Why racers take risks and why we love them for it

‘Did you never think of stopping Robert (Kubica) from taking part in rallies?’ asked L’Equipe newspaper to Renault team boss Eric Boullier today.
“Not for one second,” replied Boullier, “He could just as easily have been knocked over by a bus. Robert is a racer, he loves cars and he lives for nothing but racing. Competing is his essence. At 14 he slept in a kart factory because he loved racing. From the outset it was agreed among us that Robert would do rallies as well as F1. It was vital for him. His strength comes from that passion. I never thought about the risk. Motor sport is dangerous, but he loves it.”

Photo: Darren Heath

I have found the reaction to Robert Kubica’s accident fascinating and enlightening. There is the team principal above, who understood him and attempts here to justify the decision to let him compete elsewhere, then the rival team bosses who are both appalled by the injury and surprised by Renault’s relaxed attitude to Kubica’s extra curricular activities. There are the fans and media, some of whom castigate him for taking unnecessary risks so close to the start of the season and others who simply feel terribly sorry for him and his plight.To recap, the latest bulletins from the doctors suggest a horrendous injury to his right arm which caused him to lose a lot of blood and despite some heroics by surgeons, the experts in the field to whom I’ve spoken suggest he may never regain fine motor function in that hand and if so his F1 career is unlikely to continue. Of course there are always miracle comebacks, but that is what will be required here for him to race an F1 car again. Renault disagree and say the doctors are exaggerating and that he will recover within a year.
Kubica was injured in a rally car, when a pole supporting an armco barrier, appears to have pierced the floor of the Skoda he was driving and caused the injury. A freak accident, like the one Frank Williams suffered on the road. A few years ago Kubica walked away from an accident in Montreal which was many times worse in terms of impact energy, but F1 cars are built much more strongly than rally cars.
So why did he do it? Why did he take the risk of losing everything just to satisfy some urge to drive fast? And will this put an end to drivers doing anything but the most safe hobbies in future?
I grew up with a father who was a racing driver. He raced for Team Lotus in the 1960s. If you’ve not lived with it, it’s hard to explain the ‘daredevil gene’ racers have, which forces them to race. It’s a restlessness, a need to challenge oneself. At the margin it’s almost a kind of rage.
I don’t have it, I recognised that early on, but throughout 22 years working in F1 I’ve seen it countless times in the eyes of the racers I’ve encountered. Why else did Valentino Rossi and Kimi Raikkonen do rallies while holding down major roles with leading teams? Why did Jim Clark or Stirling Moss drive every kind of car they could get their hands on?
Juan Manuel Fangio once said, “There are those who keep out of mischief, and there are the adventurers. We racing drivers are adventurers; the more difficult something is, the greater the attraction that comes from it.”
This is the best quote I’ve ever come across to explain why racers race and it also why we love them for it. Nowadays F1 cars are still challenging to drive on the limit, but they are so safe that drivers have become quite matter of fact about the risk in their job.
1970s F1 driver Patrick Depailler used to enjoy hang gliding in his spare time. He had a bad accident and was still recovering from it when he was killed in F1 testing in 1980. No-one would allow an F1 driver today to go hang gliding, but the question is, in this age of ultra professionalism, should drivers be forced to avoid all dangerous sports in their spare time? I think they might after this and a little bit more of that racer spirit will be lost.
This looked set to be a breakthrough year for Renault after two years of struggle. Team owner Gerard Lopez said last summer that he wanted to build the team around Kubica, so should Renault have stopped him taking part in the meaningless rally in Italy which has now put the team’s whole season in jeopardy? Who is going to score 150 plus points for them?
Other team principals I’ve spoken to today say that their drivers would not be able to take part in such activities. Insurance is a big factor. To insure an F1 driver for F1 driving is actually quite cheap now, because the cars are so safe. A team will typically insure a driver against being unavailable to them. So if a driver is unavailable, the insurance company will pay out for his replacement. They may also pay out for his salary.
The driver, on the other hand, will typically insure himself against injury and loss of earnings. The premiums rise significantly the more they take part in dangerous side sports like rallying. Kubica’s manager Daniel Morrelli is a very precise, careful individual and he will no doubt have taken care to ensure that his client was correctly insured.
Bruno Senna is reserve driver and if he has brought money to the team, as has been suggested, that may come with a clause which gives him the drive da facto. If not, Renault may look to someone like Nico Hulkenberg, who will have a clause in his Force India reserve driver contract releasing him if a race seat comes up elsewhere. That is standard. It may be Nick Heidfeld who gets yet another chance.
But one thing’s for sure, Renault will have to look to someone else to drive for them this year.

By James Allen

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