Derek Daly: “My life was in slow motion in that one”
Derek Daly’s Formula One career is mostly remembered for a couple of huge accidents, but who can forget how agonisingly close he came to winning at Monaco in 1982 in a Williams that had no rear wing and – sadly for Derek – half a gearbox?
However, in 1980, the most common sight of Daly’s Candy Tyrrell-Cosworth was in the air, whether it was Monaco or Zandvoort. However, one of his “three big ones” that the TV cameras missed that year was at the awesome Osterreiching only two weeks before his Zandvoort aerobatics.
The first, and probably most remembered was at Monaco, and he describes as a “me fault”. The other two, though, were car failures always a worry for a racing driver. A brake disc shattered in Austria, sending him into a field, and towards an unprotected barbed wire fence. That’s not an ideal thing to hit at speed. “Fortunately, the car spun on its own before I got to the fence,” he says. “Otherwise it might have got my head.”
So, imagine charging down Zandvoort’s lengthy start straight towards the Tarzan hairpin two weeks later at 180mph when the suspension fails under braking. Derek doesn’t have to imagine it, as he was that passenger, again.
“My life was in slow motion in that one,” he recalls. “I could hear the sirens of the ambulance on the way to the hospital even before I hit the wall. I could imagine the pain of broken legs before I ever made contact. It all happened in super slow motion.”
Incredibly he suffered just a cut leg, despite the frightening speed and head-on impact.
Then comes the memory that differentiates us from true racing drivers. Despite having two potentially life-threatening high-speed car failures in a row, Daly reveals that if he could have got back in a spare car that day, he would have.
The most revealing thing in my interview with the Irishman though – and trying to discover the psyche of top-flight racing drivers – was his recollection of Ronnie Peterson’s accident at Monza in 1978 that eventually claimed the Swede’s life. Some of these quotes were published in RACER magazine in America in 2005, but they are worth repeating.
The first corner crash took out half the field, and left Vittorio Brambilla in a coma having been struck by a wheel. Peterson’s car suffered significant front-end damage, and he was trapped in his blazing Lotus.
Daly tells the story from his side. “I was in the Ensign, and I spun just trying to avoid it all,” he said. “My car just had superficial damage. I was one of the five drivers who ran to the burning wreck to get him out.
“Peterson was very much a hero of mine,” he continued, “and to see what was happening in front of me…. I can remember my heart beating so fast that I could actually feel my temple pounding. I was that scared of the moment.
“After we got him out of the car I walked back. When I got to the pits I began to describe what I had seen to the people there. I could not help but start crying. I’m there in tears in a very emotional state.”
At the time, concern was more for Brambilla’s injuries than Peterson’s who was initially reported to have broken legs and light burns, but even so it was traumatic.
“Then my team boss Mo Nunn comes up and taps me on the shoulder,” Daly continued. “He says ‘the race restarts in 20 minutes, and the spare car is ready. Get yourself together.'”
Daly’s mind switched modes. “Believe it or not, I got in the car, put my helmet on, and got on with it, and never gave another thought to what had just happened.
“I have always marvelled that racing drivers somehow have the innate ability to block out destructive incidents like that,” he explained, “simply because they want to get back and do their job. It is that kind of focus that makes some people great.”
Oh and this one was nasty too!