Written by Joe Toal • Published 27th August 2015
Justin Wilson’s tragic death after being struck by loose debris during last weekend’s IndyCar 500 race at Pocono has put the spotlight back on the inherent dangers of motor racing and is another reminder of the grave risks drivers face every time they clamber into the cockpit.
Just as Jules Bianchi’s passing last month, the world of motor racing united this week to voice respect and tribute to Wilson, and once again the message that stood out above all was a familiar show of defiance from the sport whenever tragedy strikes: the show must go on.
Motor racing on the whole has come a very long way from the horror days of the sixties and seventies, when death seemed to follow the drivers wherever they raced. Nineteen drivers were killed in Formula One between 1967 and 1982, in a period described by racing great Jackie Stewart as a ‘serial death programme’.
Stewart, tired of losing his colleagues and racing foes one after the other, formed the vanguard of the campaign to make safety the number one priority in Formula One. Driver safety had improved to such an extent that until Jules Bianchi’s death, stemming from a disastrous collision with a tractor crane during the Japanese Grand Prix last November, F1 had gone 21 years without a death on a race weekend.
That is not to say death and serious injury are a thing of the past in Formula One and the wider motor racing world; in the past few years we have lost British IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, Denmark’s Allan Simonsen during the 2013 Le Mans, Female Formula One driver Maria de Villota died as a result of injuries from a crash during testing with Marussia in 2012, and MotoGP’s Marco Simoncelli. IndyCar racing has also had to regularly deal with tragedy since the series as we know it today was formed in 1996. Eight drivers have died since the series was formed, four of who lost their lives during a race.
Just this week, Formula 1 organisers announced plans to test a new closed cockpit design on cars, a feature that could’ve likely saved the life of Justin Wilson last weekend. Quite when, or indeed if, a closed cockpit will be introduced remains to be seen, however, the death of Wilson and the horrifying circumstances of Jules Bianchi’s incident last year has almost forced the open racing world to experiment with canopies and new safety features.
No matter how many steps are taken to make the sport as safe as possible, Justin Wilson’s death and the list of names and statistics above remind us that, whilst safety is of paramount importance in modern day racing, drivers still take a risk every time they take to the track.