The danger constantly present in Motorsport offers a gladiatorial status to professional drivers, who actively decide that the pursuit of speed outweighs the risks. The potential of fatality immortalises drivers who have died in their prime, with the tragic fate of Ayrton Senna possibly the most standout example. Here are some of the crashes that have shocked the Motorsport world:
1. Arras (France) – 1927 Arras Road Race – Jean de Suarez D’Arlan
A crash in which D’Arlan is hurled from the car but survives without serious injury. Crowds flock to the finish line of the event. When the car starts veering out of control, multiple fatalities are avoided on pure luck as a tree prevents the vehicle from hurling into the crowds. The clip highlights the carefree, festival-like atmosphere.
2. Silverstone (England) – 1951 International Trophy – Roy Salvadori
A lesser known story of tenacity for a driver who was given his last rites after this incident in which he suffered a fractured skull, only to go on and continue racing for another fourteen years. Salvadori’s crash in 1951 set him back, but he would go on to achieve some elusive victories, particularly at the 1959 Le Mans 24 hours, in which he won the race in an Aston Martin DB1.
3. USA – 1955 Indianapolis 500 – Bill Vukovich
Vukovich was leading the Indy 500 with a 17-second gap to 2nd when he encountered the back-marker collision ahead. He swerved to take avoiding action and somersaulted into the air. The car burst into flames with Vukovich trapped inside. The driver who would have without doubt claimed victory at the famous race had seen his last chequered flag. An article by John Bentley in a 1955 edition of Sports Illustrated writes:
“The garbled versions of that accident were unfair to the men involved. No one was to blame. This is what really happened: Rodger Ward came out of the southeast turn sideways, “on ice,” and flipped twice, miraculously landing back on his wheels. “Suddenly,” he said, “the front end washed out on me.” Following him were John Boyd and Al Keller, bombing down the straight with Keller a little ahead. They veered to avoid Ward, collided, and Boyd overturned. Vukovich, hard on Boyd’s tail at 140 mph, tried to side-step the mess by swerving right. His car bumped Boyd’s, struck the heavy wooden beams of the outside guard rail, straddled the rail, then went end over end, striking a passenger car, a truck and a jeep. Instantly the wreckage burst into flames, trapping the luckless Vukovich before anyone could get to him. Ed Elisian stopped of his own accord to tender help. Vukovich was an old school friend of his.”
– John Bentley
4. Le Mans (France) – 1955 Le Mans 24 – Pierre Levegh
What was supposed to be an entertaining, star-studded battle between Mercedes, Jaguar and Ferrari turned into one of the most horrific crashes in Motorsport history. 82 civilians were killed when the Mercedes engine battered through the onlookers, and Levegh was killed instantly. Some blame Mike Hawthorn for the incident, with his leading Jaguar braking at the last second to pit, causing the chasing Mercedes to crash out, but to appoint such a level of blame on a driver’s split-decision that resulted in such a large loss of life seems unfair. The implication of appointing blame would force Hawthorn into accountability for the deaths, which does nothing to consider the layout of the viewers platforms at the time.
5. USA – 1964 Indianapolis 500 – Dave Macdonald and Eddie Sachs
For the first time in its history, the Indy 500 was halted mid-race after the fireball effect of an incident that killed Sachs instantly and left Macdonald with burns so serious that he would die later in the afternoon. It is worth noting that the race continued after a lengthy stoppage, even after the announcement of fatality over the circuit tannoy. This juxtaposes the vacancy of grief against the bravery of the drivers who went on to finish the 500.
6. (Rouen-Les-Essarts – France) – 1968 French Grand Prix – Jo Schlesser
In only his third Grand Prix, the promising French driver, who was driving for a competitive Honda team alongside John Surtees, died on home soil after only two laps of the Grand Prix. His death contributed to further action being taken by safety advocate of the time Sir Jackie Stewart, who finished the race third and was part of a very miserable podium. A report from 1968 reads,
“In the downhill sweepers after the start on the third lap Schlesser lost control of the new Honda and crashed. The car overturned and caught fire. The full fuel tank and magnesium chassis burned so intensely that nothing could be done to save Schlesser. He became the fourth F1 driver to die that season (after Jim Clark, Mike Spence and Lodovico Scarfiotti).”
It’s matter-of-fact reporting with the completely non-emotive commentary that you would expect from this era. A time when news reporters on TV and print journalists would narrate to an extremely formal degree.
This concludes part one of this coverage of significant accidents in Motorsport. Part two will include some more recent incidents.