Marshal safety & the latest incident at Hockenheim.

I really enjoyed the last race at Hockenheim. Wheel to wheel battles were aplenty and the frequent defending and overtaking again just showed how incredibly talented these drivers are. One particular incident shocked me however. Although I’m not quite sure what surprised me more, the incident itself or the way the TV commentators unworriedly shrugged it off as if nothing happened. 

To really emphasize just how absurd and ludicrous this was, I feel it’s important to remind people of the tragic events of the 1977 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. 

Tom Pryce. The greatest Welshman to grace the world of Formula One. Unlike other countries in the United Kingdom, Wales has never had a truly successful driver. But Tom Pryce became the first and only Welshman to lead a Grand Prix – two laps at Silverstone in 1975. He was known to be really charismatic and was an incredibly talented and naturally gifted racer who would have certainly delivered more success and happiness if it wasn’t for one truly appalling incident which tragically claimed his life.

A car pulled to the side of the track on the start-finish straight in Kyalami, midway through the race in 1977. Due to a problem with his car, fuel was pumping straight onto the engine, which eventually caught fire. Two marshalls ran onto the race track, one carrying a fire extinguisher called Frederik Jansen van Vuuren, although tragically they did not wait for permission to cross. At the same time four cars, including Pryce, were exiting the final corner onto the pit straight. The first marshal was narrowly avoided by Hans-Joachim Stuck. Unfortunately Pryce was directly behind his car and couldn’t react quickly enough. At over 250 kilometres an hour, he struck van Vuuren. The 19 year-old was flung up into the air like a rag doll, his body heavily mutilated because of the shocking force of the impact. So much so that his body was identified only after the race director had summoned all of the race marshals and he was not among them. 

The fire extinguisher he was carrying struck Pryce’s head, killing him instantly. The Shadow DN8 he was driving now had a dead driver at the wheel, and continued hurtling down the straight until it came to a stop after the first corner, crashing into the barriers. Two young men, with so much life yet to live, killed in a split second. 

But yet, even with this awful and horrifying incident occurring in Formula One previously, last Sunday at Hockenheim, three marshals ran across the race track to attend to Adrian Sutil’s car after he spun coming out of the final corner. There was a fourth marshal, who just about stopped in time before running onto the circuit because he saw the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton speeding through the final corner onto the pit straight.

Why on earth has something like this happened again? Why wasn’t a safety car called? Does the race director Charlie Whiting not know that having three human beings run across a circuit in the middle of a race is ridiculously dangerous? Has Charlie Whiting also forgotten that being a marshal is already a very dangerous job, and that he shouldn’t be putting them in even more danger in a situation like this? Has he forgotten the deaths of Paolo Ghislimberti, Graham Beveridge and Mark Robinson, three F1 marshal’s who have died doing their jobs in the past 14 years? Or is this all forgotten because being extra cautious and simply deploying a safety car is too much of a hassle? 

Having yellow flags is not enough in this situation, especially due to the fact that the final corner in Hockenheim is in fact, a blind corner. But so we move on to the next race. Formula One avoided disaster last Sunday, but it could have been so much worse. I don’t think this is an over-reaction, as the rough image of a 19 year old volunteer marshal been flung into the air still sits in my mind as I watched it once on YouTube. You can never be too safe in these kinds of situations, as it only takes a split second. Something which, in relation to Tom Pryce and Frederik van Vuuren, we know all too much about.