Managing Risk on the High-Stakes Formula One Circuit

Managing Risk on the High-Stakes Formula One Circuit

By JOHN F. BURNS
In 2012, Lewis Hamilton, right, of McLaren Mercedes, and Fernando Alonso of Ferrari crashed  at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix.Valdrin Xhemaj/European Pressphoto AgencyIn 2012, Lewis Hamilton, right, of McLaren Mercedes, and Fernando Alonso of Ferrari crashed  at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix.

SPA, Belgium – The fundamentals of the epic racetrack here have not changed.

The Spa-Francorchamps racing circuit, rising and plunging through the thickly forested Ardennes mountains near Belgium’s border with Germany, remains the most challenging, and potentially the most dangerous, of all the tracks that host grand prix races. Wagnerian is not an overstated description of the spectacular races it has hosted, and for the awful toll it has exacted.

Beyond the hazards of grand prix racing, the area has a special resonance for Americans. The towns of Spa and Francorchamps lie only a short distance north of Bastogne, the objective in December 1944 of the march through a blizzard by American troops, which relieved the German encirclement of elements of the 101st Airborne Division. The breakthrough at Bastogne turned the tide in the Battle of the Bulge and opened the path into Germany for Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army.

The Spa track was already synonymous with motor racing tragedy in 1939, only weeks before the outbreak of World War II, when the 26-year-old Englishman Richard Seaman, leading the Belgian Grand Prix in the W154 Mercedes-Benz that the Hitler-backed factory team had entered, suffered fatal injuries after leaving the rain-slicked track and somersaulting into the trees, telling his team manager as he died, “I was going too fast for the conditions — it was entirely my own fault. I am sorry.”

The worst of all the track’s days came in 1960, when two Englishmen, Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey, were killed in separate accidents. Other drivers who survived near-fatal accidents here included the Scotsman Jackie Stewart and the Englishman Stirling Moss.

This year’s race, held last weekend, took place amid some of the gloomiest prognostications in years.

The 4.4-mile track, radically shortened for safety reasons from the 8.8-mile circuit used until 1979, is frighteningly fast. Three of its 19 corners are taken in modern Formula One cars at over 155 miles an hour. The fastest of them, and without question the most challenging feature in all of grand prix racing, is the Eau Rouge sweep at the bottom of the plunging section that runs to the rear of the pit-paddock area. Taken at close to 190 m.p.h. in seventh gear by current grand prix cars, it has the added hazard that the cars’ stiff suspensions are fully compressed by their downforce-inducing aerodynamics, sharply reducing their maneuverability, as the track rises steeply from Eau Rouge to the Raidillon curve that leads onto the 200 m.p.h. Kemmel straight.

For a lover of the sport, watching the drivers through Eau Rouge, at the limits of adhesion — and, potentially, of life — has a sublime quality unmatched by any other corner in the sport. The drivers love Spa and fear it both.

None of the tracks among the 18 other grand prix races currently on the series’ calendar offer even remotely the same challenge. Many of the top drivers, including Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, see Spa as bringing the sport back to its grand traditions, before safety and the pressure for bigger crowds, and plusher profits, pushed the series to some of the blander tracks now in use that are far less rewarding of driver skills — and far less dangerous, too.

Measures adopted since Jackie Stewart and his fellow drivers began campaigning for greater safety in the 1970s have transformed what was once the most perilous of sports into something far more conducive to survival.

Modern cars are constructed around rigid carbon-fiber chassis, the protective “tubs” that let drivers sink deep into their cockpits, anchored in place with the kind of safety harnesses used by fighter pilots, and deformable structures around the tub are designed to absorb much of the force generated by heavy impacts.

Safety has improved with the use of wide runoff areas on the outside of the fastest corners, together with robust tire barriers and high catch-fences between the track and spectator areas. Measures like vastly improved helmets, HANS neck-protecting devices and trackside medical teams with rapid access to trauma specialists and medevac helicopters – unknown to the drivers who first faced Spa’s challenges in the 1920s – have increased the survivability of crashes.

As if to underscore the changes, the elite of the modern sport – drivers, team managers and sponsors, among others – were invited on the eve of the race to a showing, in a refurbished garage in Malmedy, site of one of the most daunting sweeps on the old, pre-1979 track, of a mesmerizing black-and-white film of the 1955 Belgian Grand Prix. The event was sponsored by Shell, in celebration of its 60 years of involvement in the sport, its marquee position among the sponsors of the 2013 race and its long-running association with Ferrari, the team that has become synonymous with grand prix racing.

Immediately before this year’s Spa race, Greenpeace protesters hoisting banners decrying Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic – “Arctic Oil? Shell no!” – abseiled from the top of the main grandstand, and onto the winner’s podium after the race, briefly overshadowing the celebrations. While race officials grudgingly acknowledged the protesters’ skills in evading security, the episode put the sport on notice that it would have to work hard to prevent copycat protests, with the attendant risks of demonstrators reaching the track, starting with the next contest on the grand prix calendar, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on September 8.

But it was the on-track realities of grand prix racing in the 1950s that made for much of the banter in the Spa paddock after the Malmedy film’s screening. With guests invited to dress in period clothing – and the two current Ferrari drivers, Spain’s Alonso and Brazil’s Felipe Massa, doing their part by donning the short-sleeve sports shirts, chino pants, goggles and slip-on loafers that were the racing outfits of the era – the film showed just how far the sport has come in the intervening decades.

Most striking was the almost total absence of safety precautions.

Sebastian Vettel of Germany, driving for Infiniti Red Bull Racing, on his way to winning the Belgian Grand Prix last week.Mark Thompson/Getty ImagesSebastian Vettel of Germany, driving for Infiniti Red Bull Racing, on his way to winning the Belgian Grand Prix last week.

Speeds on the old circuit were not that much slower than those on the track in use now. The Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio won the 1955 race at an average of 121.2 m.p.h.; Vettel’s winning average this year in his Red Bull car was 137.2 m.p.h. Fangio’s Mercedes-Benz ran a race speed of 185 m.p.h. on the old Masta straight, compared with Vettel’s 196 m.p.h. on the Kemmel Straight, which is the fastest section of the new circuit.

But the contrast lay in the scale of the risk in Fangio’s day.

A tally of the starting grid for the 1955 race shows that three of the 13 starters – the Italians Eugenio Castellotti, the pole position winner in a Ferrari, and Luigi Musso, in another Ferrari, as well as a French driver, Jean Behra, driving for Maserati, were to die in grand prix races within four years. One of the greatest drivers of all, Alberto Ascari of Italy, died the week before the Belgian race when he crashed his Ferrari testing at Monza. The Ferrari driver who filled a vacant spot in the team for 1956 and won the Belgian race that year, Peter Collins, was also dead, in a crash at the German Grand Prix, by the end of 1958.

For anybody watching the Shell film, the reasons were not far to seek.

Along the nearly nine-mile course, farm sheds, cafes, homes and pension hotels — what the drivers of the day called “street furniture” – ran right to the edge of the track. The only protection afforded drivers and spectators was the occasional, seemingly haphazard, row of single bales of hay, positioned more to mark the course than to lessen impacts.

Spectators clustered in family groups, some of the men in suits and ties, the women in ankle-length dresses, in woodland viewing areas barely separated from the track, some quaffing Chianti or other wines. Forecourt cafes along the fastest sections of the circuit were laid out with similar insouciance, tables and chairs and customers only yards away from cars passing at the highest racing speeds. During practice sessions, beret-wearing farmhands pushing handcarts sauntered blithely on the margins of the track itself.

At one point during the practice sessions, with Formula One cars on the track, a black dog ran loose from the pits, onto the circuit, and caused a momentary panic before being caught and led away by uniformed gendarmes. Guardrails were nowhere to be seen. Lampposts, wooden stanchions for fencing and steel posts topped by fluttering flags were everywhere.

The front-engine 2.5-liter grand prix cars, the peak of engineering for their day, executed exquisite four-wheel drifts through the corners, their drivers only inches from oblivion, deploying skills rarely seen in contemporary rear-engine Formula One cars with their glued-to-the-track aerodynamics.

For this writer, introduced to grand prix racing as a boy running errands for the teams during summer school holidays – at Spa, among other tracks – the film was an absorbing exercise in nostalgia. But there was an ominous undercurrent. Grand prix racing, once a sport matched in its hazards only by mountaineering — inured to death in the afternoon, to crashes that took the lives of fearless but often foolhardy young men — has gone nearly 20 years since its last fatality, the crash at the Imola track in Italy on May 1, 1994, that took the life of the Brazilian Ayrton Senna.

In the Spa paddock last weekend, many among the Formula One teams were ready to say, quietly, that it was a passage of immunity that was unlikely to continue, that the teams and race organizers have slipped into an era of amnesia and denial, and that another death, or deaths, could happen at any time. The current cars, with their 800-horsepower 18,000 r.p.m. engines, their space-age aerodynamics and their all-up weight with driver (but not fuel) of barely more than 1,400 pounds, substantially less than a classic Volkswagen Beetle, have pushed performance, and speed, to the limits of the laws of gravity, and of physics.

To this has been added this year’s hazard of tires that have delaminated or exploded at high speeds or on exit from fast corners that impose extraordinarily high loads, especially on days when track temperatures soar. At the British Grand Prix in June, six drivers had high-speed tire failures, leading the drivers’ association to threaten to boycott the next race in Germany if Pirelli, the Formula One tire supplier, failed to fix the problem.

A return to 2012 specification tires, using structural belts made of Kevlar instead of steel, seemed to end the failures. But two new tire delaminations during qualifying at Spa, one of them on Vettel’s Red Bull car and another on Alonso’s Ferrari, sent a new wave of disquiet coursing through the paddock, despite an announcement by Pirelli that an initial analysis suggested that the cause was a loose scrap of metal on the track, not a design fault in the tires.

For many years, Formula One, like mountaineering, paragliding and other extreme sports, has had its equivalent of the Mafia’s culture of omerta when it comes to open discussion of death. That instinct has worn a deeper groove in the 20 years that have passed since the death of Senna, the undisputed master of Formula One in his day as Vettel, Alonso and Britain’s Lewis Hamilton of the Mercedes-Benz team are now. And when the subject is raised by a reporter, the response is often the one given by Massa, the No. 2 Ferrari driver, in the Ferrari motorhome after the two tire incidents at Spa.

Massa is the driver who has come closer to death in Formula One than any other since Senna, when a heavy spring broke loose from another car at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009, striking him in the helmet and fracturing his skull when he was driving his Ferrari at 170 m.p.h. After hovering at the edge of life for days, he recovered and returned to the team, though, many in the sport say, not again the driver he was before the accident.

But Massa, struggling to retain his place in the Ferrari team for 2014 against a succession of indifferent race performances earlier this season, offered the response traditionally offered by drivers when they are asked if they fret about dying on the track.

What bothered him, he said, was not those things he could control – driving on an ultra-high-speed track like Spa, carefully calibrating the risks – because he had confidence in his abilities, developed over more than a decade in Formula One. The worry, he said, lay with things beyond his control, like tires disintegrating at high speed, or other drivers making mistakes and causing crashes that imperil their rivals.

“It is a sport with risk, we know that,” he said. “But we enjoy the racing, and that is why we do what we do.” He paused, and added: “But when it involves the things that you cannot control — the tire situation, the things that are not normal, the bad luck — of that you are always afraid.”

Copyright. 2013. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved

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