Like many motorsport observers the world over I was shocked by the tragic death of Henry Surtees, son of 1964 World Champion John (to date the only man to win both F1 and motorcycle world championships). He was killed taking part in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch on Sunday, where an errant wheel from the stricken car of a competitor struck him on the head. Henry Surtees was almost the same age as me, in fact only two months younger. I can only imagine what his family must be going through.
Having observed the footage of the accident on youtube, out of curiousity and not of some morbid fascination, what really struck me was how unremarkeable-looking it was. The events which caused it – one driver drifting wide into a tyre barrier – could happen in any form of motorsport. In the majority of F1 races a driver loses control and hits a wall – this is the very nature of the sport – it’s a given that a driver pushing the limits of the car will at some stage overstep the mark.
Henry Surtees was the victim of such an incident, but we musn’t forget that he was incredibly unlucky. Had he been a few hundredths further up the road or behind, the wheel would have fallen somewhere else and he would have escaped. There was a window of perhaps 40cm by 30cm where his helmet was exposed and the wheel just happened to strike him there.
However, I think it’s dangerous to regress into ‘what-ifs’ and labelling the accident as an act of God because we risk absolving people who are at fault. Henry Surtees was certainly unlucky, but so was Ayrton Senna in 1994. It wasn’t the impact that killed Senna, but a piece of suspension mounting which happened to be dislodged and pierced his helmet. One could argue that Senna’s death was a similar freak accident to that of Surtees, but look at the enormous changes in safety which it effected in all formulae, let alone F1.
The accident raises the question of whether closed cockpits are necessary if we are to prevent similar accidents happening in the future. This would completely rule out the possibility of such an accident repeating but itself brings a host of new safety issues. In the event of a cockpit fire, a covering might mean the difference between life or death, for example. Having a covering over the cockpit might damage the appeal for some fans. It wouldn’t be F1 with closed cockpits, some might argue.
I still cannot make my mind up. What do you think?