Sunday, August 26, 2012

When Spa Was Deadly

Today's drivers love racing at Spa because unlike any of the
modern F1 circuits the historic Belgian venue's breathtaking
succession of undulating swoops and swerves provides them with
the opportunity to extend themselves, to more thoroughly exploit
their skills and explore their limits.

"Even driving on your own here is fun," said the winner of the
2011 Belgian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel. Mark Webber finished
second and said: "You always love driving here." Third-placed
Jenson Button said his race was "a lot of fun." Fernando Alonso
was fourth and said he had "a fun race." Michael Schumacher, six
times a winner at Spa,  described his 2011 drive from last at the
start to fifth at the finish as "big fun."

Once upon a time, far from being fun, the predominant reaction to
driving at the once deadly Spa circuit was fear...

A Terrible Weekend At Spa...

In the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa a succession of terrible accidents
began in practice when Stirling Moss crashed heavily and broke his nose,
three vertebrae, several ribs and both legs...

STIRLING MOSS (Lotus): "I was holding the car in a sweeping
right-hand bend at 140mph when the left rear wheel snapped off.
The car spun several times and hit an embankment backwards. I don't
remember getting thrown out or flying through the air. The next thing
I remember is being on my hands and knees in the dirt. I was scared
and thought I was going to die. I couldn't breathe, you see. I couldn't
see either, and that worried me, but mostly I couldn't breathe."

ANDREW FERGUSON (Cooper team coordinator): "It took a
long time for the ambulance to arrive for Stirling and, by this time, a
queue of cars some 200 yards long had stopped at the scene. In an
effort to hurry the arrival of the ambulance, Mike Taylor was dispatched
to the pits in his Lotus, and unbeknownst to everyone, he disappeared
at La Carriere corner."

INNES IRELAND (Lotus): "Mike Taylor's steering had broken and he
went off the road on a 130mph corner. How he was not killed, I can't
imagine. The car went across a damned great ditch, shot into the air, hit
a tree which was completely uprooted, and finished up smack into another
tree. Somehow or other he came out of it with only a few broken bones,
although he had a neck injury which gave him trouble for some months.

JACK BRABHAM (Cooper): "I led the race from start to finish but
young Chris Bristow lost control of his Yeoman Credit Cooper and
hit the side of a house plus a couple of concrete posts and a fence.
The accident looked terrible when I passed, and it was."

Chris Bristow (left) was first to die
in the disastrous race

JIM CLARK (Lotus): "I was almost put off racing completely, for I
was the first to arrive on the scene at Burnenville when Chris  Bristow
lost control of his car and was killed. The car rolled over and over,
killing him instantly before throwing his body out on the circuit.
It was horrible and I'll never forget the sight of this mangled body being
dragged to the side by a marshal. I was almost sick on the spot. I
remember at the end of the race finding that my car was spattered
with blood."

JACK BRABHAM: "Towards the end of this disastrous race, Alan
Stacey, who was driving a works Lotus, was apparently hit in the
face by a bird, and lost control of the car which hit a bank and
caught fire. Alan was thrown out and killed instantly and the car
careered across a field on fire."

INNES IRELAND: "Later, I saw Alan lying in the ambulance. I was
completely devastated. I simply turned round in absolute horror and
ran away."

JIM CLARK: "Thankfully I didn't see Alan's accident or the car
and I was only told about it at the end of the race. Had I seen
my team mate's accident right after Bristow's I am convinced that
I would have stopped there and then, and retired from motor
racing for good. Yes, it was a terrible race."

Team Lotus founder Colin Chapman (left)
with drivers Innes Ireland, Jim Clark and
Alan Stacey, who was also killed in the race.

Jim Clark thereafter hated Spa with a vengeance,
yet he won four consecutive races there, from
1962 through 1965.

More Spa Chaos Sparks A Safety Crusade...

The notoriously fickle Spa weather caused chaos in the 1966 edition
of the Belgian Grand Prix . While it was dry on the starting grid, a
downpour began at the far end of the then 8.749-mile-long track.
Several cars flew off at the notorious 150mph Masta Kink, including
Jackie Stewart who lay trapped in the remains of his destroyed BRM...

JACKIE STEWART: "I ended upside down in a ditch with fuel
leaking all around me and with no marshals, no safety crew to
help me. So Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant, who had also crashed,
had to get me out of the wreckage. They dragged me into a nearby
farm building and Graham ran off to find a marshal's post and
call for an ambulance. I was semi-delirious from my injuries. I
had broken my collarbone and dislocated a shoulder, and I had
some ribs cracked. I had a sore back and concussion. But my main
concern was the petrol. As it was I had substantial petrol burns
and eventually all my skin would come off.

"The building I was in, the so-called medical centre, was just a
shack. I lay there on the concrete floor littered with cigarette
butts and dirt. They stuffed me into an old ambulance and
provided a police escort to go to the hospital in Liege, which
was quite a few miles away. On the way, the ambulance driver lost
the police escort and didn't know how to get to the hospital.

"When you see all these things happening you say this is just
ridiculous. Here was a sport that had serious injury and death so
closely associated with it, yet there was no infrastructure to
support it, and very few safety measures to prevent it. So, I
felt I had to do something."

Stewart's Brave Crusade...

This accident in Belgium triggered Jackie Stewart's determination
to improve safety standards in Formula 1. He pioneered the use of
seat harness and fireproof overalls for the drivers, and
guardrailing and run-off areas for the circuits. But at first Stewart's
safety campaign was not without its critics. He was eventually given
a knighthood for his service to the sport, but at the time some even
called him a coward...

SIR JACKIE STEWART: "My attitude was that, as a driver, I was
being paid for my skill. I wasn't being paid to risk my life. But it
was a very tough job to get any support for what I wanted to do.
There was criticism from some of the drivers and the media and
people said that if Jackie Stewart couldn't stand the heat, he
should get out of the kitchen. I was accused of trying to wrap
the drivers in cotton wool. It was said I removed the romance
from the sport, that the safety measures took away the
swashbuckling spectacular that had been. They said I had no guts.
Well, I had the track record to answer that. CHRIST ALMIGHTY!
When did they ever crash at 150mph? Well, I did."

Stewart, (above) flying his BRM at the Nurburgring in 1966 (a few weeks after
his Spa crash) was terrified at the even more dangerous German circuit,
yet won there a record four times.

JACKIE STEWART: "Anyone who says he loved these tracks is either a liar
or he wasn't going fast enough."

- text and photos from the book Formula 1 The Autobiography
(edited by Gerald Donaldson)

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