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Why Fire is a Racing Driver’s Biggest Fear

Submitted by on February 21, 2013

LAT Fire

Photo by Steven Tee, thanks to LAT Photographic – www.latphoto.co.uk

Racing is all about speed, action, excitement and, sometimes, incident. Sadly all of those go hand-in-hand with fire, but no day passes by without positive steps to improve motorsport safety

By Andy Hallbery

Ever since racing began, a driver’s biggest fears involved the dreaded fire. The mix of fuel, hot car parts and high speed was a recipe for disaster. In the 1950s to ‘70s it was a major threat where even moderate accidents were accompanied by deadly flames.

Thankfully, today, massive strides have been made in the fire safety area of the sport. But as fire risk is minimised, there are fewer – yet more elaborate – ways for it to take hold.

1) The impact

This is the most obvious and common cause of fire in an accident. Fuel cell safety has evolved to rival the standards of the aerospace industry, but while they’re almost impossible to puncture, you better take a large step back if they do – and drivers, get out quick.

In 1989, Gerhard Berger had a rear suspension failure on his Ferrari at Imola when he was pulling close to 190mph. The terrifying single-car crash and resulting fire was brilliantly and speedily handled by the track’s marshals. Berger reappeared two weeks later at Monaco with his second-degree burnt hands heavily strapped. As the video shows, the Austrian was lucky.

Berger Monaco 1989

Berger at Monaco two weeks later. Photo: LAT Photographic – www.latphoto.co.uk

2) The trapped driver

Fire is one thing; a trapped driver in a burning car another.

In 1973 Mike Hailwood and Clay Regazzoni collided in a fireball. Hailwood leapt from his car, suit already ablaze, had fire put out by the marshals, and waded back in to the flames to rescue Regga from his car. For that Hailwood was awarded the George Medal for Bravery.

3) Driver safety

As the war on fire gained momentum, so the art and science of race wear gained importance. Nico Rosberg and James Vowels of Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 talk us through the advances from cotton sleeveless shirts of the 1950s to the multi-layer Nomex overalls designed to protect a driver in an incident today.

4) Incidents out of a driver’s control

The 1994 season was at best ‘harrowing’, and one of its most fearsome chapters was added by Benetton and Jos Verstappen at Hockenheim. The Dutchman’s refueling rig failed to connect properly, allowing fuel to flow into the cockpit. It may have been over quickly, but the four-second fireball that followed was intense.

On video, it looks frightening. However, when you see Steven Tee’s still photo images from LAT, you realise just what happened in such a short time frame, and left five mechanics and Verstappen nursing burns. The proximity of the oxygen tank was not unnoticed either..

LAT-Fire-94_GER-04A3 LAT-Fire-94_GER-03A LAT-Fire-94_GER-02A4

Photos by Steven Tee, thanks to LAT Photographic – www.latphoto.co.uk

The first image remains one of LAT’s biggest selling photographs. Jos suffered light burns to his back and face – having lifted the visor during the pitstop. I interviewed him a week or so afterwards, and the burns by then had all but gone.

“I don’t think refueling will be a problem for me at the next race,” Verstappen said nonchalantly, “not at all. I’ll still open the visor – it gets very hot and I need the fresh air. I will watch more carefully what the mechanics are doing though!”

5) Added dangers…

In the 1970s, if pitstops weren’t hazardous enough, Indycars in America ran on methanol/alcohol as fuel – which produces an invisible flame when it ignites.

Naturally this causes all sorts of problems, notably ‘the invisible flame’ which can leave drivers and crew dancing around like monkeys in circus. Funny, it was not. It happened in the 1981 Indy 500; the absence of flame and smoke making fighting the fire almost impossible. Mears had taken his helmet off, was treated for burns and had to undergo plastic surgery to his face.

6) The bizarre

We’ve seen gasoline and methanol fires. But what about… Jet fuel? Step forward Former Formula 1 driver and now NASCAR star Juan Pablo Montoya, who in the Daytona 500 slammed into the track jet drier, which uses a helicopter engine to speed up drying the track. Race driver and jet truck driver were both unhurt – and left the spectators scratching their heads!

7) Poor marshaling

Despite every effort to limit the danger of fire there is absolutely no excuse for poor rescue from the safety teams. Unlike Berger, whose injuries were lessened by quick and efficient marshal response, Indycar racer Simona de Silvestro can count herself lucky to escape with only burns to her hands.

As the “Krazy Gang” responded to what started as a minor oil fire, they were bungling around with hoses, no extinguishers and a general lack of coordination, and fire took a major hold. Simona was still trapped in the largely undamaged car, the HANS device hampering her own speedy exit from the flames. The safety crew was far from safe that day.

8) Startline crash

Sometimes incidents are unavoidable, and here’s why. A grid full of hot racing cars, brim-full with fuel, standing starts; one stalls, another hits it at speed right where the fuel tank is housed, and… kaboom. Karl Reindler demonstrates in this Australian V8 Supercar race start.

9) The advances

No stone is left unturned in the quest to make motorsport safer, from the shaky mid-decade to now, thanks in no small part to Jackie Stewart’s crusade, and the general reaction to Niki Lauda’s fire.

Safety Suits & Fire Extinguishers

Extinguishers today; Jim Clark’s ‘safety’ overalls from the 1960s

10) The casualties

It’s not just fire that is to be aware of, there is asphyxiation and smoke inhalation too. For the badly burned, there is danger in surrounding organs beginning to fail.

Racing will always be dangerous, but advances in race wear, safety equipment, safety crews, fuel cell design and construction all help to reduce the dangers of the dreaded “F-word”.

Among the lucky ones still with us: Niki Lauda, Marc Surer, Kris Nissen

Among those who didn’t survive: Jo Siffert, Lorenzo Bandini, Roger Williamson, Elio de Angelis, Peter Revson. The percentages are still wrong.

Images thanks to LAT Photographic – www.latphoto.co.uk

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