- Dan Knutson
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MAGNY-COURS, France -- Motor racing is dangerous. There is no getting around
that truth, and the accidents in the recent Grand Prix races in Monaco and
Indianapolis prove that Formula One is not exempt from that fact.
But F1 drivers aren't lining up to quit their jobs.
"A lot of people think what we do is completely crazy," Williams BMW driver
Juan Pablo Montoya said from the Magny-Cours paddock on the day before
practice began for the French Grand Prix. "I think it is pretty much
normal. This is what I do every week. If I feel that driving the car is
completely outrageous, why would I get into the car?
"Ask anybody who does skydiving, and they say, 'Oh, that's nothing.' I
wouldn't jump out of a plane even if you paid me money to do it!"
Safety issues are of great concern to F1 drivers, but once they climb into the car and head onto the track, they do not focus at all on the danger factor. F1 drivers are not unique in this aspect; it's a common trait from the best professional drivers in the world down to the amateurs who compete for fun on weekends.
"I personally don't feel any worry when I'm in the car," Renault's Fernando
Alonso said. "As soon as the race starts, I feel completely safe. When
you lose a car, or when I lost the car at Indianapolis, after the first
movement I knew that nothing was going to happen to me, because the car is
very safe. So from that point of view, I think us drivers feel 100 percent
safe when we have a crash. But at the same time, we know that speeds are
very high and we are in a sport where the risk is always there."
Six-time World Champion Michael Schumacher had to sit out six races of the
1999 season after breaking his leg when he crashed in the British Grand
Prix. He is one of the directors of the Grand Prix Drivers Association,
which always has safety on its agenda, and he's been a staunch supporter of
F1's ruling body (FIA) in its safety campaigns.
But, like virtually all drivers, once Schumacher climbs into the cockpit he
flicks that mental switch.
"We drivers, I guess I can talk for the drivers, we normally don't think
about the danger," Schumacher said. "You just think about it when you are
close to maybe having an accident, because in general you feel really safe
in what you do. You know that you have a big safety (net) around you,
different to motorcycling, and you just feel good in what you do.
"When you have a moment, and you know consequently that there could have
been an accident, then the adrenalin goes up. But then you forget about it
and you go, because we just do things to the limit, not really over the
limit, and that is why we feel good about it."
When a driver does have a big accident, like Ralf Schumacher's in Indianapolis, his thoughts are not on retirement but on how soon he can race again.
"It's up to him," Montoya said when asked if he thought his teammate
Schumacher should retire. "I am pretty happy racing. I think he is pretty
But does there come a point where a driver's well-stocked bank account
sways him to retire rather than face the danger?
"It depends, do you do it because you love it or do you do it because of
the money?" Montoya asked.
You do it because you love it ...
"Exactly," Montoya said.
But is it worth risking your life for?
"I don't see it like I'm risking my life," Montoya replied. "If I feel
like I was risking my life I wouldn't be racing. It would be stupid."
Montoya has never been injured in an F1 car, but he has had several big
"Last year in Silverstone I hit head-on into the tires, the car caught
fire, and I hit head-on," Montoya said. "I was lucky I hit some tires, but
I destroyed the car completely. And I was lucky that nothing happened to
me. But you get back in the car."
There is a debate going on now whether the speeds in F1 have escalated to
levels that are too dangerous. But that is not the point here, and that's
a whole different issue. No matter what speed you race at, there will
always be an element of danger.
"At the end of the day, Formula One is dangerous," Toyota driver Olivier
Panis said. "That's what I feel."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.