Top Stories from the Opinion pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, June 16, 2000

Staring Down Zooming Cars And Terror at Trackside

MEANWHILE


By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune.
PARIS - As a journalist regularly covering Formula One motor racing, I have access to the trackside area that is otherwise reserved for doctors, marshals, firemen, the police and photographers. But a combination of my newsroom duties and what I considered good sense have kept me away from the dangerous area of the guardrails at races.

Two images are seared into my mind. One comes from the photographs and films of the horrendous accident on June 11, 1955, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans -- this year's race will be run this weekend -- when an out-of-control car hurtled into the spectators, killing more than 80 of them.

The other was something I saw on a television newscast 10 or 15 years ago, involving a man at the edge of a track during a race in Europe -- not Formula One -- where a car tumbled toward him as he fled in the opposite direction. He was struck and killed.

Statistically my fear is as ridiculous as the fear of flying. While a few spectators have recently been killed at events in the United States, the International Automobile Federation, the governing body of world motorsport, in its 37-year study on safety (which can be found at www.fia.com), found that no spectator has died since 1977, although one was seriously hurt at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994.

On the Saturday before the Monaco Grand Prix on June 4, a couple of reporters invited me to join them in a walk around the Monaco street circuit during the morning's free practice session.

''It's our annual Saturday morning ritual in Monaco,'' said Dan Knutson, an American journalist.

So I joined my colleagues and we wove through the pit-lane, under the spectator stands, and arrived at the long, uphill straight part of the track leading to the casino. When we got about halfway up the hill, the dragons began to arrive.

Formula One racing has become a rich sport with an international following by being perfect for television. Only on television, or on the big video screens at a race, do you get a global sense of what happens in a race. Only on television may you get a camera's eye view from the car itself.

But only from just behind the guardrails, and particularly in Monaco, do you get close enough to be reminded of what the stakes really are.

The cars came at us like howling dragons or screaming furies flying up the hill and causing the ground to tremble, moving at a speed that nothing in the city streets was ever meant to contain.

For a moment I removed an earplug to hear the screaming engines without a filter. It was painful to the eardrum. As I followed them with my eyes up the hill, the track looked about as narrow as an Olympic bobsled run and just as twisty.

While this is something that I've seen time and again on television and from the track's press room -- not to mention my son's video game -- it is only when you feel them whip past that you wonder how they'll get through the siphon at the top of the hill.

As they screamed past, the cars jolted about on the uneven pavement looking at any moment as if they would come unstuck. The downforce produced by the inverted wings presses the cars to the road, but should the driver make an error, or should a wing fly off, the result can be an airborne car, as happened at Le Mans three times last year.

Although racing is a television sport, television softens our perception of the danger. It looks like a video game, where drivers are rarely injured. Ayrton Senna was the last driver killed -- also at Imola in 1994 -- and the previous one was 12 years before. But when seen from on the track where the business is really carried out, one knows that the day will come when death returns to drivers, officials or spectators.

Last March the driver Michael Schumacher expressed concern about cars making tire contact and flipping over. ''I see this as the most significant danger for both driver and spectator,'' he said. ''One day a car will go into the crowd.''

He said that the spectators should not have to take the kind of calculated risks that the drivers take. While he is right about that, the changes in safety that have been made since the days of the big Le Mans accident have been massive. In Monaco, up that hill in the old days, there were no guardrails. Elsewhere, bails of hay served where walls and tire barriers absorb shock today.

When the practice session was over, and we had visited a number of the most breathtaking parts of the track, Dan said, ''Until next year.''

I wondered if I would risk another trackside stroll, as the safety officials do every year. Fear keeps most people from being stupid. But the thrill of it may also act like a drug, reminding us of how good it is to be alive.

Later on that same Saturday at Monaco, where he has won four times, Mr. Schumacher tried to explain why the drivers do it: ''We all know there's a kind of danger involved, because there are no runoff areas. But obviously we're all crazy enough to come here every year and enjoy ourselves to some degree, because it is enjoyable to run here.''






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