It’s 1966 at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. Heavy summer rain lashes down, turning the usually sticky tarmac into a sheet of ice.
A young Jackie Stewart — then only in his second season of Formula 1 — sweeps out of Malmedy and down the back straight towards the Masta Kink. It’s the toughest corner in the world or so Stewart would later claim, demanding equal parts skill and bravery to avoid ending up in the ditch.
Approaching the infamous Masta corner at over 160 mph, Stewart feathers his brake and swings his car towards the apex. There’s the apex and then … something’s gone wrong!
In the blink of an eye, Stewart is rolling and spinning and falling. Sparks mix with the mud and the metal bodywork crumples under impact after impact.
When Stewart comes to, he discovers his BRM P83 is embedded in a farmer’s outbuilding. The steering column has bent, pinning his leg to the floor of the car. The fuel tanks — still heavy with enough gas for all 28 laps — have burst and are now pouring the highly flammable liquid into the cockpit.
In a modern Formula 1 race, Stewart’s car would have been caught by a barrier or gravel trap and the incident would have been picked up almost instantaneously by an array of cameras, helicopters
In 1966, not so much. As unbelievable as it sounds for a Formula 1 race, there were no track crews and no medical staff at the track. None. Zip. Zilch.
On that fateful day in 1966, Stewart remained pinned in his car with the gas slowly rising around him for a further 25 minutes until fellow drivers Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant chanced upon him. (The pair had also crashed out on their first, too. In fact, only seven of the 14 cars would make it to the chequered flag.)
Hill and Bondurant borrowed a small toolkit from a nearby spectator and working with a handful of woefully inadequate tools managed to extract Stewart from the wreckage. Stewart was then dumped on the bed of a pickup truck and taken to the circuit’s first aid tent where he would wait on the floor for an ambulance. The ambulance then lost its police escort and couldn’t find its way to the hospital.
In short, it was a farce from start to finish.
“I realized that if this was the best we had there was something sadly wrong,” Stewart later said. “Things wrong with the race track, the cars, the medical side, the fire-fighting, and the emergency crews. There were also grass banks that were launch pads, things you went straight into, trees that were unprotected and so on. Young people today just wouldn’t understand it. It was ridiculous.”
Formula 1 in the 1960s was more set up to make things dangerous than to make things safe so Stewart began a vocal one-man campaign for better safety measures at race tracks, pushing for significant changes to the racing culture and the tracks.
And the response? A disinterested shrug if he was lucky and outright derision if he wasn’t.
One particularly nasty journalist belittled Stewart’s safety campaigning, describing him as “a pious little Scot with beady eyes who should take up knitting using needles without sharp points.” Brave words from someone whose greatest workplace risk was a deep papercut!
While all this is going on, drivers are still dying on the track. In the 1960s, seven Formula 1 drivers lost their lives during official Grand Prix events.
Chris Bristow, Wolfgang von Trips, Carel Godin de Beaufort, John Taylor, Lorenzo Bandini, Jo Schlesser, and Gerhard Mitter all lost their lives during the 1960s.
Stewart estimated that if you raced for five years, there was a two in three chances that you wouldn’t walk away from the sport.
Frustrated with the sport’s ambivalence towards driver safety, Stewart began taping a spanner to his steering wheel in protest. It was his way of sticking two fingers up to the officials and saying, “If you won’t look after my life, I will!”
Looking back, it is amazing that the bosses of the sport were not more active in pushing for change. And while the sport did eventually improve its safety measure, it would take the death of all-time great Ayrton Senna to accelerate change.
Racing at the Imola circuit in Italy, Senna entered Tamburello corner at close to 200 mph. He lost control of the car and struck an unprotected concrete barrier beside the track at 135 mph. The collision was huge and Senna sustained three separate injuries, each of which were significant enough to kill him.
New safety measures came thick and fast through the 1990s and 2000s in an attempt to make the sport as safe as it can be. Safer cars and tracks, stricter rules and better support all helped produced a sport that was amazing to watch yet surprisingly safe.
However, risk can never be fully eliminated in sport, especially one that involves driving alongside 19 other drivers at speeds of over 200 mph.
When Jules Bianchi tragically crashed in Japan in 2014, it stunned the motorsport world.
Yes, people crashed in modern Formula 1 races but with run-off areas, tire walls, crumple zones, and outstanding helmets, drivers almost always walked away under their own power. When Jules failed to emerge from his car and then failed to emerge from hospital, it felt like a punch to the gut.
Like a return to the ridiculous world Jackie Stewart had to endure.
Jules’ death doesn’t have to be meaningless though. It can deliver a lasting lesson to all those who announce that the sport going soft or becoming too sterile. As motorsport fans, it’s our duty to protect the drivers who, at the end of the day, put themselves in huge risk for our entertainment.
About The Author
Tom Butcher is a freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics, including business, motoring and digital. He is currently working with LeaseFetcher to tell the world about car leasing.