti was tragically killed. The sight of DLR’s Arrows barrel-rolling through the air before he even got to the site of the original crash is quite something, though…

        • Tom L. said on 7th August 2010, 19:17

          (Sorry, 2000.)

          I imagine this comment will be too short so here’s something else to flesh it out.

  12. LeRoy said on 5th August 2010, 13:51

    So let’s start the argument for spare cars during the race weekend! There certainly is nothing like seeing a driver get out of his wrecked car and walk slowly back to the pits, only to break into a sprint when the red flag comes out! Should a driver have to pay for his mistakes by not having a backup car? Or should he be allowed another chance?

  13. Icthyes said on 5th August 2010, 14:36

    Not the “best” opening crash ever (Belgium 1998), but surely the most significant ever: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiGUSyN9-zk

    A reminder that Schumacher hasn’t been the only dirty driver in the business.

    • Skett said on 5th August 2010, 18:30

      Whilst it was dirty, I’ve always found it more forgivable since he actually announced beforehand that he’d do it since he was put on the wrong side of the track.

      Basically I’m always a bit more likely to forgive someone if they’re honest about it!

    • Dennis said on 5th August 2010, 20:28

      It wasn’t dirty at all.

      First, a year before, he was disqualified by Balastre for an accident caused by Prost (or rather, for using the chicane to get away from the collision).

      And then he took pole, only to have Balastre reverse a decision to move the pole position to the clean side of the track.

      Balastre made Max Mosley look like a super FIA (Or, FISA at Balastre’s time) president… At least he didn’t try to favour British drivers, like Balastre’s manipulations in favour of Prost.

      • David-A (@david-a) said on 6th August 2010, 4:46

        Regardless of the circumstance, or whether he announced it beforehand like the other guy mentioned above, deliberately hitting another driver is dirty.

        • LosD said on 6th August 2010, 7:53

          “Regardless of the circumstance”
          Errrrr, no.

          • David-A (@david-a) said on 6th August 2010, 14:13

            Care to elaborate on your wonderful contribution LosD? Errrr, no?

          • LosD said on 6th August 2010, 14:53

            Simple. Circumstance greatly affects wether it is “dirty” or not.

            (By the way, I am also “Dennis”, I have no idea why my browser decided to change the Name string).

          • David-A (@david-a) said on 6th August 2010, 15:45

            It shouldn’t matter what Balestre was doing, these were supposed to be professionals who were paid to race, not crash into each other. What Prost did in ’89 was dirty, but responding in the same way made that first corner crash dirty as well. And it was dangerous, too, in an era where driver fatalities were too common (as Senna unfortunately discovered).

          • Dennis said on 6th August 2010, 19:09

            They are paid to race, but they also want to win (more than most. If not, they wouldn’t be top-class race drivers). Being cheated one year, with the same pair trying to cheat you again, should and must be stopped to the best of your ability. Taking the one of the cheating couple off the track is in no way dirty, it is fighting a dirty scumbag with (part of) his own tricks.

            - And Prost not having a hand in Balastre’s decision, is about as plausible as Alonso not being part of Crashgate.

          • Mike said on 6th August 2010, 22:32

            Prsots move was thought out nor planned, making his error just that, and a racing incident.

            As I understand it from reading previous comments, Senna had already thought about crashing on purpose, in other words, it seems to be more of a premeditated assault instead of a racing incident.

            To me, doing something stupid in the heat of battle (ala Mr Schumacher) isn’t good, but it’s not nearly as bad as planning out the possibilities before hand and planning to crash.

            Dennis you ever heard the saying two wrongs don’t make a right?

          • Mike said on 6th August 2010, 22:37

            Tis be a cold morning and ze hands! she wouldn’t spell the words in ze way I might have hopped :(

            Prost’s move was NOT thought out nor planned, making his error a racing incident.

          • Dennis said on 7th August 2010, 8:14

            There isn’t two wrongs. There is a couple of cheating scumbags, and a driver defending himself.

            If Prost had any kind of decency, he wouldn’t have tried taking advantage of the other cheating scumbag’s race manipulation.

          • David-A (@david-a) said on 7th August 2010, 16:19

            What you’re doing Dennis, is assuming that Prost pretty much asked for Balestre to manipulate things in his favour. Without any solid proof. That’s part of why your argument is failing here.

            You can’t hold a single driver, Alain Prost responsible for the actions of the FIA, which means that his move on Senna in 1989 is the full extent of any cheating he did. Senna may have wanted to defend himself, but doing so by aiming your car at another is also wrong, hence he committed the second “wrong” which does NOT make it “right”.

        • Robert said on 6th August 2010, 8:17

          I agree, but hey.. Senna didn’t hit Hill so he’s nowhere NEAR as dirty lol.. /sarcasm

    • Jono (@me262) said on 4th September 2012, 8:40

      haha love how Senna’s rivalry with Prost is used as a precedent for all the ‘dirtyness’ Schumacher has been involved with in his career (and thats a lot)…sorry, sometimes 2 wrongs do make a right :)

  14. Xibi said on 5th August 2010, 14:47

    Monza 2000 was pretty spectacular. Unfortunately, a marshall died after getting hit from Frentenz’s stray tyre.

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 5th August 2010, 14:56

      That’s another one I would’ve mentioned if it were not for the fatality. Here’s a small part of what I wrote:

      “Although all 5 drivers appeared uninjured, a medical car rushed to the scene. It soon emerged that a trackside marshal, 33 year old Paulo Gislimberti, had been hit by a stray wheel during the accident. He died soon afterwards, leaving behind an eight month pregnant widow. Six years on from the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, it was a stark reminder of the dangers of motor racing.”

      I find the deaths of marshals even more tragic than the deaths of drivers. Especially in this case as it left a child without a father.

  15. rmac923 said on 5th August 2010, 14:53

    lol Hobbs and Varsha still calling F1 in America back in 1989. Shows how little has changed here.

    • Joey-Poey said on 5th August 2010, 15:15

      seriously. That took me by surprise a bit. Like “WAIT, is that the same guy that calls for Speed Channel?”

      • rmac923 said on 5th August 2010, 20:38

        Well, Hobbs had been calling F1 since the 80′s and covered Nascar in the Late 70′s. After ESPN lost F1 rights to Speedvision (now SpeedTV), Varsha did commentating for CART while Derek Daly (featured in the Monaco 1980 clip) was F1′s commentator with Hobbs.

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