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A look back in time on the day that changed GP racing's views on safety
Track safety in the 70s: stone age in the space age



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XXI Dutch GP (July 29, 1973)


In the first decade of 3-litre Formula 1, Grand Prix racing had seen space-age progress. The cigar-shaped, skinny-tyred, wingless machines that started the 1966 season - most of them not even carrying 3-litre engines - were now a distant memory. F1 cars of the early seventies looked distinctly different. They had been given aerofoils, which had transformed into proper wings. Tyres grew wider each season and lost their grooves to become slicks. The cigar shape gradually caved in to the wedge shape, with side-mounted radiators creating the need for sidepods. In the meantime, technologies such as four-wheel drive and turbines had failed to pass the test but were evaluated all the same in an all-out effort to curb the power.

Track safety hadn't caught up - while the Eagle had landed on the moon, motor-racing accident prevention, or alleviation, was still in the stone ages. This was despite the best efforts of front-running safety crusaders like multiple World Champion Jackie Stewart and GPDA president and Grand Prix veteran Jo Bonnier, a man who had lived through various transformations of the Grand Prix car and survived all of them. Yes, there had been some safety innovations - like the full-face helmet and the lexan visor, hastened by Helmut Marko's unfortunate eye-piercing accident at Clermont-Ferrand in 1972. For 1973, new deformable structure regulations were introduced as a way to improve cockpit safety in case of an impact.

But that was about it. Fuel tanks could still burst with fearful consequences, the driver's feet were still as unprotected as before. Above all, tracks weren't designed to take on the massive speed increase, especially in corners, caused by 3-litre power pulled down onto the road by massive wings and rudimentary aerodynamics and kept there through big fat slick tyres. They were still driving the old Monza, the old Spa, the old Nürburgring, the old Interlagos, the old Österreichring, the old Glen, the old Zandvoort - great circuits, all, but hardly "safe". Granted, the 3-litre formula had given Grand Prix racing back the toys needed to sort the men from the boys. Trouble was, it sorted the men too. As a Grand Prix driver of the late sixties, early seventies, if you had a big one, you were almost certain of your family reading your obituary in the Monday papers. It was a matter of fact that Formula 1 would suffer at least two casualties per season.

But you were a grown-up boy. You knew what you were getting into. You shouldn't whinge. Whingeing was for sissies who couldn't cut it. Except that JYS did cut it. Got into the car, won the race and did the whingeing afterwards. Then came Jo Bonnier's fatal accident at Le Mans, the GPDA president getting killed before he could implement the safety precautions he had envisioned for top-line single-seater and sportscar racing. The necessity of change started to sink in. Finally, tracks weren't overlooked in their part in motor racing accidents. Although the purists gasped, Spa was axed, as was Clermont-Ferrand. Zandvoort was taken off the calendar to clean up its act after Piers Courage was killed and burned at the hairy Hondenvlak backstretch in 1970. The totally fenceless dune track was about to jump on the Armco bandwagon, as was Barcelona's street track Montjuich.

So how did 1973 end up in the record books as being one of the most tragic seasons in the history of Grand Prix racing? One thing, really: lack of knowledge on how to best use Armco. Or two things, actually: lack of knowledge and lack of true will. The deaths of Koinigg and Cevert, both because of their cars sliding underneath the barriers, may be explained by lack of knowledge and experience. But why did the Armco at Montjuich collapse under Emerson Fittipaldi’s weight? Why didn’t the organizers do something to get the Armco up to standard before Rolf Stommelen crashed into the crowd? Why was Zandvoort’s Armco simply dug into the sand dunes in a way you could reasonably expect them to act as catapults instead of shock absorbers? Why did the sporting authorities approve the work done by the organizers? These are questions that are easily asked today, with 20/20 hindsight, but probably were shied away from thirty years ago.

Whereas we now tend to argue that F1 as a sport has become too well-organized, to the point of being sanitized, thirty years ago – in the pre-TV age – the sport was still reigned by amateurism and fifties dogmatism. The proceedings at the Dutch Grand Prix on July 29, 1973 form a good case for the prosecution, precisely because it was one of the first races aired live on television. Nobody but the fans at the track had seen how Jo Siffert died in a similar accident at Brands Hatch late 1971. Early 1973, Clay Regazzoni might have died in the same way if Mike Hailwood hadn't come to save the BRM driver from a car that fortunately had not overturned.

Finally, it was the Williamson inferno that sent a shock through millions of viewers. Along with Niki Lauda's fiery 'Ring accident three years later, this was a pivotal event in the safety record of the sport.