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Safety F1rst

By Nikki Grubb-Clarke

Well wasn’t that just the longest of winters? But fear not my fine friends, F1 – and more importantly Riding Fast & Flying Low’s F1 Column – is back, and if you ask me, it’s better than ever!

Now when I sat down to plan this column, I was going to talk about Daniel Ricciardo’s ever-present smile, and how the FIA seem to have some kind of ongoing experiment to find out what it would take to remove it. There were going to be witticism’s aplenty regarding Bernie’s ‘Horny Spice’ & Ferrari flavor headphones that seem to make him think EVERYONE is concerned about F1 not being what it ought to be. There was, of course, going to be extreme fangirling over the Return Of The Ron to my beloved McLaren, and gushing outpourings over the Mercedes power unit and how they have got their whole package together so expertly. Couple that with elation at the lack of Finger on the podiums and a Lew-Lew at his quite splendid best, and I think you’ll agree, it was going to be quite a column!

But then I realized that all this pales into insignificance when you consider another story rumbling away in F1 at the moment, about which I feel particularly strongly, so forgive me, Dear Readers, I intend to go all serious.

Gilles Villeneuve in 1979. Image by ideogibs (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ideogibs/2113890097/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gilles Villeneuve in 1979. Image by ideogibs (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ideogibs/2113890097/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1982, one of the best drivers we’ve had the good grace to witness step into a Formula 1 car, and certainly the best driver to never win the World Drivers Championship, Gilles Villeneuve, was cruelly taken from us. He was the latest in a line too long of drivers we had lost. Sir Jackie Stewart had, for many years, but particularly since the loss of his team mate Francois Cevert, been campaigning for better safety in Formula 1, and in the wake of Gilles’s loss, some changes were made.

The gods smiled on our sport for the next 12 years, and we thought our ongoing battle with the Grim Reaper was finally turning in our favor, until Imola 1994 changed everything. The loss of Roland Ratzenberger in Qualifying shocked the motorsport world, which hadn’t suffered such a loss in F1 in a generation. The following day, the loss of Ayrton Senna made this the bleakest weekend our Glorious Sport had ever faced, with many questioning whether there was a place for it in the modern world.

Sir Jackie Stewart’s ongoing campaign for safety was brought to the fore, and together with Professor Sid Watkins, the much-loved F1 Doctor, and respected neurosurgeon, Driver Safety was revolutionized. We are now in the blissful position of not having lost a driver in a race incident for 20 years. Almost exactly. And it feels good. It feels as though all those who blazed the trail weren’t lost in vain.

So when you hear that a driver has been hospitalized because he has gone on an extreme diet to drop a few kgs he can’t spare, or that a driver is intending to drive a race in the heat of the desert with no means of fluid intake so as to save the weight of the water bottle in the car because it might make them quicker, you can be forgiven for the reaction.

Jean-Eric Vergne of Scuderia Toro Rosso was hospitalized after the Australian Grand Prix because of dieting. Image courtesy Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool (editorial use only)

Jean-Eric Vergne of Scuderia Toro Rosso was hospitalized after the Australian Grand Prix because of dieting. Image courtesy Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool (editorial use only)

What The Formula 1 is going on?

Given the vital focus on driver safety, I find it absolutely disgraceful that the governing body of this sport has no issue with this.

What of the effects on the drivers’ long-term health? What of the effect on their immediate mental state? What of the potentially lethal consequences of a driver having no access to fluids in a race where hydrating drivers lose 3kg through sweating alone? A hangover is predominantly a consequence of dehydration. Best case scenario? Imagine driving an F1 car at top speed with a hangover. You’re not going to be at your sharpest. Worst case scenario? Severe dehydration causes the individual to lose consciousness. Let us not even go there with the consequence of that.

News of the concerns held by the general populace have reached Monsieur Le President Jean Todt. From my observations, the main question being asked of the FIA is, ‘Hang on a second, are you going to step in here? You could resolve this EASILY!’, a question being dismissed glibly. Indeed, Autosport reported that Monsieur Todt dismissed all such concerns!

This makes me Angry.

Do we really want to risk the health and lives of our precious drivers for something this stupid? This resolvable? Especially given all the amazing work done before to keep them safe?

Ayrton Senna was one of Dr Watkins' greatest friends. Seen here in the cockpit of the Williams FW16-Renault. Image courtesy: LAT Photographic/Williams F1. Ref: 1994williams18

Ayrton Senna in the cockpit of the Williams FW16-Renault in 1994. Image courtesy: LAT Photographic/Williams F1 (editorial use only)

I have a vision in my head. It’s an ethereal throng of those who came before and gave their life for their Sport – Messrs Senna & Ratzenberger, Mr Villeneuve, Francois Cevert, Ronnie Peterson, Peter Revson, Jochen Rindt, Roger Williamson, Gerhard Mitter, Jim Clark, Chet Miller and perhaps prophetically, Carl Scarborough who collapsed and died of heat exhaustion after the Indianapolis Grand Prix in 1953. At the head of the group is Prof Watkins. They are, en masse, shaking their heads and tutting.

And they’re looking at you, Mr Todt.  They’re looking at you.

How do you feel about driver safety? Join us on Twitter and Facebook and run the hashtag #SafetyF1rst. It is time to speak up!

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