Danger exists, but it's not a focal point

Updated: July 1, 2004, 6:18 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

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 happy racing."

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 accidents.

"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.