Yesterday’s close call in Hungary
I am lucky not to have to write to any deadline at all. If I was a newspaperman my increasingly intermittent observations would have led to my dismissal by an impatient editor. The media has to churn out words. I have the luxury of being able to wait. But sometimes events force the pace. I had hoped to hold the final version of this blog until after the Hungarian Grand Prix and also after the announcement of the FOTA capitulation and the signing of the Concorde Agreement by the teams. As I write this, Felipe Massa is in hospital in Budapest after emergency surgery. His head injury is of the sort that killed my old hero Mark Donahue and nearly took the life of Mika Hakkinen. There is no point in looking away from events like this. They are a consequence of the sport.
We should all be hoping that things go well for Felipe and that he makes a full recovery. But I do not think he will be back in the cockpit in the near future. He has a skull fracture above his left eye. This would have been caused by the impact with the component from Barrichello’s Brawn. In the in-car replay this cylindrical object seems to be bouncing down the track like a piece of featherweight carbon-fibre. In reality it must have had enough mass to deform the crash helmet and cause this injury. Stop action viewing of the replay shows it very clearly to have been a helical coil spring. Felipe is literally a passenger after he is hit. There is no steering input, no gearchanging, and his hands are simply holding the wheel loosely as he travels in a dead straight line towards the impact with the barrier. The front wheels are locking slightly as he travels across the last tarmac run-off but there is no sign of the rears locking up. This suggests that a semi-conscious Felipe was probably pushing both pedals in a disorganised state. An operating driver would have everything locked up at this stage.
Felipe’s impact with the barrier was massive. It is almost unbelievable for motor-racing folk of my generation to see the intact state of the modern carbon chassis after this sort of accident. Thirty years ago the car would have been destroyed and the driver would have had to be given life-support by the medical team while the marshals cut the chassis apart to release him. Even the best modern road-car would have collapsed. As it was the cockpit remained intact and the cheap but superbly effective triple-layer tethered-tyre barrier did the job. The car penetrated the barrier by about a metre and a half and thus reduced the maximum deceleration enormously. In spite of this the impact was so severe it tripped the on-board g-meter. This sends an emergency signal to the medical car which would have set off even before the marshals recognised the need for a doctor.
A second concussive injury is a bad thing. Felipe was wearing a HANS device (made mandatory by the FIA) which restricts forward head movement and is designed to protect against fractures to the base of the skull where it sits upon the neck vertebrae. This impact was so severe that Felipe has suffered just such a fracture in spite of the superb barrier and the invaluable protection from the HANS. Once again viewing the replay in stop-action shows that his head certainly moves forwards dangerously, probably because of seat-belt stretch as the HANS appears to be close to the rear of the helmet throughout, and does also contact the tyre wall before the car rebounds. This basal fracture in particular, quite apart from the fracture above his left eye, is the reason his condition was worsening when he reached hospital and the reason why he needed immediate lifesaving surgery. It took me six weeks or so to recover fully from the simple concussion I suffered skiing last December. Felipe has suffered two successive severe concussions and at least one dangerous skull fracture.
Yesterday the BBC TV commentary team reacted poorly to this incident. The severity of the accident was immediately apparent but was glossed over. The belief that Felipe had suffered a blow to the chin but was perfectly OK was foolish. The tragic accident that killed poor Henry Surtees in the F2 race at Brands Hatch last week was similar in that a wheel, that broke its restraining tether after another car had crashed, hit Henry on the helmet. Almost certainly severely injured and completely incapacitated already, he then continued into the barriers himself. That these two similar accidents came close to each other was pure coincidence.
Enormous safety advances have been introduced by the FIA but motor racing remains dangerous. All barriers should be as safe as possible because cars can become unguided if the driver is incapacitated or there is a severe mechanical failure. So accidents do not always follow the more predictable trajectories that result from loss of control in a corner. Helmets have to be superb, the straps of the HANS as short as the driver can tolerate, and the seat belts as tight as possible. We should know these things already and most of us do. Never forget that when you travel as fast as this in any vehicle things can always end badly and sometimes will. Open cockpit cars will always leave the driver’s head vulnerable to these very rare accidents.
It is such a cliché to say this, but it is true. My heart goes out to John Surtees and his family after the loss of their son, to Max Mosley and his family who also lost their son recently, and to the Massa family as they wait and hope for Felipe to make a full recovery. A seriously injured child is every parent’s nightmare and the loss of a child the greatest of tragedies. Neither Surtees nor Mosley is a young man and this can only make the whole thing feel even more devastating.
Max won his battle with FOTA regardless of what you read in the papers
Anybody who has read my blogs over the last two seasons will see that I have struggled to be objective and calm in even the most trying of circumstances, even if the (possibly) criminal Ron Dennis may think that I failed. But things almost reached boiling point in Formula One politics and the time for temperance is over. Max Mosley had to endure even more provocation than mere observers such as myself but has given us all an outstanding example of how to act gracefully under pressure. At the same time he has used straight talk and his humorous wit to get back at the cowardly folk who lie to the world through the medium of the press release. Max is more worldly in the ways of the law than I, so I will follow him to the brink of what can be done without being forced to defend oneself in court.
Firstly, the whole FIA versus FOTA confrontation was down to personalities and monstrous egos. Somebody close to the action told me it was like the shoot out in the OK coral: either Luca de Montezemolo or Max Mosley would be the last man standing. This cinematic fiction was Luca’s motive, which probably explains how we got to where we are now. We all know what the press said happened in the final gunfight (and they were told what to say by Matt Bishop, I suspect), but what is the truth?
Fact, fiction, and pure fantasy: the latest episode
The facts of the agreement between FOTA (as represented by Montezemolo) and the FIA (represented by its elected president Mosley) are that FOTA agreed to abandon its empty threat to run in a new series, agreed to the budget cap with a short delay until full implementation, accepted the rules proposed (and that had already been agreed) for next year, agreed to allow the new teams to have access to crucial aerodynamic data from the big-budget teams, said that they would remain in F1 until 2012, and acknowledged that they recognised that the FIA was the sole governing body of world motorsport and of Formula One. So Max is putting his smoking gun back into its holster and Luca is lying bleeding in the sand as the harmonica music swells and (in my mind) the inimitable Sergio Leone pans his camera around in a full circle for the final scene. The bullet hole is right in the centre of Luca’s head.
Max fired the fatal shot and FOTA lay dead on the sand
What was the killer move that won this fight? The day before the meeting between Luca and Max the president of the FIA announced that he would retire and not seek re-election in October unless there was a failure to reach an agreement with the FOTA teams. An agreement was reached and Mosley therefore told the World motorsport Council of the FIA the next day that he would stand down. In an almost unbelievable move FOTA issued a press release after the WMSC meeting that was a complete untruth. It stated that Max was retiring as part of the deal rather than the fact that he was retiring because FOTA had backed down and agreed a deal.
I sense but cannot be certain that this tactic of spinning a blatant lie to the press may have been the work of McLaren’s chief of PR Matt Bishop. It is immensely disappointing that the press, and of course the internet, ran with this complete falsehood. They did this either because it fitted their own agenda (think Ed Gorman and The Times) or because they are too lazy or intellectually inadequate to see the real story (almost everyone else). Max forced the FOTA ‘rebels’ into an agreement by threatening to stay on. Fact.
Heroes and villains in a Dickensian drama
That the FOTA threat of a breakaway failed is no surprise at all. They would either have had to register a new series with the FIA or been forced to run at non affiliated tracks. Here in the UK I can only think of a few stock car ovals and an even smaller number of unlicensed kart tracks. But perhaps these peripheral and generally squalid venues would have suited the image of the bankrupt motor manufacturers? A serious top-level race series would have required huge funding and, to put it bluntly, the big motor manufacturers are all bankrupt because of the economic situation. The breakaway threat was made just before the Speedcar series went bust and A1GP’s financial meltdown became public. Ferrari, by the way, has been keeping A1GP on the track for the last few races after they ran out of money to pay their contracted technical personnel.
FOTA were running with what the Chinese would call a “paper tiger”. The dishonest press release was launched to disguise the fact that they were unable to announce their independent series on Thursday as they had said they would, but had actually signed up for another three years within Formula One which is what they said they would not do.
Which of the lunatics wanted to run the asylum?
Before the final shoot-out Mosley spoke of the “loonies” in FOTA who were making it well nigh impossible to reach an agreement. Who did he mean?
Obviously Flavio Briatore springs to mind. But for years I have seen him as an entertaining clown in these affairs. An effective team boss, he has little knowledge of the technical aspects of the sport. A wealthy and successful entrepreneur, he sees Bernie Ecclestone as a man in his own mould and thinks that he could do better. Certainly he would give his own team more of the commercial income. But Flav specialises in making wild and ridiculous statements about what should be done in F1. I think his background in the fashion world leads him to believe his role is to entertain rather that to make sense. He leaves that to the boffins he employs. Not the main plotter I would say…
Toyota’s John Howett is, I think, simply an apparatchik of this huge enterprise: too blinkered and not intelligent enough to know what is going on. Come to think of it, was he not a manager of the Toyota World Rally Team when they were excluded for a year for one of the most blatant cases of cheating that has ever been discovered in motorsport? He may have a sense of grievance as a result but lacks the brains to be the top pirate.
The biggest of the black hats
Now to Ferrari. Having once again strolled around the Silverstone paddock thanks to the generosity of friends within the Scuderia it pains me to point to Luca de Montezemolo. I have never warmed to a man who I have been told is a bully. Mosley has described Luca’s role within Fiat and Ferrari as that of a “bella figura”. I do speak English so I might suggest that this means that he is a mere figurehead. I don’t speak Italian and have very limited French, but the expression is usually applied to leading ladies. And such. Which probably tells you something of Max’s opinion of Luca. What is Luca doing in the huge Fiat organisation anyway, and could there be a similar character within Luchino Visconti’s wonderfully operatic anti-fascist movie “The Damned”? What I do remember is the way that Michael Schumacher went out of his way to avoid Luca’s desperate attempts to get himself photographed with his German driver after Michael’s last race in Brazil. The principle plotter I would suggest. And the biggest loser in the end.
Now FOTA is supporting a quisling candidate in the FIA presidential election. But I think this tactic is doomed too.
Things to come
Massa’s accident has led me to change the content of this blog. I will make another posting sooner rather than later to discuss a few of the sporting issues during the mid-season. I want to make a few observations on the nature of the technical issues and some of the things that occurred to me on my annual visit to the F1 paddock in Silverstone.
Meanwhile the race in Hungary is only hours away. Red Bull look tremendously strong. Button is out of position as the scramble to change the suspect components in the rear suspension that had failed in Ruben’s car forced him to do only one run at a heavier than planned weight. But he may make progress if he can lap quickly after everyone else stops, and so long as nobody in front of him delays him badly in the first stint. Ferrari have little chance after Kimi made a big mistake on a qualifying lap which was potentially pretty fast He is back down the grid but on low fuel which is a very weak position, though both he and the McLarens can expect to make good progress as KERS propels them past several of the cars in front, which must be Jensen’s big worry. As well as the security of his own rear suspension…..