Posted by Matthew Mac Partlin on Monday, October 24, 2011

It has been a bad week for motor sport and more specifically for the families of motorsport competitors. The weekend before last, Indy Car driver Dan Wheldon was kiiled in a high speed, 15 car pile up at the Las Vegas circuit and yesterday Marco Simoncelli was killed at the Malaysian Moto GP. Both deaths occurred during racing and resulted in the remainder of each event being appropriately canceled.

Dan Wheldon, an Englishman who had previously won the Indy Car championship, was killed when his car was flipped into the air and collided on the cockpit sied against the wire fence catch fence. The incident was triggered in a fairly standard way, when further up the field there was a front-quarter to rear-quarter collision between tow cars that resulted in a spin. The speed of the following 200 to 300 metres worth of cars meant they had little opportunity to avoid the tangle. Dan's car was low down on the inside of the circuit and a collision with the rear wheel of a leading car launched his into the air. His was not the only car that got airborne in this manner, as you can see on the available videos of the event; however, the difference for Dan was that the height that he reached and the roll that he went through meant his car struck the catch fence (often called the debris fence at Australian events) cockpit side first. His death was recorded by the Clark County coroner as an accidental death due to blunt head injury due to a motor vehicle collision.

Several drivers were transported to the hospital for minor burns and soft tissue injuries and subsequently discharged and, reviewing the footage, including several in-car recordings, it is relatively surprising there were no other fatalities or more serious injuries.

There has been a lot of work done on car and track safety over the past 20 years in motor sports. The Guardian newspaper in England gives a brief summary of F1 developments here: Development of tailored run-off areas, HANS and other similar devices and technical regulations have been with the intent of making motor sport safer for competitors, officials and spectators. Dan's fatal outcome has forced a re-examination of the design of catch fences, which were originally brought in to improve official and spectator safety by preventing collision debris from exiting the circuit. The problem is the compromise that needs to be achieved between safety and visibility. There has been a lot of progress with energy-absorbing crash barriers recently, but the debris fence above remains as a sturdy wire fence. The current design can easily snag items and it is well recognised that a open-cockpit first impact has the worst potential outcome for a driver. However, a continuous smooth surface, which might be less abrasive, would significantly reduce viewing options and might prove prohibitively expensive, particularly for street circuits. The next option of moving the fence back from the circuit to provide a greater safety buffer zone would again and has previously been criticised from the spectator perspective.

The debate on closing the open cockpit has been restoked by Dan's accident. F1 has been talking about it, particularly after Massa's injury from Barichello's spring and Surtees' fatal injury. opinion is still divided and it again comes down to the conflict between driver safety and spectator inclusion. There are already online fan debates over the various safety developments in F1 and their impact on the enjoyment of the races and any steps taken that are seen to further limit the intensity of a race will no doubt be met with howls of disappointment. Striking the right balance is going to be difficult and will require a delicate blend of technical and regulatory developments.

Marco Simoncelli's fatal accident was again something that looked initially like a common enough event, but rapidly became clear that it had gone very bad. The clips that I've seen suggest that Marco had slid off his bike on the exit of a right hand turn. It looks as if he was already in trouble before he is then struck by Colin Edwards' and Valentino Rossi's bike as his body looks limp. A photograph taken from the riders' right shows Marco's left leg still astride his bike while his body appears caught between Edwards' and Rossi's bikes. Edwards tumbles off his bike, while Rossi manages to keep his bike upright and continue. Most disturbingly is the image of Marco's body sliding along the track without any defensive movement and his helmet rolling alongside Edward's bike.

Marco was attended by track officials and medics and CPR was initiated almost immediately he was out in the back of the ambulance, which we are all aware is a bad prognostic indicator in the setting of blunt injury. He was taken to the track medical centre where attempts at resuscitation, including the drainage of a haemothorax on at least one side, were conducted for 45 minutes before efforts were ceased. It is not clear from the available information what level of resources were available at the centre. Dan Wheldon was rapidly air lifted 12 miles to the tertiary level University Medical Centre. The Sepang circuit in Malaysia is 30 to 40 minutes by road to the nearest trauma capable hospital. There were closer hospitals 10 minutes away, but these were small medical clinics and a private cancer hospital with general and cancer orientated surgical services. At the subsequent MotoGP press conference, the Chief Medical Officer stated that Marco had suffered severe head, neck and blunt chest injuries.

It is worth watching the videos of the two accidents, not to be voyeuristic, but as a reminder of how dangerous motor sports can be and how little it can take to result in a fatal outcome. And while the outcomes may not have been any different, it is also worth considering what we, as motor sport medics and rescuers would have done if faced with the same situation.

For now though, all we can do is offer our sympathies and support to Dan and Marco's families, friends and colleagues and continue to look for ways to improve motor sport safety and our approach to medical and rescue efforts.

Relevant links

Also, go to the MotoGP and Indy Car websites