F1’s brushes with disaster: Top ten lucky escapes

Top tenPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Yesterday’s NASCAR race at Michigan saw a bizarre and dangerous crash in which Mark Martin’s car was skewered by the exposed end of a barrier.

There have been many incredible escapes in motor racing. Sometimes these are down to ever-improved safety standards.

On other occasions the driver involved was just plain lucky. This has often been followed by a dawning realisation changes need to be made to prevent something much worse happening in future.

There are many such examples of this happening in F1, which have usually led to new rules and procedures to improve safety.

Here are ten ways F1 drivers have been lucky to escape serious injury in accidents and incidents over the years – and what the sport has learnt from them:

The catch fencing flaw

Some attempts to improve safety at circuits, though well-intentioned, created unforeseen problems. Catch fencing, which was introduced to F1 in 1973, is an example of this.

The principle behind it was sound: rows of deformable fencing allowed the speed out-of-control cars to be gradually reduced. But they risked entangling the driver and the posts used to hold them in place them could be transformed into flying projectiles.

Two lucky escapes at the 1981 South African Grand Prix weekend* served to highlight the dangers. First Carlos Reutemann almost choked when he became wrapped in catch fencing when he went off in practice.

Then during the race Geoff Lees crashed his Theodore and was knocked unconscious by a catch fence pole:

Catch fencing was phased out in the years that followed in favour of gravel traps and larger run-offs.

Another driver who had a terrifying near-miss with a wire fence was Derek Daly. He suffered a brake failure at the high-speed Osterreichring while driving for Tyrrell in 1980 and hurtled off the track.

To his horror, Daly was confronted by a barbed wire fence. He was immensely fortunate that his car skidded around, hitting the fence backwards – had he gone in head-first the consequences would have been utterly appalling.

Monaco’s harbour

Water hazards are more a feature of rallying than F1. But the close proximity of the harbour at Monaco caused some dramas in the early years of the world championship.

In 1950 a wave soaked the track at Tabac, causing a crash which eliminated ten cars – more than half of the field.

In 1955 Alberto Ascari made a mistake at the chicane and plunged into the sea. He was fortunate to escape drowning:

Luck did not stay on Ascari’s side much longer, however. He was killed testing a sports car at Monza four days later.

The following year the Monaco Grand Prix organisers tightened the chicane to reduce the chances of a repeat. In the years that followed more extensive barriers were installed and the chicane was extended and further slowed.

More Monaco danger

The same year the new chicane was built at Monaco brought another illustration of how the circuit’s unusually tight confines pose particular safety problems.

Patrick Tambay came perilously close to clearing the barrier when he tangled with Martin Brundle at Mirabeau during the 1986 Monaco Grand Prix:

Aerial crashes are a particular problem at the cramped Monaco circuit. Of late F1’s feeder series have seen some dramatic crashes there including Romain Grosjean in GP2 in 2009 and Conor Daly in GP3 this year (son of the aforementioned Derek).

It has been said for many years that no new circuit like Monaco would ever be allowed on the calendar today. Efforts to improve safety at the track continue – this year the barrier at the harbour was moved back following Sergio Perez’s 2011 crash.

Cars in the crowd

Daly’s GP3 crash was a stern test for the strength of F1’s crash barriers. These have been developed over many years from the days of low barriers which proved inadequate for containing crashes and resulted in some incredible near-misses.

At Jarama in 1974 Arturo Merzario flipped over a metal Armco barrier in his Frank Williams-entered Iso Marlboro. Although several spectators were knocked down, and Merzario’s car ended up on top of one photographer, incredibly all were unhurt.

Later the enormous cornering speeds of ground effect cars created more problems for circuit owners. Two major crashes in 1982 showed just how dangerous they had become.

First Rene Arnoux smashed into the barriers at Tarzan during the Dutch Grand Prix, showering spectators and photographers with debris.

Then during the French Grand Prix Mauro Baldi and Jochen Mass made contact at the high-speed Signes right-hander. Mass’s car flew through the air – the presence of catch fencing doing little to arrest its progress – before striking a tyre barrier and flipping upside-down into a spectators’ enclosure, where it caught fire.

That this huge accident left no fatalities – the extent of the injuries was a few burns suffered by spectators – was nothing short of astonishing. The accident, one of several that year, certainly played a part in the demise of ground effect cars.

Oh deer

Animals on the track pose an unpredictable hazard. Stefan Johansson was fortunate to emerge unscathed when his McLaren ploughed into a deer during a practice session for the 1987 Austrian Grand Prix.

After F1’s return to the circuit (renamed the A1-Ring) the deer problem remained – there were no further collisions, but at least one memorably funny radio message involving Juan Pablo Montoya.

Johansson is not the only driver to escape injury after a collision with an animal. A bird struck Jenson Button’s car close to his crash helmet during a testing session with Williams at Kyalami in 2000

But while the drivers can count themselves fortunate to escape injury, the same cannot be said of the poor animals.

Happily those in charge of F1 have begun to react more quickly to the problem. Last year the first practice session for the inaugural Indian Grand Prix was halted when a dog was spotted on the circuit.

“Mr Halfwit” and friends

While animals may lack the sense to avoid sprinting onto a racing track, humans should not.

In the early days of motor racing access to the track was much less stringent than it is today. Pictures from races in the fifties and sixties show photographers, marshals and dozens of others standing in close proximity to the track.

Growing awareness of the need to improve safety gradually put a stop to this. But the problem of keeping some people from getting a bit too close to the action remained.

Topping the list of those who should have known better is former FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, who had been vocal on the subject of improving safety. Shortly after the start of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1989 he wandered across the circuit, narrowly avoiding being mown down by Nicola Larini’s Osella.

A similar thing happened at the end of the first race of that year, when an unidentified man sprinted across the start/finish line at Jacarepagua just as the victorious Nigel Mansell arrived to take the chequered flag.

Two years later, Ayrton Senna had this incredible near-miss with a marshal at Monaco:

Two famous incidents in the early 2000s involved people trying to make protests by disrupting a race.

At the Hockenheimring in 2000 a former Mercedes employee ventured onto one of the fastest circuits in F1 with the apparent aim of disrupting the race of the Mercedes-engined McLaren cars. The safety car was sent out while the “halfwit” – as Murray Walker memorably dubbed him – was dealt with:

Then at the British Grand Prix in 2003 the safety car had to be summoned while a Silverstone marshal rugby-tackled a priest who had run onto the Hangar straight holding a banner urging people to read the bible. Coincidentally, both these races were won by Rubens Barrichello.

The terrible dangers these individuals thoughtlessly exposed themselves to do not need spelling out. Others who ran out onto a live racing track were not as lucky as they to be missed by oncoming cars.

The bravery of the marshals who tackled the two most recent track invaders at F1 races deserves the highest praise. But the same cannot be said for this marshal who ran in front of Sebastien Buemi’s car during a show run in Japan last year:

Fortunately the only injury was to his pride.

Hit by flying debris – and cars

While we’re on the subject of Buemi, remember his bizarre crash during practice in China two years ago when the wheels came off his car? That wasn’t just a lucky escape for him – his wheel flew towards a cameraman, who was too busy keeping the focus on Buemi instead of noticing the large, round black thing hurtling towards him. He was lucky it only hit his camera.

There have been many instances of drivers having near-misses when their cars were hit by debris. A chunk of metal gouged into the front of Ayrton Senna’s car during practice for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1987.

Some drivers have even been clipped by flying cars. Martin Brundle had the misfortune for it to happen to him twice – first in the collision with Tambay at Monaco mentioned earlier.

He suffered a repeat in the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos when he was unwittingly collected by a three-car accident involving Eddie Irvine, Eric Bernard and Jos Verstappen.

For the second time, Brundle was struck on the helmet by the wheel of a flying car, this time belonging to Jos Verstappen’s Benetton. Seeing the sickening impact in this video again it is truly astonishing that Brundle wasn’t badly hurt:

Higher cockpit sides on modern F1 cars offer drivers greater protection from this sort of impact. But the FIA are considering further measures to improve safety in this area.

Aerial accidents

Some of the most dangerous accidents occur when F1 cars get airborne.

Christian Fittipaldi’s accident at the end of the 1993 Italian Grand Prix was utterly flabbergasting – not least because it came in a collision with his team mate Pierluigi Martini:

Fittipaldi was extremely lucky his Minardi landed the right way up. This video shot by a fan gives a greater impression of the speed involved in the crash:

One year earlier Riccardo Patrese had survived a similarly terrifying accident at Estoril. His Williams-Renault FW14B came perilously close to striking a bridge across the circuit:

Patrese had been trying to pass Gerhard Berger and failed to appreciate his rival was heading for the pits when he tucked up behind the McLaren to make a pass.

Car dangers

Modern F1 cars are built to such high standards that it’s rare to see a situation where a driver might be directly endangered by a fault with their car.

This was not always the case, particularly in the days when the engine was positioned in front of the driver. Exhaust ventilation was a frequent problem, and many drivers had to abandon their cars mid-race as they were gradually being gassed and starting to pass out.

Front-engined cars also required propeller shafts, thick rods spinning at high revolutions, which passed alongside the drivers to the rear wheels. Any fault with these could have highly dangerous consequences.

Jo Bonnier had an incredible near miss at Spa-Francorchamps in 1958 when a failure on his Maserati 250F caused the shaft to fly up and deliver an excruciating whack on the backside. This propelled Bonnier into the air, still clinging to his steering wheel while rocketing along at over 260kph (161mph).

Despite the agony, Bonnier was pragmatic enough to acknowledge that had the shaft flown in the opposite direction – into the ground, flipping the car over – the consequences could have been much worse.

One of the most dramatic examples of a driver having a near miss with a car failure came during practice for the 1977 Argentinian Grand Prix. Mario Andretti was passing by the pits when part of his Lotus 78 exploded.

Fortunately for Andretti it was the onboard fire extinguisher and not the fuel tank, though his car was so badly damaged it couldn’t be raced.

Berger broadside

Finally, there are some accidents rank as truly bizarre one-off encounters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this crash of Berger’s before or since:

The accident began when the active suspension on his Ferrari F93A incorrectly lowered the car, causing him to lose control on the bumpy pit exit.

Had Berger arrived a few seconds earlier he might have been T-boned by Derek Warwick who was driving flat-out down the straight.

Over to you

While it’s important to learn from events like this, it’s also easy to overlook them. For obvious reasons, accidents which have left drivers injured or worse leave a deeper imprint in our minds.

It’s a sobering though that for every driver who had one of these near-misses, there were others who had similar experiences but were not so fortunate.

Can you recall any other examples of drivers having near-misses in F1? Do you think the sport has drawn the correct lessons from those which have happened?

Have your say in the comments.

*This race was stripped of its world championships status for political reasons.

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