I am today the thick end of £300 worse off because yesterday I toddled off to Grand Prix Racewear and bought myself a HANS device. The reason is simply that I am driving in the Silverstone 24 Hours next weekend and the team don’t want my basal skull fracture on their conscience, which I guess is fair enough. I’ve worn one once before and hated it because it restricted my ability to turn my head in an historic car that spent its life going sideways. Next weekend I’ll be in a car with slicks and wings, so if I find myself watching the view from the side window, it will only be because I’m about to crash. In which case my new widget might come in very handy.
I’ve always been interested in how people perceive safety in various forms of motorsport. I have chums who’ll think nothing of screaming around the Nurburgring Nordschleife at vast speeds in modern cars with 150 other like minded lunatics around them who’d not race a pre-war car around a deserted supermarket car park. Some told me they thought I must be mad to race an old open wheel car with no belts or roll cage at a track as dangerous as Goodwood but for some reason I wasn’t scared at all. By contrast the idea of hitting the compression at the bottom of the Foxhole at 170mph while being nudged by a quicker car would scare the breakfast out of me whatever I was in.
I don’t know why I find certain tracks more frightening than others either. Goodwood is well known to be terrifying but I think I love it so much, it just blocks out the fear. So why do Oulton Park and Thruxton scare me, but Castle Combe does not?
What I do know is that even when I race a car with no visible safety systems at Goodwood I am wildly safer today than I would have been in period. The circuit is safer, thanks to barriers being pushed back and even the odd bit of gravel being introduced. I’d bet the condition and drainage of the track is far better too. I’ll be wearing a fireproof suit, even though the chance of the car actually catching fire thanks to modern foam-filled tanks is actually very remote these days. I will, of course, have a modern helmet on my head too. And, should the worst happen, I know that trained paramedics will be on site in an instant, armed with equipment and knowledge that simply didn’t exist 50-years-ago, and the same will be true should I need to go to hospital.
‘I once did some research for a story that showed motor sport to be a far safer way of passing the time not just than another perilous sport like horse racing, but also a pastime as apparently innocuous as fishing.’
Contrast that to the way things used to be. When Jackie Stewart was badly injured at Spa in 1965 they took him to the medical centre, which turned out to be nothing more than a shed with cigarette butts on the floor. When they decided he needed hospital treatment, the ambulance driver got lost on the way to Liege. There are stories of horrific injuries suffered by drivers who hit barriers no one had bothered to anchor into the ground, of marshals with empty fire extinguishers or no fire extinguishers and drivers having a sneaky puff or two on a cigarette while their car was being refilled using urns and a funnel.
Of course, and as we all know, tragedies still occur, each one of which must be learned from. But if it is of any comfort to anyone who worries about a loved one racing, I once did some research for a story that showed motor sport to be a far safer way of passing the time not just than another perilous sport like horse racing, but also a pastime as apparently innocuous as fishing.
For myself I will always hold the view that whatever happens on the track to people racing cars happens to those who love racing and know very well the risks they take to pursue their passion. So long as members of the public are not involved, we should be left to get on with. As someone far more eloquent than me once said, ‘A life without risk is not living, but mere existence.’