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Martin Brundle column

Lewis Hamilton

Highlights - German Grand Prix

Martin Brundle column
By Martin Brundle
BBC F1 broadcaster

Felipe Massa's accident during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix was one of the most alarming incidents in Formula 1 since May 1994 when his fellow Brazilian Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola.

Massa was hit on the left side of his helmet by a spring which escaped from the rear suspension of Rubens Barrichello's Brawn. It was very surprising how the part was able to bounce along the track for over four seconds and still manage to be at driver head height.

The impact, at more than 160mph, partially concussed Massa and he ploughed into the tyre wall on the exit of the next corner a few hundred metres away.

Fortunately he was somehow instinctively braking to an extent, and so the final impact was head on at just over 60mph. He is now in care at Budapest's military hospital after an operation to repair a fractured skull.

He is one of the most pleasant and likeable drivers I have ever met, and like the rest of the sport I wish him only the very best outcome

It has become easy for anyone who climbs into a modern single-seater to think they are invincible, but it is not a question of if you have an accident, but when. I believe fate plays a large part in who gets lucky and who doesn't.

I don't like the term 'freak accident' because while regularly travelling the world's tracks at 200mph, serious accidents are inevitable.

The reason Massa's incident has had such a profound effect on those inside F1 is because the news of his condition became progressively worse.

At first it appeared his car had simply nosed relatively heavily into the tyre wall, which means almost nothing these days. Then it was clear that he was not communicating with his team radio and the red flags were flying. Sharp-eyed TV production crews, watching replays, spotted the flying shrapnel which had earlier struck his helmet, and the real story began to emerge.

Photographs would later appear on the internet and in the press showing his damaged crash helmet and closed left eye, but after he was extracted from the car he was seen apparently conscious on a stretcher, and soon after that we were told he was speaking, albeit animatedly.

Rob Smedley

Massa's engineer reflects on crash (UK only)

Next the news spread of his fractured skull and induced coma - F1 has lost drivers before, a day or so after they appeared out of danger, such as Mark Donahue and Ronnie Peterson, albeit decades ago.

The fact that there have been two similar events in the space of this week added to the sense of alarm.

Henry Surtees, son of 1964 world champion John Surtees, was killed during a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch the preceding weekend when he was hit by a loose wheel from another driver's accident.

The repercussions of both Surtees's death and Massa's accident have led to widespread calls for increased safety.

Renault have also been excluded from the European Grand Prix for allowing Fernando Alonso to continue for a lap with a loose front right wheel that had not been fitted properly during a routine pit stop.

The sport's governing body, the FIA, says Renault broke the sporting regulations but the team almost certainly would not have been penalised for the same situation at the previous race.

We have seen many cars lose a wheel without retribution. There is an automatic wheel retaining device fitted to all F1 wheel spindles which clearly also failed in this case and which would normally have prevented the wheel parting company fully.

I find it bizarre that we tend to have clusters of similar incidents.

In 1985 I saw two sportscar drivers killed in two consecutive races and another seriously injured. Then in the space of two weeks in 1994, Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed and Rubens Barrichello and Karl Wendlinger seriously injured in F1.

At these times everybody understandably becomes scared as to what will happen next.

The philosophy of single-seater racing is that cars are designed with both open wheels and cockpit.

Throughout the 60-year history of F1 there have been many deaths and injuries, but these have been dramatically reduced as car and circuit safety evolved along with onsite medical facilities.

Juan Manuel Fangio wins the German Grand Prix in 1957
Juan Manuel Fangio wins the German Grand Prix in 1957

In the 1950s drivers wore leather helmets and had no seatbelts. Their best chance of surviving an accident was if they were thrown clear of their cars, taking their chances bouncing down the road.

Drivers still weren't belted in for much the sixties but were seated further inside the faster and more nimble cars, so deaths were basically guaranteed.

In the seventies there was a huge risk of fire because fuel tanks were positioned all around the car's structure and the drivers were belted into chassis made of aluminium and pop rivets. The tracks were only just beginning to evolve with the safety of drivers and spectators in mind.

By the time I started racing in F1 in the eighties, fuel was now held in well protected rubber bladder tanks but drivers had been moved to the front of the car for better weight distribution, so many of those from my generation who are still alive limp badly.

With the arrival of carbon-fibre materials and a driver safety cell the cars became stronger, but this meant that by the nineties the drivers were getting beaten up because the cars were stronger than their unprotected heads and bodies inside the cell.

Robert Kubica crashes in Canada in 2007
Robert Kubica crashes in Canada in 2007

With intense safety work on front, side, rear, and roll hoop crash testing, moving the driver back behind the front axle line, eight point harness seat belts fitted to easily removable seats, crash helmet design, and applying head and neck protection and support, this generation now have an environment where the driver will most likely survive.

Robert Kubica's accident in Canada two years ago is ample proof of that.

In the wake of Surtees's death and Massa's accident what direction will the FIA take now?

One option would be to consider a removable tubular frame in front of the driver to keep out larger pieces of debris and also prevent other cars riding up towards the cockpit in a collision.

The problem with this concept is the evacuation of the driver in an accident and ensuring the frame can't inflict further damage itself in heavy contact. And it would look seriously ugly.

The second option would be to devise a canopy similar to a fighter jet. That too raises questions about the ability to extract a driver quickly in the event of a crash or fire, as well as issues such as visibility and heat retention. F1 window wipers and demisters anyone?

Cockpit temperatures are already as high as 55 degrees Celsius; if they were enclosed that would soar and air conditioning would have to be installed - similar to enclosed Le Mans cars - which is heavy and unreliable.

Placing a solid roof over the driver is touring car racing, in F1. It's a difficult problem which is why it hasn't been sorted already. Driver visibility is already compromised by the low seating position and the high-sided headrests.

A solution I can envisage is a partial clear canopy with struts and deflectors, complete with a ballistic or quick release mechanism. Neither of these however would guarantee to have prevented Massa's injury where a relatively small object was involved.

I experienced the end of an era where to some hardened characters in the paddock, a driver was like a light bulb - one goes out and so you put another one in. In today's world people will not readily tolerate fatalities in the name of sport. The car manufacturers and sponsors do not want their products associated with death; safety and performance are what they are selling.

Worried fans outside the Budapest hospital where Felipe Massa is being treated
Worried fans outside the Budapest hospital where Massa is being treated

A new step forward is needed with an elegant solution. It's well within their ability for F1 designers to create something but it will take a while to research, develop and implement.

The consequences for Massa himself remain unclear although the very latest news is more hopeful of a full recovery. I hope he gets back in a racing car this year. The opening grand prix of 2010 in Melbourne is nine months away and that is a long time to be out of the cockpit.

I just hope neither his reactions nor ability and confidence behind the wheel have been affected.

He is one of the most pleasant and likeable drivers I have ever met, and like the rest of the sport I wish him only the very best outcome.

Martin Brundle was talking to Sarah Holt.

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see also
Massa set to fly home to Brazil
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Renault cleared for European GP
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F1 to investigate Massa accident
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Massa's crash explained
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Surtees' son killed in race crash
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