ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 18 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Open Letter to
Professor Sid Watkins

  by Karl Ludvigsen, England

In April 1998, after reading the book by Professor Sid Watkins entitled Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One, I addressed a letter to Watkins, who is an eminent neurosurgeon and who has been the official surgeon to Formula One since 1978. Reading his book, I said to him, "prompted me once more to marshal my thoughts on the subject of motor racing safety."

My letter to Sid Watkins continued as follows:

"This is a field in which I was personally active from 1969 through 1971, both as a developer and manufacturer of on-board fire extinguishing equipment for racing cars and as the founder of the Motor Racing Safety Society. At a time when any discussion of motor racing safety was highly controversial, the M.R.S.S. flew the flag on behalf of advances from 1969 through 1976. Active as you were in the Watkins Glen area in some of those years, you may well have been aware of the meetings held each year at the Grand Prix by the M.R.S.S.

"My reading of your admirably detailed, specific and valuable book leads me to make the following comments:

"Achieving a broader approach to racing safety

"Understandably and constructively, your book and your work has been chiefly concerned with the Formula One racing series. Obviously when the medical facilities at a given circuit are substantially improved, they will also benefit other racers who are injured in competition at that circuit - always assuming, of course, that the facility is adequately staffed. Nevertheless this leaves open the issue of the quality and nature of the medical facilities made available at other racing circuits throughout the world. We are left none the wiser as to how effectively these are being checked, policed and encouraged to raise their standards.

"More broadly, of course, many racing safety issues beyond medical matters are applicable to other forms of motor sport as well. Although the FIA and its affiliates may well have taken actions of some kind to address these broader racing safety issues, I am not aware of what those actions may have been.

"The importance of racing accident analysis

"One of the areas we emphasised at the M.R.S.S. was the need to analyse racing accidents, the better to understand the reasons for their occurrence and the means for the prevention of accidents, and, where possible, injuries to drivers, team members and spectators. In this we were seeking to take a leaf from the experiences of the larger motor industry. Only after experts such as Dr. Huelke at Wayne State University began analysing automobile accidents was it possible to verify the value of such devices as seatbelts in injury prevention. We took the view that a motor racing accident takes place under closely controlled and well-observed conditions. Thus it seemed to us to be dereliction of duty if this circumstance were not fully exploited in order to gain a better understanding of the underlying causes of accidents and injuries in motor sports.

"The M.R.S.S. actively supported efforts to improve and develop the analysis of racing accidents. We also initiated an annual world-wide census of racing accidents and fatalities. The first such census, for the year 1971, tabulated 71 fatal accidents in motor sport throughout the world, not including spectator fatalities. Around that time I was asked to make an estimate of the number of fatalities that had occurred since motor racing began; my estimate was 840 deaths of drivers.

"By creating the Expert Advisory Group, the FIA appears to have taken a step toward the integration of knowledge concerning the car, the circuit and the medical aspects of racing safety. This is, however, a long way from a commitment to a systematic investigation and analysis of accidents involving injury or fatality. This seems to me to be a huge gap that has not yet been adequately filled in the last quarter-century.

"These are just two of the major topics that are brought to mind by my contemplation of your book. Perhaps one of the commitments that the FIA can make at the millennium will be a major commitment to the extension of its successful efforts in the improvement of Formula One racing safety to the betterment of motor racing safety as a whole throughout the world. This would be a worthwhile project for the next 25 years or so!

"In closing please let me express my appreciation for your work and the hope that it continues to yield measurable benefits."

I sent a copy of the letter to Max Mosley at the FIA, in the hope that my remarks - intended to be constructive - might have triggered a discussion on the actions that can be taken to extend to other levels of motor racing throughout the world the know-how that has been gained on safety in Formula One. Neither Watkins nor Mosley acknowledged receipt of the letter. Accordingly, I feel free to publish it as an open letter at this time.

Why at this time? Because, like the rest of the racing world, I am very unhappy indeed about the premature death of Michele Alboreto. I didn't know him personally, but his career and his stature as a man spoke for themselves. I'm sure that Audi's safety structures are sound and that the Lausitzring is laid out as a safe circuit by modern standards. Nevertheless, Alboreto was killed while testing there, a sad and lonely death. Was it preventable? Can we learn from the loss of this fine driver? Only if the accident is well investigated and the results of that investigation are published will we know the answer.

To summarise: we need a more active and systematic effort to analyze racing accidents that cause death and injury to learn from them which measures can realistically be taken to reduce such injuries in the future. And, we should see more of an effort being made to apply to other racing series and circuits as many as possible of the improved safety methods that are being applied in Formula One.

A man doesn't lose his value when he leaves Formula One to compete in another racing series. Michele Alboreto was justifiably admired as a racing driver when he was in Formula One. His skills were just as highly valued when he was testing for and racing at Le Mans. Here is as good an example as we could ask of the need to make sure that the safety advances being made for Formula One are also applied to other cars and series as soon as the technology allows. I would like to see the FIA dedicate its efforts and its budgets toward this objective.

Karl Ludvigsen© 1995-2005 Kaizar.Com, Inc.
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