It takes a certain type of person to be a successful racing driver. Not only do you need a talent for hurling small missiles around circuits or across landscapes, but you also need to be fearless. You need to be able to assume that the crashes, fireballs and various other potential hazards will happen to someone else. And then, if the worst happens, you need the steely grit and determination to come back. To not let any of the issues or incidents deter you from glory. These are a few of the times that drivers and riders have gone even further than you expect to come back from near disaster.
The nine greatest motorsport injury recoveries
We’ve featured Denny Hulme’s incredible story in our list of motorsport stories that should be movies. But it’s so incredible that it deserves to be retold and definitely deserves greater recognition.
In 1970 Hulme was due to enter the Indy 500, but he never made the race. A methanol fire inside the car inflicted excruciating burns on his hands meaning he could not enter the legendary oval challenge. However, shortly afterwards his Can-Am team leader, and fellow Kiwi, Bruce McLaren perished in a crash while testing McLaren’s new car at Goodwood. The team had instantly lost not just a driver, but inspiration and team leader.
Hulme, hands still completely ruined by the fire, stepped in to the breach. Filling the void left by McLaren he raced in absolute agony, his hands still too big to fit in his driving gloves. And he didn’t just race, he won, leading the team to the championship title despite his horrific injuries. After his first race back his hands had to be physically removed from the wheel.
It’s impossible to even talk about this subject without Niki Lauda’s name coming up. During the 1976 German Grand Prix on the Nürburgring’s fearsome Nordschleife. Lauda crashed and, with no retaining barriers, hit the embankment, came back onto the circuit and was hit by other cars. Then the car caught fire.
So much of motorsport’s main fears in the dangerous days were about fire rather than broken bones. Romain Grosjean’s terrifying Bahrain shunt only serves to remind us just how scary it can be. For Niki, the fire engulfed his car as he lay unable to move. His fellow drivers came to his aid and pulled him clear, but not before he had suffered horrific burns and inhaled toxic smoke. Lauda had been wearing a modified helmet that didn’t properly fit, allowing the flames to access his face. So bad were his burns that he was administered the last rights in hospital.
But that was never going to stop Niki. The fire had taken most of his right ear, all the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows and his eyelids. Months of painful recovery were to come. But, intent on returning, Lauda decided to forgo most of the possible reconstructive surgery, concentrating on just his eyelids – which he would need for racing.
In the end, he missed two races. Just two. So six weeks later he was back in the paddock, and a few days later he finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix, despite being so mentally scarred by the trauma that he was “terrified” while driving. Wearing a special helmet and still bandaged he finished the season second, just pipped to the title by James Hunt.
Formula 1 drivers wear helmets for a reason. But normally we just think that reason must be to protect from their heads whacking around during a crash. At the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009 we got a reminder that a helmet protects a driver from a lot more.
In qualifying, apparently out of nowhere, cameras cut to Felipe Massa’s bright red Ferrari buried deep into the barriers. Off at a seemingly innocuous bend and still apparently with foot buried on the accelerator. The crash replays seemed weird. Massa apparently just forgotten to turn left as the Hungaroring track crested a brow. It wasn’t until the TV director sought out the onboard that it became clear something else had happened.
As Massa followed the Brawn of Rubens Barrichello an object had bounced up from the rear of his compatriot’s car – later confirmed to be a suspension element. It struck Massa on the helmet, knocking him out cold. Left in a life-threatening condition, with severe swelling above his left eye, Massa was airlifted to hospital. After surgery, he wasn’t out of the woods and had a titanium plate inserted into his skull. His season was over, but his life was not.
A few months later he waved the chequered flag to end his home Grand Prix. But then, just over six months after his accident, he qualified for the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix. And he didn’t just qualify. He was second.
Adding bike racers into this list is almost cheating. Getting through a season of barely holding on to an engine strapped to a pair of wheels without breaking most of your bones is impressive enough. It’s amazing any pro-motorcycle racers end their career with their original skeletons. But Toby Price’s instant return from injury before the gruelling Finke Desert Race is probably up there with the most extraordinary. Because he didn’t just recover and come back, he ignored the fact that he had impaled his foot on a stick to ride on...
The stick had managed to go through his entire right boot and smashed through most of the bones in his foot before shattering his ankle too. This was during practice for the event. Instead of calling an ambulance like most normal people would, Price hauled the stick out of his foot and then just shut up about it. In order to compete in the upcoming race, he told no one, and went on to win both days of the race, riding at over 70mph across 280 miles of Australian desert. As if to prove how hardy he was, Price also won the Dakar rally in 2019 a month after breaking his wrist.
During mid-season testing for the 2017 World Touring Car Championship in Barcelona, Tiago Monteiro’s brakes failed. Footage of the catastrophic crash that followed has never been released, but you don’t need to see it. Just know that the former F1 driver was unconscious for six full hours afterwards. He had hit the wall at around 160mph.
Monteiro suffered compressed nerves and three broken ribs, he ripped his bicep from the bone and, perhaps most terrifying in this litany of awful injuries, he snapped the muscles that control eye movement. Leading the World Championship at the time of the crash not only was his season over, it took fourteen months before he was even ready to sit in a racing car again. But sit in one he did. And in November 2018 the Portuguese racer was back, racing in what was now WTCR. And he still is. In 2019, at his home round, he took his first win since his crash.
Monteiro is mostly remembered for wildly over-celebrating on the embarrassing 2005 US Grand Prix podium. Maybe we should respect him more for his amazing comeback.
It’s hard to work out which of A.J. Foyt’s recoveries to include here. Take, for example, the time he suffered catastrophic injuries to his legs and feet in 1990 while racing in CART only to come back and race in his 34th and then 35th consecutive Indianapolis 500s over the next two years.
Well, that was impressive. But we’re going to go back to his time racing Stock Cars in the 1960s. After a spin at Riverside dropped him back through the field, Foyt charged back through, gunning still for victory. Then his brakes failed right at the end of Riverside’s mile-long straight.
Trying to minimise the accident Foyt turned in at 100mph, trying to use the infield to limit the crash. But his car caught an embankment and was launched into the air. It dropped down a cliff and landed on a sandy embankment, tumbling several times before coming to a rest. Riverside’s track doctor pronounced Foyt dead when he arrived at the scene.
Thankfully fellow driver Parnelli Jones spotted that Foyt’s apparently lifeless body was moving and revived him. Severe chest injuries, his first broken back and a fractured ankle later and he was recovering in hospital. But he didn’t just come back, a few months later he won an IndyCar race at Trenton, and would go on to finish second in the series.
Mika Häkkinen very nearly died in 1995. And we’re not talking about when he missed the Pacific Grand Prix with appendicitis.
In qualifying for the season-ending Australian Grand Prix his McLaren MP4/10 suffered a tyre failure at Brewery Corner, the fastest on the Adelaide street circuit. He hit the crash barriers at an estimated 120mph and, without a Hans device, his head was flung around the cockpit like a ragdoll. He suffered a severe skull fracture, internal bleeding and his airways became blocked. If it wasn’t for the quick work of the trackside marshals, F1’s legendary doctor Professor Sid Watkins and a pair of volunteer doctors he would have died at the scene.
Volunteer medic Jereme Cockings performed an emergency tracheotomy while still on the track to allow Häkkinen to breathe. When Watkins arrived he, Cockings and fellow volunteer Steve Lewis had to restart Häkkinen’s heart twice before he could be taken to hospital, which was thankfully less than a third of a mile away.
Häkkinen was in hospital for two months, but made a remarkable recovery. He was on the grid for the 1996 season opener, back in Australia but now in Melbourne and, about two years after the hideous accident, he won his first F1 race in Jerez. Another year later he was World Champion.
If there is a man in motorsport, or even sport as a whole, who seems to just take the biggest knocks imaginable and battle to come back time and time again, it is Alex Zanardi. Most injuries in sport can be fixed, but Zanardi has suffered injuries so bad they have changed his life. Rather than curl up and wonder why the world hates him, the Italian once told GRR that losing his legs in an IndyCar crash was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Back in 2001 Zanardi was a refugee from Formula 1. A return to the World Championship after years at the top of CART had not been a happy one. Zanardi struggled in his 1999 season with Williams and departed having qualified 16th in his final race. Williams in fact paid Zanardi around $4 million to leave.
He would sit out the 2000 season before returning to CART for 2001. He had little success through the season, but scored some podiums and seemed to be gaining some form back when it came to a race at Germany’s massive Lausitzring oval.
The race was controversial to begin with, coming just four days after 9/11 and with most teams not really wanting to race. But race they did. And while Zanardi started right at the back, he was making good progress. Late in the race he was exiting the pits when he lost control of his car, spearing across the track and being t-boned by Alex Tagliani. Both of Zanardi’s legs were removed in the incident (not amputated later) and he lost around three-quarters of his blood volume.
That did not stop Zanardi. He would design custom legs after becoming dissatisfied with standard prosthetics, before returning to the cockpit now using hand controls. He would race in tin tops for the rest of his career, winning five WTCC races before switching to GT racing where he would compete in Blancpain with BMW in 2014 and eventually finish the Daytona 24 Hours. In 2003 he returned to the Lausitzring and, in a modified IndyCar, finished the final 13 laps he didn’t manage in 2001.
This is already an exceptionally long entry, but it deserves more. Zanardi didn’t just come back to compete in motorsport. He became one of the greatest hand cyclists in the sport’s history. He is a 12-time World Champion and a four-time Paralympic champion.
Sadly his story contains another crash, with a lorry in training for more hand cycling. His recovery continues from that violent incident, but we still hold out hope that we might see him again at Goodwood one day. Keep fighting Alex.
Vatanen image by by Adamson, Zanardi image courtesy of BMW and other images courtesy of Motorsport Images
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