Dan Wheldon's death reminds us that 'motorsport is dangerous' | Giles Richards

Followers of Formula One have not witnessed such a tragedy for 17 years, but it is a different story in US motorsport

Some motorsport fans have a predilection for quoting Ernest Hemingway. There is no inherent affinity between them and the writer, although doubtless many enjoy the epic struggle depicted in The Old Man and the Sea, but it was Hemingway who famously said: "There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games."

Which is a neat conversational comeback but the truth at its heart, that every time a motor racing driver climbs into a car there is a real chance he or she could die, was brought home with horrific finality after the death of Dan Wheldon at the weekend.

It is a reality at the heart of the sport from which followers of Formula One have been fortunately spared for 17 years, since Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed at Imola in 1994. During that same period, across the two major open-wheel racing series in the US – the Indy Racing League and the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) – seven drivers have died. Including in the last 10 years, Wheldon, Paul Dana at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Tony Renna at Indianapolis. At the heart of this dichotomy are not tiny details of equipment or rules but fundamentals in the different styles and speeds of racing, and the tracks on which they take place.

By the end of the 70s F1 had moved on from the converted road circuits of Spa, Clermont-Ferrand and the Nürburgring, in a driver-led move over safety concerns that had been proven correct when Niki Lauda had his terrible accident at the latter in 1976. Central to these concerns were that the cars and their speed had outgrown the tracks. Narrow with very few run-off areas, going off would lead, with almost no diminishing of speed, into barriers, trees or even houses, which in an open cockpit was simply too dangerous.

Which highlighted the need to use circuits purpose-built for racing with wide, spacious run-off areas ringed with tyre barriers to slow speeds before and curtail damage upon, impact. Then, in the wake of the deaths at Imola and in the following decade, further changes were made. Corners identified as dangerous were altered, crash tests made stricter, cockpits and roll bars strengthened and the head and neck support device (HANS) made mandatory, while the FIA brought in numerous rule changes intended to lower the top speed.

The teams, of course, improved the technology and manufacture of safety considerations for their cars, but perhaps what was most notable were the new circuits, built from scratch and designed to be as forgiving as possible. Valencia, for example, famously billed as a street circuit of the Monaco variation, was in fact purpose built and has ample run-off areas on all the corners likely to lead to an impact, its walls shadowing only the safer parts of the course.

Which is in stark contrast to the banked ovals on which a good proportion of IndyCar racing takes place, and therein lies one of the fundamental differences. The Las Vegas Speedway, where Wheldon was killed, is just one-and-a-half miles long and there were 34 cars on the grid, all of which would be edging into the 225mph zone during the race. Danica Patrick, taking part in her last Indy drive before switching to Nascar next year and who had fought Wheldon for the 2005 Indy 500 title, had predicted a chaotic race even before the start.

Wheldon himself had expressed his appreciation of the dangers in an interview with The Observer in 2008. "The biggest thing for any driver coming from F1 is the safety aspect. I think they find that difficult," he said. He knew collisions were part and parcel of the profession. "That part of the job is dangerous," he noted. "TV doesn't do it justice. If you lock your front wheel into the side of somebody else's car, they are going to be a little apprehensive.

"That's not intimidating, that's just placing your car to put you in the strongest position so you can dictate how high that car is going to let you go or how low. That's the kind of strategy you have to employ to be able to win that race on these super speedway-type tracks. It's incredibly difficult and it takes time to learn."

This placing of the car and dictating of position on the banking is especially dangerous, particularly somewhere like Las Vegas where the cars go four wide. When incidents occur, the speed, relative paucity of alternatives – high towards the wall or low – mean cars that have come together are often highly difficult to avoid. This made a crash like Wheldon's, where he rode up the wheel of the car in front, which launched him cockpit-first into the barriers and catch-netting, more likely to occur.

Similar incidents do occur in F1. Mark Webber took off after hitting the rear wheel of Heikki Kovalainen in 2010 but importantly ran down the track and emerged unhurt. That was in Valencia.

IndyCar has introduced other safety measures. Following Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident on the final corner of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, oval courses introduced the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier on the outside walls in corners to soften impacts, and it was an accident that also accelerated the use of the HANS device in all motorsport. But in this instance it appeared neither could have saved Wheldon.

With terrible sadness it was exactly issues such as this that Wheldon, who had no full-time drive this season, was working on before he was killed. IndyCar is due to bring in a new chassis next year, one that for ovals would have featured physical blocking parts to prevent the riding of rear wheels in incidents exactly like this, and the British driver had been testing them only recently.

They will, no doubt, race with them next year but it is to be hoped that his death will instigate an investigation that may address the central reality Hemingway was referring to that is printed on the back of every ticket, for every motor race, in the world: "Motorsport is dangerous".


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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