Life and death on the racetrack

By: Anne Corke

Oct 18 2011

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Category: Formula One, Grand Prix, Racing

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Ever since I learned to drive, I’ve been a fan of racing, especially Grand Prix. My interest peaked in the ’70’s and I spent my fall vacations at Mosport and Watkin’s Glen attending the Canadian and American races. For someone who appreciates automotive technology and enjoys driving, Formula One racing is the pinnacle of racing. It’s exotic, expensive and exciting. I was lucky to have watched some of the great drivers of the 20th century race, legends like Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Ronnie Peterson, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, and so many others. So many amazing characters, so much wonderful racing, so many tragic deaths. In that decade alone, ten drivers lost their lives racing for the Grand Prix, the World Driving Championship: in 1970, Piers Courage and Jochen Rindt (the first and only posthumous World Champion), in 1971, Jo Siffert, in 1973, Roger Williamson and Francois Cevert, in 1974, Peter Revson and Helmuth Koinigg, in 1975, Mark Donahue, in 1977, Tom Pryce, and in 1978, Ronnie Peterson. I was at the track when one of these drivers died. In October 1973, Francois Cevert, team mate of Jackie Stewart, was racing for the pole position in Saturday morning qualifying for the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkin’s Glen. I remember seeing the smoke rising above the fast left-right uphill combination of corners called the Esses that morning. I remember wondering who had crashed, trying to think who had just passed our location, hoping that it wasn’t a serious incident. I remember waiting to hear the outcome, feeling more anxious as time passed, my heart sinking when it was announced that Francois had been killed instantly. His car had been a bit too far left on the track when it hit a curb, swerved to the right side, hit the safety barriers, spun across the track again and crashed into the barriers on the other side. Jackie Stewart, his mentor and close friend, pulled out of the race, which was to be his last before retirement. Francois was a talented driver with a great future ahead of him but the sport he loved ended his life before he could achieve greatness. All of these deaths were tragic, but two of them were particularly hard to accept. Mark Donahue drove for Roger Penske and they were a formidable team, possessing what the press liked to call an “unfair advantage” due to Mark’s setup and driving skills and Roger’s construction expertise. During practice for the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975, Mark lost control of his car after a tire failure and crashed in the catch fencing, hitting his head on a post. He walked away from the crash apparently uninjured. However he went to hospital the next day with a severe headache, lapsed into a coma and passed away having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Ronnie Peterson was one of those drivers who had the potential to be World Champion but unfortunately never seemed to be with the right team at the right time, that is, when their cars were dominating the competition. He was a quiet shy Swede who was always a favourite with the fans. Regardless of what car he was driving, he seemed to be able to get the absolute maximum performance out of it. When he pulled onto the track, you knew you would be treated to a thrilling drive and that he would drive that car as fast as was humanly possible. He drove hard but he was always in control. At the start of the Italian Grand Prix in 1978, an error by the race starter caused congestion as the cars approached the chicane and in the multi car accident which ensued, Ronnie’s Lotus was pushed into the barriers. The car caught fire and bounced back to the centre of the track but Ronnie was trapped inside. Several of the other drivers managed to free him and he suffered only minor burns but both his legs were crushed. At hospital he underwent surgery to stabilize the fractures but during the night, his condition deteriorated and he passed away from multiple embolisms. In a cruel twist of fate, both these drivers seemed to have survived major shunts only to die the next day. To add to the Peterson tragedy, Ronnie’s widow Barbro never got over his death and committed suicide in December 1987. Ronnie’s death upset me more than all the others and I began to feel differently about this sport that I loved, but often didn’t like. And so, the loss this past weekend of Dan Wheldon has brought back many sad memories. A journalist once said that racing is a sport that devours it’s champions at an alarming rate. Although racing today is much safer than it was back in the 70’s, it’s still an inherently dangerous sport and drivers still put their lives on the line every time they take to the track. This is a risk that they have accepted. And if they must die, then perhaps it’s fitting that they die doing something they love. Small comfort for their families. Rest in peace, Dan.

Copyright 2011 Anne Corke

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