While the F1 off-season is drawing to a close, I’ve been in the United States on business. Motorsport enjoys a strong presence over here – although F1 still lags behind NASCAR and IndyCar – and, sadly, the news headlines have been dominated by a fatality in a lower-league race in New York state last weekend.
The victim was a young racer, Kevin Ward Jr, who lost his life walking on the race track to remonstrate with NASCAR veteran Tony Stewart – having a casual hit-out in the sprint car race ahead of his top-level round at Watkins Glen – after the pair had tangled the lap before. Unbelievably, Ward Jr was struck by Stewart and he was killed. Stewart subsequently withdrew from the Watkins Glen race (as well as this weekend’s round) while an investigation into the circumstances of the accident is ongoing. Outside of the late driver’s ill-judged decision, poor lighting conditions and Ward’s all-black race suit were certainly contributing factors as well.
Formula 1 hasn’t witnessed a driver remaining on the circuit to vent their spleen at another driver since the likes of James Hunt and Patrick Depailler at the 1975 Monaco Grand Prix after Depailler squeezed Hunt into the Mirabeau barriers. Hunt punched a marshal who tried to escort him off the track and then spent the following laps shaking his fist at Depailler each time the Frenchman drove by (pictured above).
But in the US scene, it’s all too common, and largely encouraged by impotent officials who allow confrontations between its star drivers to be a part of the show.
Walking onto the track is an extreme situation however – even NASCAR wouldn’t condone that level of risk – but there have been plenty of punches, helmets and tantrums thrown in a series where the horsepower is almost as big as the personalities of the likes of Stewart. The media here has a history of giving more airtime to the antics than the on-track racing, to the point that it is almost demanded by the fans.
Most of the ‘blues’ have taken place in the relative safety of the pit lane or the paddock, it has all become ingrained in a culture where aggression is encouraged by the media, organisers, drivers and fans. It all contributes to ‘the show’. Rivalries make great back stories to the on-track racing, while heroes and villains are continuously cast and recast over the years.
But this mindset has all ended in tragedy. Risking someone’s life is simply too high a price to pay for the sake of a good show.
That’s not to say that these antics are endemic to the NASCAR scene. The V8 Supercars Championship witnessed a similar incident in 2003 at Eastern Creek after Mark Skaife was spun into the wall by Russell Ingall. A furious Skaife remained trackside and famously shook his first at Ingall on the following lap, whereupon Ingall swerved in his direction.
Officials were quick to come down on the stupidity of both drivers: Ingall received a $15,000 fine (reduced to $10,000 on appeal) and a 150-point penalty while Skaife received a $10,000 fine and 75 points off his championship tally.
Officials from a number of series have been quick to respond in the wake of Ward’s death, reminding drivers and fans that it will not tolerate any such behaviour moving forward. Unfortunately the benefit of hindsight has not spared a 20-year-old from losing his life.
Formula 1 will never go down the path of allowing its drivers to take these kind of risks, but it still needs to consider the welfare of all who are involved in the sport. There has been a lot of concerns among the sport’s senior figures over what could be done to further improve the show (NOTE: it needs no further tweaks!) and improve TV audience figures.
Front of mind is the need to ensure that the sport remains an epic contest between driver and machine on the track, but that it the risks continue to be at the absolute minimum. No doubt Formula 1’s officials will take heed in the wake of this week’s terrible news.
Image via Motor Racing Nostalgia