Anyone who experienced motor racing accidents in the 1960s and ’70s will immediately understand that a “great” crash can only occur in recent decades. Before carbon fiber monocoques, survival cells, fire-retardant driving suits and crash safety standards, Formula One accidents typically resulted in dismemberment and death, for both drivers and spectators. The criteria of a great F1 crash hence must include — as do all of these incredible shunts — the driver walking away (relatively) unharmed.
Mark Webber Inverted
European GP 2010 — Valencia
At the 2010 European Grand Prix in Valencia, Spain, Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber qualified behind his teammate Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and the Ferrari duo of Alonso and Massa. At the start Webber lost track position to Hamilton, found himself overwhelmed by the attacks of other drivers and ended up down in 9th; on lap eight he pitted for new tires, further demoting him to 19th. On his out lap, Webber was coming up quickly on the much slower Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen and, at the approach to turn 12, collided heavily, tire-on-tire, with the rear of the Finn’s car, causing Webber to somersault an incredible 360 degrees in the air, yards above the track surface. Webber’s Red Bull landed upside down heavily on the nose and airbox and then, astonishingly, flipped back upright after “tripping” on the curb. He slid helpless, impacting — at around 175 mps (280 kph) — the protective tire wall on outside of the turn; his car rebounding to a rest in the runoff area, minus suspension and front wheels. Kovalainen’s Lotus was pushed to the side of the track on the straight. Webber climbed out of his RB6 without so much as a scratch, demonstrating the fantastic structural integrity of today’s Formula One monocoques.
La Source Carnage
Belgian GP 1998 — Spa
The huge pile-up at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps during the 1998 Grand Prix of Belgium involved unbelievably 14 cars: David Coulthard in his McLaren, Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari, Alex Wurz in his Benetton, Shinji Nakano’s Minardi, and all of the Prost, Sauber, Stewart, Tyrrell and Arrows cars. It happened at the first start on the hill going down from the La Source hairpin, when Coulthard used too much throttle in his McLaren in wet conditions, snapping sideways into the Armco. On the narrow track, shrouded by a wall of spray, the consequences were dramatic — just a lucky handful of drivers behind Coulthard escaped from the clutches of the multicolored mass of carbon fiber sliding down the hill. Surely only the video can best describe the thorough devastation caused by this massive shunt. And the race itself? After a restart Michael Schumacher built up a lead of more than 30s, only to plow into the rear of Coulthard — driving the McLaren spare car now banned by FIA’s sporting regulations — in the fog and rooster tail, shearing off the side suspension of his Ferrari. Only six cars finished. Damon Hill survived to take the checkered flag, memorably giving Jordan Grand Prix its first GP win.
Brundle’s Aussie Miracle
Australian GP 1996 — Melbourne
On the first lap of the season-opening 1996 Grand Prix of Australia — the first in more than 40 years at Melbourne’s Albert Park and the first to utilize a new race-start procedure, still employed in Formula 1, replacing the old red-to-green light protocol — Jordan’s Martin Brundle had a spectacular barrel roll into the sand trap at turn 3, where the car fantastically broke in two. It was Brundle’s 9th and final year in F1, a career that began with such promise battling Ayrton Senna for the British Formula 3 Championship in 1983, but one fated ultimately to end with no GP wins. The Jordan ran into the back of fellow Brits Coulthard and Johnny Herbert, flew through the air, flipped and was demolished against the wall. It looked fatal, yet Martin (now BBC’s lead F1 commentator) emerged from the dust completely unscathed, ran back and fetched his spare car…remember those? Brundle restarted from the pits but retired on the first lap redux, spinning off after light contact with the Ligier of Pedro Diniz.
Berger’s Tamburello Fire
San Marino GP 1989 — Imola
Many probably remember the horrific accident of Gerhard Berger during 1989 at the San Marino GP in Imola. It took place at the infamous Tamburello corner — the same spot where Ayrton Senna would tragically die five years later. As Berger approached Tamburello more or less flat out, as usual, something on his scarlet Ferrari 640 broke. Berger lost control of the car, heading straight towards the wall, its driver a mere passenger. When the Ferrari hit, hard, the world was convinced it was over for Berger. The car struck the concrete at high speed and spun around like a whirlwind of bent metal before finally coming to rest at the exit of the corner. Since only a few laps had been completed, the Ferrari’s fuel tanks were nearly full, which turned this already terrible crash turned into a nightmare no eyewitness can ever forget. Immediately after the accident, the car was engulfed in flames, Berger trapped inside. After what seemed like an eternity, but actually lasting only 23 seconds, the fire marshalls extinguished the blaze engulfing the Ferrari’s cockpit and rescued Berger from his car. Miraculously, Gerhard escaped with nothing but bruises and a few minor burns, a vivid testament to advances in Grand Prix racing safety.
Comas At Blanchimont
Belgian GP 1992 — Spa
Erik Comas was fortunate to survive a massive crash during Friday practice for the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix when he lost it, spinning twice before hitting the barriers at the fast, double-apex downhill Blanchimont corner. Ayrton Senna stopped his McLaren and ran back to the unconscious Frenchman’s aid, cutting off the engine and holding Comas’ head stationary until medical help arrived — with other cars still driving past at racing speeds. Comas credits Senna with saving his life, as the Ligier-Renault was still revving at full throttle and beginning to leak fuel. Comas returned to the grid two weeks later in Monza. Ironically, in 1994 at Imola, Comas was waved out of the pits after Senna’s fatal accident, coming around the Tamburello corner flat with marshalls frantically waiving yelllow flags. He never really recovered from the shock of that day and retired at season’s end. His last World Championship point, in the 1994 German Grand Prix, was also the last one for the Larrousse F1 team.
Italian First-Lap Devastation
Italian GP 2000 — Monza
There have been scores of first-lap shunts in F1 history, but the total mess at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in 2000 was one of the more spectacular. As the cars approached a recently tightened first chicane just after the red starting lights were extinguished on the grid, Eddie Irvine’s Jaguar collided with both Saubers, causing Irvine’s car to stall and force his retirement. A more substantial accident was triggered at the Variante della Roggia — the second chicane — where the Jordans of Jarno Trulli and Heinz-Harald Frentzen made heavy contact and then struck the cars of Barrichello and Coulthard from behind. All four cars came to rest in the gravel runoff area. They were then joined by the Arrows of Pedro de la Rosa, who had collided with the rear of Johnny Herbert’s Jaguar with enough force to tear off the Jaguar’s left rear wheel and send the Arrows into the air. As he entered the runoff area, de la Rosa clipped Coulthard’s McLaren and landed immediately adjacent to Barrichello’s Ferrari. All five stranded drivers were able to climb jump out of their cars without injury. Herbert’s car avoided the gravel and he returned to the pits on three wheels. Unfortunately, the right front wheel of Frentzen’s Jordan broke free and was propelled towards the safety fence, striking a 33 year-old fire marshal who died. His pregnant wife later received financial assistance from an auction of the drivers’ racing overalls.