One person who suffered a painful death was Joseph Siffert. “Seppi”, as he is called affectionately, shot to the spotlight by outclassing some of the established names in the racing fraternity on more than one occasion, including the likes of Jim Clark and Chris Amon. Unfortunately, he retired in a majority of the races that he contested, although he also challenged for the points in the races that he finished.
At the 1971 Brands Hatch non championship event, Seppi suffered a heavy crash on the opening lap due to a broken suspension, and his car got inflated almost immediately. It was revealed later in an investigation that the crash wasn’t responsible for his fatality, but he suffered death due to smoke inhalation. Siffert was trapped in the burning car, and he couldn’t come out of the wreckage. Due to the intensity of the fire, the marshals couldn’t reach his car and the fire extinguishers at that spot weren’t in working condition either.
It has to be said that Siffert’s death was due to the poor state of safety measures. After this accident, the safety measures were improved significantly on the circuit. The overalls were improved to ensure that they could withstand the fire, and on-board fire extinguishers were introduced, and became a mandatory component of the car. But then, fire resistant overalls weren’t introduced or weren’t mandatory for the crew or the marshals, and it took two more years and another victim to make it mandatory for the marshals to have fire resistant overalls. It was the sad case of Roger Williamson that prompted the authorities to introduce this change.
Williamson was competing in his second race at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix when his car flipped upside down due to a suspected tyre failure. Again, as in the case of Seppi, Roger Williamson wasn’t seriously injured, but was trapped under the debris, and in this case, there were many track marshals on his side, but again, they couldn’t offer help as they were badly equipped. Seeing this state of his friend, David Purley stopped his race, and ran to help his friend out of the debris, but due to the heavy intensity of the fire, he had to run to the other side to get an extinguisher, and tried to upright the car.
Purley received no help from the marshals or other drivers, as the drivers thought that the driver of the car that was flipped upside down was Purley and they considered him safe, failing to offer him any help. By the time the fire was put down, Williamson was declared dead due to asphyxiation. Many years later, and in many interviews, Purley stated that Williamson screamed from underneath the debris.
Purley was awarded the George Medal for Bravery. Ironically, he later died in a aerobatic biplane crash, a career that Purley undertook after he quit racing in 1977. Purley also suffered a major crash in 1977, the year of his return to Formula 1 after a span of three years. In that crash at the British Grand Prix pre qualifying event, Purley decelerated from 108 mph to zero in 26 inches and thus suffered from severe G-Forces, which was a result of his throttle getting struck and springing wide open. This left him with a multitude of fractures across his body.
The sequence goes on as several drivers were impacted by the crashes of their peers. It was very hard for some to digest the fact, even if they were celebrating the win or even the Championship, as seen in the cases of Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti. Lauda’s first win after his near fatal crash was at the 1977 South African Grand Prix which saw the terrible death of Tom Pryce. The Brit was actually replacing another driver (Peter Revson) who had suffered a fatal crash three years earlier at the very same track during a private testing. On lap 21, Tom Pryce hit a 19-year-old marshal who, along with another marshal, was carrying fire extinguishers to the opposite side of the track to blow out the fire coming out of Renzo Zorzi’s car.
Pryce was behind Hans-Joachim Stuck, and Stuck himself narrowly missed hitting the two marshals who were crossing the track, but Pryce couldn’t manage to make a move, and hit the 19-year-old at a staggering speed. His body was thrown into the air, and the fire extinguisher that he was carrying across hit Pryce’s helmet and with this heavy impact, the extinguisher bounced off to the adjacent Grand Stand. Tom Pryce died instantly. At the podium celebrations, when Niki Lauda was told about these fatalities, he said that there was no joy in his victory.
Mario Andretti clinched his championship at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix which saw a huge pile-up at the start that killed the upcoming and promising talent Ronnie Peterson. The person who was in charge of the race start seemed to be in a hurry as he gave the green light long before the drivers rolled into their position, and this meant that the drivers from Row 2 got a jump start on those in the front row as they were the only two drivers who were perfectly rolled onto the grid.
This jump start created a massive pile up that involved close to 7 drivers, and Ronnie Peterson was unfortunately a victim of a man-made error as his Lotus went into the barriers and instantly got ignited before rolling back onto the track. It was James Hunt who first rushed to the car along with the marshals and those drivers who crashed out due to the pile up. Peterson was rushed to the hospital with multiple fractures across his body, and was declared dead on the following day.
“It was so unfair to have a tragedy connected with probably what should have been the happiest day of my career. I couldn’t celebrate, but also, I knew that trophy would be with me forever. And I knew also that Ronnie would have been happy for me” – Mario Andretti
As stated earlier in the article, perhaps the one death which shook the Formula 1 world, and prompted a large overhaul of the sport’s safety measures, was that of Ayrton Senna. The suggestions from various sections of the media and also from celebrities ranged from banning the sport to a radical change in safety measures of the sport.
Some of the most notable safety improvements on the tracks that followed the accident include the introduction of improved crash barriers, along with the use of tyre barriers to the highest possible extent. It was also told that the crash tests were improved and extended to a large degree. Further, the trial went on for years to follow and the Williams team took the brunt of the charges that were levied by the court and also by the general public. Adrian Newey still states that Senna’s death haunts him; he along with Patrick Head questioned themselves on their future in Formula 1, and they were almost certain to quit the sport.
Fatalities have definitely changed the course of several drivers and to a large extent, they did improve the sport from time to time. Jackie Stewart started the unthinkable by filing for a divorce against the word ‘danger’. Those people who were against his measures should have supported him instead. Maybe if they had done that, certain drivers could have still been living today.
History could have been a lot better without these fatalities. Maybe, several marshals should have been more human or they should have been given the chance to fight the fires. But this is what we’re forced to witness and read about the sport we love. Nevertheless, the impact of fatalities is mostly lost in the modern era.