Let’s start with a little admission on my part: Motorsport crashes – on the proviso that no one is injured – are pretty cool.
The spectacle, speed, colour and glamour that is Formula 1 is enlivened further by the occasional spectacular accident. Be it a single-car accident or a multi-car pile-up, all crashes give the drivers and audience an incomparable adrenalin rush, and it’s certainly a drawcard for many F1 fans.
I certainly don’t like the crashes where the driver is injured, or where the safety or the marshals or public are put at risk.
The start of any Grand Prix is always the most notorious opportunity for a spectacular crash, but this is a topic we’ll cover in a separate, upcoming article.
What we’re concentrating on are the accidents that fall outside this criteria. There have been many single- or multi-car accidents during a Grand Prix itself, and from which the driver has emerged completely, and mercifully, uninjured.
There are plenty of crashes that come up for consideration in this article, but we’re specifically looking for those where:
there are no injuries to any party, drivers or spectators alike
the driver(s) involved is able to compete at the next event, or in the restarted event
One example of an accident that fails consideration is Robert Kubica’s almighty crash at the Canadian Grand Prix (pictured below), as he was forced to miss the subsequent round at Indianapolis in spite of not having sustained any injuries.
The advent of the carbonfibre monocoque is one of the greatest achievements in Formula 1 design, and has been instrumental in the considerably fewer rate of injuries and (God forbid) fatalities since the mid 1980s. Have an accident likened to what we’ll outline below in the 1970s or even before, and it’s unlikely you would have lived to tell the tale.
No doubt a little topical in the wake of Mark Webber’s incredible accident this year at Valencia, here is our typically subjective top-ten countdown of the most incredible accidents from which the driver emerged unscathed…
10. John Watson breaks his McLaren in two at the 1981 Italian Grand Prix
I’ve included this accident not only for it being a pretty spectacular one, but also because it occurred in the first-ever carbonfibre composite monocoque F1 car, the McLaren MP4/1 – a fact that no doubt was attributed to ‘Wattie’ surviving this incredible accident.
Running seventh behind the battling duo of Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet on lap 20 of the race, Watson overdid it exiting the second Lesmo right-hander, got two wheels on the dirt and spun backwards into the Armco barrier.
Hitting the barrier at some 90mph, his car ripped into two pieces, with the engine and gearbox assembly splitting from the car in a ball of flame and rocketing back across the track. The back of the car was innocently collected by Michele Alboreto’s Tyrrell, with the Italian happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time!
As Watson would recall later: “I thought ‘This is going to hurt.’ I just sat there, put my head down, and smack.
“I remember sitting in the car looking down and … the gear lever had gone. I looked up and saw an engine sliding across the race track and thought, ‘Bloody hell, whose engine is that? Someone behind me has gone off and crashed and they must be dead’.”
9. Derek Warwick tips his Lotus on its side during the 1990 Italian Grand Prix
Grand Prix veteran Derek Warwick features twice in our top-ten article, and the first of these is his opening lap accident at the 1990 Italian Grand Prix.
Starting from twelfth in the Lamborghini-powered Lotus, Warwick survived the opening corner shenanigans that are so typical of a Grand Prix at Monza. Running at 140mph exiting the Parabolica, he drifted wide and onto the grass, demolishing his car against the barriers, and tipping onto his side as he and his car slid back onto the track.
Miraculously, no one T-boned the car as it lay broadside across the circuit, and Warwick was quick to emerge unassisted from the shattered car.
The race, not surprisingly, was stopped. Warwick sprinted back to the pits, jumped into the spare car and took the restart with the rest of the field. His race would end after 15 laps with a clutch failure, but it could have been so much worse…
8. Riccardo Patrese misses a bridge after clipping Gerhard Berger at the 1992 Portuguese Grand Prix
The fourteenth round of the 1992 championship season rather predictably saw Nigel Mansell continue his one-man-show domination of the year, as he romped to another victory from pole position in the all-conquering Williams Renault FW14B.
His team-mate Riccardo Patrese had struggled in Mansell’s shadow all season. Never quite as able to get the active suspension car working to his liking, he was forever playing catch-up and often falling into the clutches of the rival McLarens and Benettons.
The Portuguese Grand Prix was little different. On lap 43, he found himself pursuing the McLaren of Gerhard Berger, who was struggling on worn tyres but managing to keep the Italian at bay.
Berger had decided on that lap to head for his second and final tyre change pit stop, but Riccardo was unaware of this as they exited the final corner and onto the main straight.
As Berger headed toward the pit lane entry, Patrese followed in his slipstream. And, as Gerhard slowed to dive into the pit lane, Patrese collected the back of the McLaren and his car became airborne, almost hitting the bridge spanning the start/finish straight as his Williams threatened to flip completely.
Somehow he landed the right way up, and slid along the pit wall for another hundred metres or so, before coming to rest. Emerging from the car shaken but completely unhurt, it was another example as to the strength of the modern-era cars and how much Lady Luck had shined on him that day.
The debris from the accident caused dramas for other drivers. Pierluigi Martini (Dallara) and Michael Schumacher (Benetton) both suffered punctures as they ran over carbonfibre shards that littered the circuit, while JJ Lehto (Dallara) suffered a cut leg when the driveshaft from Patrese’s car pierced the underside of the Finn’s car.
Incredibly, despite the violence of the accident, Berger was able to serve his pit stop and finish the race in second place behind Mansell, without any damage!
7. Martin Brundle splits his Jordan at the 1996 Australian Grand Prix
In his maiden outing for the Jordan team, Martin Brundle had what is undoubtedly his most spectacular accident on the opening lap of the inaugural Australian Grand Prix to be held at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit.
Under braking for Turn 3, David Coulthard swerved across the track, and the gap in front of Brundle disappeared in an instant. Launching off the back of Coulthard’s McLaren and Johnny Herbert’s Sauber, Brundle’s car flipped upside-down before landing and barrel-rolling along the gravel trap. Slow-motion footage shows the Jordan actually splitting in two, yet from all of this Brundle was able to emerge unscathed.
The race was red-flagged and Brundle duly took the restart, only to retire early on after colliding with Pedro Diniz.
6. Christian Fittipaldi somersaults after collecting Pierluigi Martini at the 1993 Italian Grand Prix
This is perhaps near-identical to the Patrese-Berger accident above, but it gets extra bonus points on two counts. Firstly, the collision saw a near-perfect execution of a somersault. Secondly, the collision was also a demonstration of the ultimate sin: colliding with your team-mate – perhaps we should have put it in that Top-10 article?
Having qualified well down the field in 22nd and 24th in what was proving to be a tough second half of the season for the financially-strapped Minardi team, Martini and Fittipaldi found themselves running seventh and eighth on the final lap.
Nowadays, such a result would earn a brace of points – a great result for a little team like Minardi – but in 1993, this was still a zero-point haul, in spite of a double finish on home soil being a great result in many respects.
Approaching the finish line, Martini slowed to greet his pit crew who were watching from the pit lane to cheer the duo home. What he hadn’t realised was that Fittipaldi was steaming up behind him. The Brazilian’s left-front wheel collected Martini’s right-rear wheel, launching young Christian into a near-perfect backflip. He somehow landed on all four wheels and continued to skid across the finish line. Neither driver lost a place as a result of the incident.
The same could not be said for poor Christian’s mother, who fainted on the pit wall while watching the accident happen in front of her eyes. It is doubtful that the atmosphere between Fittipaldi and Martini was exactly cordial after the race…
5. Mark Webber flips over Heikki Kovalainen at the 2010 European Grand Prix
The most recent of the big crashes – and we’ll admit, the catalyst for this article – is that between Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen at this year’s European Grand Prix.
What was a typically dull race at the Valencia harbourside circuit was suddenly given a shake-up by this incredible accident involving the Red Bull of Mark Webber and the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen.
Pitting early and out of sequence relative to his rivals, Webber found himself closing down on Kovalainen’s much slower car on the ninth lap of the race. Approaching Turn 13 at over 300km/h, Webber ploughed into the back of Kovalainen, whose Lotus effectively became a launching ramp for the Red Bull, which tipped up into a backflip.
The Australian landed upside-down, before his car bounced right way up and slid at high speed into the tyre barriers. Emerging unscathed from an accident that was remarkably similar to the two near-identical crashes he had at the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours (where his Mercedes-Benz CLR flipped twice), it was a miracle that he hadn’t been killed, let alone injured.
4. Derek Warwick avoids decapitation in the 1993 German Grand Prix warm-up
Undoubtedly the more terrifying of the two Derek Warwick accidents we’ve profiled is this one.
Now driving for Footwork in what would prove to be his final season in Formula 1 – having not been offered an F1 drive in 1991 or 1992 – Warwick qualified eleventh on the grid for the 45-lap race at Hockenheim.
Sunday morning warm-up greeted the drivers with wet conditions, and the flat-out blasts through the pine forests were made all the more hazardous by the intense mist that hangs in the air at this circuit. Readers may recall Didier Pironi’s career-ending accident in qualifying for the 1982 race at the same circuit, where ploughed unsighted into the back of Alain Prost’s Renault and shattered his legs.
A similar situation happened to Warwick, who collected the back of Luca Badoer’s Scuderia Italia Lola Ferrari, ripping off both right-hand wheels. Sliding onto the grass on the way to the third chicane, Warwick’s Footwork became something of a toboggan.
Unable to steer or brake, Warwick slid along the left-hand guard rails before crossing the circuit and becoming airborne as his car launches off the kerbing. Rotating sideways, he collected the gravel trap upside-down, where the car slid along the kitty litter, somehow now decapitating Warwick in the process.
Admirably, Ferrari drivers Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, along with Warwick’s team-mate Aguri Suzuki, all abandoned their cars and ran to help the stranded Briton, righting his car while Warwick extricated himself from the wreck.
Incredibly, he was declared fit to race and gave some quite frank interviews on the starting grid (shown left). In the race, perhaps a little shaken from the day’s earlier events, he finished 17th and last, three laps adrift. But at least he had his head still attached…
3. Synchronised accidents for Villeneuve and Zonta at the 1999 Belgian Grand Prix
If we were running a top-20 feature in this category, Jacques Villeneuve’s practice accident at the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix would be a probably candidate for consideration.
Indeed, a host of other accidents excluded from this feature – such as Jarno Trulli’s violent ‘off’ at the 2004 British Grand Prix, the Jean Alesi / Kimi Raikkonen bingle at the 2001 Japanese Grand Prix, Stephane Sarrazin’s thirteen-spin accident at the 1999 Brazilian Grand Prix, or even Ayrton Senna flipping his McLaren at the 1991 Mexican Grand Prix – are all worthy contenders.
What makes a podium finish in an article of this nature is indeed something special, and that’s certainly what Jacques Villeneuve and his BAR team-mate Ricardo Zonta managed to conjure up during the weekend of the 1999 Belgian Grand Prix.
No doubt buoyed by his foolish attempt to take Eau Rouge flat-out the previous year, Villeneuve struck up a dare with his rookie Brazilian team-mate to see which of them could do it this time around.
Now, the Eau Rouge is not the easy flat out corner it is today. The track surface was bumpier in 1999 and the crash barriers considerably closer, making the attempt exponentially riskier.
Villeneuve’s first attempt saw an almost carbon-copy version of his accident from 1998, as he comprehensively mangled his Reynard-designed chassis.
After the track was cleared, it was Ricardo’s turn to have a crack, and his accident proved even more spectacular, wrecking his car against the outside barriers before enjoying a multiple-revolution spin across the track.
The dare between team-mates was as brave as it was stupid, and it was fortunate that no one was injured.
2. Andrea de Cesaris barrel-rolls his Ligier at the 1985 Austrian Grand Prix
It wouldn’t be a top-ten countdown of spectacular crashes without Andrea de Cesaris making an appearance!
Andrea ‘de Crasheris’ (the nickname by which he was better known) had an enormous reputation as a fast, but massively accident-prone driver.
The 1985 season marked his sixth in the top echelon of Formula 1, and by this season he found himself driving for his third team, Ligier. Despite a strong showing with a fourth-placed result at the Monaco Grand Prix, this year was proving difficult for Andrea.
His cause was most certainly not helped during the Austrian Grand Prix at the notoriously quick Osterreichring circuit, where he crashed heavily after just 13 laps of racing. Leaving the circuit at high speed at the Texaco left-hander, Andrea met a sloping grass bank.
His car dug into the soft mud, and tumbled end over end, a total of four times. Somehow, he came to rest right side up and emerged from the battered car unassisted, although covered in mud.
Unsurprisingly still suffering some stiffness from his accident, he was off-the-pace at the next round – the Dutch Grand Prix – and was promptly fired by the team’s mercurial boss, Guy Ligier, who declared: “I can no longer afford the services of this young man!”
1. Derek Daly vaults the tyre barriers at the 1980 Dutch Grand Prix
The oldest of the accidents to feature in our top-ten, Derek Daly’s spectacular shunt at the 1980 Dutch Grand Prix takes some beating.
Driving for Tyrrell, Daly qualified 23rd for the Zandvoort event and was running quite happily with the twelve remaining runners when his brakes failed on the approach to the Tarzan Hairpin on the 61st lap of the race.
Unable to decelerate quickly enough and with perilously little run-off by today’s standards, Derek’s car ploughed nose-first into the tyre barrier, before being pitched into a spectacular airborne flip in front of the advertising hoardings, somehow landing right way up on top of the Armco.
A seriously shaken Daly was pulled from the wrecked car by corner marshals, but just minutes later was able to walk away from the scene of the accident, completely uninjured, but no doubt amazed to survive what was the most violent accident of his career.
That his is the only accident in our top-ten to feature a car pre-dating the carbonfibre monocoque is a further testament to just hw lucky he was to survive this accident, and it is for this reason that he takes our top spot in this countdown.