Today is massive day in any Formula 1 fan’s year. Media coverage of the 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna & Roland Ratzenberger’s deaths is far larger and more mainstream than I remember the 10th anniversary being. 1st May 1994 is a day I will never forget first and foremost as a fan of Formula 1 but mainly because I idolised Ayrton Senna. I have never idolised anyone before or since.
It should be a reminder that Formula 1 is not a game. F1 drivers might be superstars and part of the rich and famous but they are also real people. They are real people who are as fragile and vulnerable as you or I. Decisions and ideas that we have at work can cost real people their lives and so working in a Formula 1 team or any other form of Motorsport comes with tremendous responsibility. Everyone who takes part accepts the risk but we also must shoulder the responsibility of not putting a driver or spectator’s life in unnecessary danger. It is a very fine balance.
I have designed many safety critical components of a formula 1 car and have witnessed them fail on circuit which has caused my car to crash heavily. For a split second, the fear that you may have caused the death of another human being is a feeling I would not want anyone of you to experience. It is a fear that lurks in the back of my mind every time I watch a Grand Prix and I am sure it is the same for most other people like me in other teams. The relief you feel when the steering wheel comes out and the driver lifts himself out of the cockpit unharmed is many, many times more than that felt by the casual observer.
The Williams team is still affected every single day by the weight of guilt that came down on them on that fateful day at Imola and many of the working practices that they adopt and have since been copied by other teams are as a result of Senna’s fatal accident.
It is not only the drivers who are at risk either. Team members also share the risk in their everyday working lives, anyone who has ever witnessed a Formula 1 pit stop live will pay testimony to that! Pit lane fires, fuel handling and countless burning hot surfaces and metals mean that an F1 pit garage is an extremely risky place to make your living.
20 years may have passed but the danger is still ever present. The accident that befell Maria de Villota at Duxford aerodrome may not have been a race meeting or a Grand Prix but it seems certain that she effectively lost her life in a Formula 1 car. That was only last year despite all of the huge strides forward in safety since 1994.
I still love Formula 1 and enjoy working in the sport but I dread the day that death comes back to this sport which sadly it inevitably will. Media now follows the sport so much more closely that any such death may well be broadcast to the entire civilised world and there will inevitably be a huge backlash against the sport.
Those people who work and compete in the sport know full well that the day will come but most, if not all will keep their love of a Grand Prix racing and want to race on once again. It is a tragic and regrettable aspect of any high speed competition but I would guess that more people have lost their lives travelling to and from Grand Prix circuits in the past 20 years than have died competing on circuit. We all work to minimise the chances of death in our sport but all of us want to live and experience the thrill of Grand Prix racing and that is why we do it. It is a risk we are all willing to take.