Ever since I was little, various forms of motor racing have filled many a weekend of my life. It’s an adrenaline rush that provides magical moments by the bucketload. It’s the only sport where I feel like I’m watching superheroes at work.
When I think of heroes, I don’t think of Zlatan Ibrahimovic using his knowledge of martial arts to execute a sensational volley. I think of Jacques Villeneuve taking Eau Rouge flat when he knows his car can’t. I think of Kimi Raikkonen pushing for the win at Nurburgring 2005 even though he knew that his tyre was likely to blow out on him and pitch him into a potentially huge crash. I think of Sylvain Guintoli pushing extra hard to the delight of his home fans in the pouring rain of Le Mans 2007 on a bike that didn’t have the grip to do it.
Footballers and Olympians gets all the praise for killing it in the ratings and pushing the limits of human biology, but for every Lionel Messi, there’s an Anthoine Hubert risking life and limb to achieve his dream.
Hubert graduated to F2 as the winner of the GP3 championship. It wasn’t his raw pace that had people impressed – it was that he was consistently quick every single weekend, a quality hard to find in a young driver. His performances in the first part of the season had led many to tip him as a future star of F1 – maybe even a future race winner. A potential champion in the right car.
At Spa Francorchamps, it so unfairly came crashing down.
I can only recall four moments before this weekend in the last twenty years where my heart has sank to the pits of my stomach at the sight of crash: Luciano Burti at Spa in 2001, Daijiro Kato at Suzuka in 2003, Marco Simoncelli at Sepang in 2011 and Jules Bianchi at Suzuka in 2014. Only Burti survived.
As a fan, you know the difference between a spectacular crash and a potentially fatal one. It’s not the size of the crash that worries you – it’s what you hit, or what hits you. On the rarest of occasions, something spectacular can turn ugly.
That’s the fate that befell Hubert. In an effort to avoid the stricken car of Giuliano Alesi (who had spun and hit the inside barrier at the top of Raidillon), Hubert spun and hit the barrier.
So many drivers have hit that same barrier and come away without a scratch. Jacques Villeneuve, Ricardo Zonta and Kevin Magnussen just to name a few have walked away from even bigger accidents than this one.
The difference in this case was that Hubert’s car was spat back towards the track. On lap 2 of the race.
Juan-Manuel Correa (who as of this writing is in a stable condition but still being treated for potential injuries) had run wide and had nowhere to go but into the side of the already damaged, stationary car of Hubert, tearing it to pieces, the left side of the survival cell completely destroyed. Even the Halo, designed to protect the area of the cockpit around the driver’s head, could do nothing to repel the impact and was snapped clean off.
At the age of 22, he has raced his final lap.
When I was 22, I was just a kid looking to build a career as a writer. He was just a kid trying to build his career too. Someone’s son. Someone’s partner. Life is so fucking cruel and unfair.
It was a freak accident. Yet I can’t help but feel that there was something so avoidable about it.
It should never take the death of a kid fighting for his dreams to spark conversations about making the sport safer. But that barrier should either be further away from the racing line (the runoff area is tiny for a corner that fast) or made out of TecPro so that cars aren’t spat back towards the racing line. TecPro barriers are specially designed to both absorb and dissipate energy from the car when it crashes, reducing the speed at which a car comes back out of the barrier. Would a more abrasive surface a la Paul Ricard slow spinning cars down and deter cars running too wide?
Or is the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex simply not fit for purpose anymore? The corner is a nightmare to deal with. It’s one of the most iconic corners on the calendar and a thrill to drive, yet a combination of small runoff, insufficient barriers, sausage kerbs and track limits abuse has made the corner maybe even more dangerous than ever.
Similarly, it raises a question about the safety of the monocoque, or “survival cell”. Survival cells are already ridiculously strong, but should an open wheel racing car be strong enough to take more than one big side impact? Is it within the reaches of current technology to strengthen the sides of cars further? Or is being t-boned at such high speed just something you can’t account for in any circumstances?
Jules Bianchi died after injuries sustained hitting a tractor that collecting Adrian Sutil’s Sauber in the torrential rain in Suzuka. A freak accident? Yes. Avoidable? Yes. As a result, we now have the virtual safety car to ensure that accidents are never dealt with at racing speed. The halo was also an innovation that descended from the incident.
Daijiro Kato died hitting a gap between two different types of barrier at Suzuka? A freak accident? Yes. Avoidable? Yes. As a result, the barrier is longer and of a single construct.
Motorsport must never stop striving for safety, even if it will never mean the end of fatalities.
As racing fans, we all need to be grateful for two things.
Firstly, it’s that incidents like the one seen this weekend are as rare as they are. Advances in safety have brought us TecPro barriers, the head and neck safety device, raised cockpit sides, lower noses, stronger survival cells, stronger helmets and the halo. It’s been four years since the last major modern racing fatality – Justin Wilson, who was killed by flying debris during an Indycar race at Pocono in 2015. That in of itself is a miracle.
In the first three decades of F1 as an official championship, racing deaths were just… expected. People lost friends and family members all the time – F1 drivers had around a 50-50 chance of dying in their careers, as calculated by Kevin McConway. We even have a posthumous F1 world champion in Jochen Rindt.
That Luciano Burti not only survived his 190mph crash at Blanchimont but went away from that accident with nothing more than a pretty bad concussion and facial bruising is staggering. Not even a broken leg.
That Robert Kubica escaped a frightening accident at Canada 2007 with a sprained ankle is equally impressive. That Charles Leclerc walked away completely unharmed from an incident at Spa 2018 where Fernando Alonso was sent flying over his head is impressive. A year ago, that accident might have torn his head off – the halo effectively saving his life. Felipe Massa could have been killed by a flying suspension spring that struck his head at Budapest 2009. His helmet did just enough to ensure he returned to action the following season and that he retained his sight and cognitive ability.
F1 drivers are able to have pretty violent crashes, and most of the time they will walk away and come back next week to race all over again like it never even happened. Despite what has happened this weekend, we need to be thankful for the continued work of safety activists like three-time champion Jackie Stewart, Alexander Wurz and the inspirational Dr Sid Watkins that these kind of accidents are so infrequent.
Secondly, we should be thankful to the drivers.
Never have the words of Ernest Hemingway rung truer than today. “There are only three sports; bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering and all the rest are merely games”.
Sure, taking a drubbing in cricket or taking a straight sets defeat in tennis is painful, and the chance of injury is still high. But they get to go to their jobs safe in the knowledge that in doing so it definitely won’t be the last time their kids see them again.
Driving up Eau Rouge at 200 mph is akin to being faced with 20 angry, aggressive bulls, which is akin to climbing a 3000-foot sheer cliff face where the only thing between you and certain death is you holding your nerve. The fans at home are so caught up in the adrenaline rush and the spectacle of it all that they fail to realise that what they are watching are men and women defying death, often and always millimetres away from a flirtation with the pearly gates.
All that these sportpeople have to do is not think about it. If they thought about it, they’d probably stay at home with their family.
Lewis Hamilton summed it up well today. People do not appreciate that every time a driver climbs into their car, they could die. Improvements to safety can decrease the risk and could prevent an incident like Hubert’s for happening again, but that fact will live as long as the sport does.
So this is to every driver who races their heart out each and every weekend. To Ayrton Senna. To Roland Ratzenberger. To Jim Clark. To Gilles Villeneuve. To Jules Bianchi. To Ronnie Peterson. To Dan Wheldon. To Dale Earndhart. To Marco Simoncelli. To Daijiro Kato. To anyone out there who has ever risked life and limb for the dreams they held as kids, and to push the boundaries of what is possible for a human to achieve.
And now to Anthoine Hubert, a true sporting hero.