During the opening laps of the 1999 British Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher's Ferrari went flying off the road at a high rate of speed. The resulting crash broke his leg and ended a potential championship season, but it could have been much worse.
Schumacher's rear brakes failed at 191mph as he attempted to slow for the Stowe corner. He still had front brakes, which slowed the car down to 127mph before locking up and continuing his deceleration to 67mph when he made impact with the tire barrier.
In a statement after the crash investigation the sanctioning body proclaimed: "The gravel trap performed satisfactorily in a worst-case situation."
First, this wasn't a worst-case scenario. Schumi was going 191mph heading to Stowe. What would have happened if there had been a total brake failure? A stuck throttle? An incapacitated driver? It takes little imagination to come up with far worse scenarios than what actually happened. Worst-case my ass!
Secondly, you have a driver with a broken leg in what was far from the worst-case scenario. What about this is "satisfactory" in the eyes of the governing body tasked with safety? Was there some sort of gruesome driver injury quota they had to satisfy back in 1999?
Odd statement aside, the lessons that should have come from this crash are still in need of learning 18 years later – and 18 years later we are still killing drivers because we refuse to learn it.
Fast-forward six years from Schumacher's accident to the 2005 Continental (then Koni) race at VIR. I was driving a 996 Porsche in the GS class. Our first practice session was run in a heavy downpour, and on the out lap I was in thick traffic. As the pack came into Turn 14a I went to the brake pedal only to have it go to right to the floor.
My first instinct was to avoid the cars ahead, which put me immediately in the wet grass at near top speed. From that point on, I was a passenger. Here I was, in a similar situation to Michael, except I was going faster in a car that definitely wasn't as safe. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I emerged completely unhurt. We were even able to repair the car before qualifying.
What was the difference? Curtains.
In racing, there are two types of offs. By far the most common are the simple ones where a driver makes a mistake and spins, overshoots the brake zone, or gets punted going into a corner. These typically result in anything from a trip through the runoff to a meeting with a tire wall. I don't want to minimize the potential dangers of any off, but in general the racing world has done a good job of identifying areas where these are likely to happen and added the necessary safety features.
What concerns me the most is what I like to refer to as a "rogue" car. Cars can go rogue for many reasons, some of which I mentioned earlier. Mechanical failure, incapacitated drivers, car-to-car contact on straightaways and hydroplaning are just a few of the things that can send cars uncontrollably off of race tracks at very high speeds. From that point on it's not a matter of if they will hit, but rather what. "What" makes all the difference.
What should have been clear from Schumacher's crash, and Gunter Schaldach's, and Mark Pombo's, and Allan McNish's, and Sean Edwards', and Brad Keselowski's, and RB Stiewing's, and Jimmie Johnson's, and Tim Bell's... (I could go on) is that gravel traps don't stop rogue cars. That means that the only thing between a driver in a rogue car and a serious injury is the barrier that they hit. Too often, as was the case with Schumacher, barriers behind gravel traps are just not very deep, leaving little distance for the car to decelerate across.
What is needed is what VIR and some other forward-thinking tracks in the U.S. have implemented: tire curtains (above). Tire curtains are rows of tires, bolted together. Then they are set between the hard concrete wall at the end of the runoff and the track in layers, each about ten feet apart. The faster the approach area, the more curtains are placed in the runoff.
The idea is that the car makes impact with the first row of tires, and then dissipates energy as it drags the first row across the void and into the next row. Instead of having four to ten feet to stop a speeding, car curtains allow for 20-60 feet depending on approach speed.
These tire walls aren't free, and there is the labor of assembling them, but for the amount of protection they provide, the cost seems very reasonable. Yet very few tracks we race on in the major professional road racing series here in the U.S. have them.
Most of our facilities are one rogue car away from a repeat of Schumi's Stowe crash, or worse. This is a problem we can, and must fix. I'd love to see curtains everywhere a rogue car could end up everywhere we race. It's time we start making smart decisions with track safety before it's curtains for another one of us.