Monday, April 28, 2008


What a weekend for big accidents. We saw two entirely different yet highly disturbing crashes, both of which illustrated the potential danger of the sport, as well as the incredible ability of modern race cars to protect its occupant when things go wrong.

Here's exhibit A. Stephane Ortelli's LMP1 class prototype experienced some kind of mechanical failure during the Monza 1000km and veered abruptly to the right. At this point the aerodynamics, which are designed to prevent a car getting air (like the Mercedes CLRs at Le Mans in '99) took over because the car was sideways, and aero is not designed for sideways travel. The car launched into a massive barrel roll. As with most accidents of this type, they look far worse than they are - the gradual release of energy throughout the crash ensured that Ortelli never experienced life-threatening G-loading. The scariest thing about this one is how close the flying Oreca came to decapitating Allan McNish in the Audi:

Onto Exhibit B. In the Spanish Formula 1 Grand Prix, McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen also experienced a mechanical failure that forced the car to go somewhere it shouldn't. In his case, the car speared off the track and he made contact with the tyre wall at an angle of about 30 degrees whilst doing 137mph. Unlike Ortelli's crash, Kovalainen DID experience massive G-loads, perhaps equalling Robert Kubica's record-setting 75G load during his accident in Canada last year. It's worth noting that 100G is enough to kill most people. An additional aspect of this shunt that was scary was the fact that the car dived UNDER the tyre barrier, and no matter how low down the driver sits, his head is very much at risk in that kind of situation.

I'm not that surprised that Ortelli was relatively unharmed (save for a broken ankle) but the fact that Kovalainen survived with nothing more than concussion and some bumps and bruises is incredible. I have no doubt that the HANS device played a key role in his survival.

The gains in safety since the Imola '94 have been remarkable and it's weekends like this, where we could easily have been mourning the loss of one, perhaps even two, professional racing drivers, that are testament to the work put in by many on this critical issue.

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