"Motorsport can be dangerous!" Those words are printed in large, bold, black letters on every warning sign you see at a properly organised event sanctioned by the MSA (Motor Sports Association) - the governing body that ensures that international competitions are fair and, above all, safe for participants and spectators alike.
Accidents, of course, frequently happen. And, for Aston Martin Racing driver Allan Simonsen, last weekend's 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race proved to be his last. Within minutes of the race commencing, his number 95 Aston Martin Vantage GTE crashed at the infamous Tertre Rouge corner. Even though his car didn't look all that badly damaged, Simonsen succumbed to his injuries, another life lost in the arena of racing.
Those who knew the 34-year-old Dane say he died doing what he loved. Indeed, his family expressly wished for the AMR team to continue the race, to battle through the gruelling event in memory of their dearly departed. I cannot imagine how heavy the hearts must have been for those drivers who took to the track, every few minutes passing the very spot where their friend and colleague breathed his last.
But that's the nature of this sport. It's a rush like few others and combatants know the rules of engagement - that's part of the thrill, knowing that they might not make it to tomorrow. I've known motorcycle riders that almost had a death wish, pushing the limits on public roads until that split-second lapse in concentration causes horrific injuries. Why? The reality is that speed is extremely alluring to a lot of people, most of whom, it has to be said, are men.
Simonsen was an expert racing driver and had taken part in seven Le Mans 24 Hour races, with a best finish of second in class three years ago. He started his racing career in 1999, winning the Danish Formula Ford Championship, the Australian GT Championship and the Asian Le Mans Series. For this year's Le Mans, he was car sharing with fellow Danes, Christoffer Nygaard and Kristian Poulsen, in the class that mixes pro and amateur drivers, but Simonsen was the top-ranking professional in the team.
Nobody yet knows what happened when, nine minutes after the start of the race, Simonsen's car approached Tertre Rouge, which leads onto the equally infamous Mulsanne Straight, veered sharply to the left and crashed into the barriers. The track here is still viewed as a public road by the French authorities, so the investigation will be extremely thorough.
No matter what the findings, this fatal accident will have served to sharpen the minds and wits of teams, drivers and engineers alike. Deaths used to be incredibly frequent in motor racing only a few years ago but now they're almost unheard of, which only makes this latest loss more shocking. Cars, unlike motorcycles, afford occupants a great deal of protection, with incredibly strong carbon fibre construction. For evidence of how this technology saves lives, you need only watch F1 driver Robert Kubica's jaw-dropping smash at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. He came into contact with another car, lost control, hit a concrete wall at 300 kilometres per hour and experienced a peak g-force deceleration of 75G. His car was utterly destroyed, while he suffered a mild concussion and a sprained ankle.
No matter how sturdy, stiff or strong cars are made, though, nobody can be guaranteed complete safety. And while people will continue to lose their lives while racing cars, legally or otherwise, manufacturers and legislators will continue to learn from these incredibly painful lessons. Le Mans is among the most glamorous events on the motoring calendar and Aston Martin went on to win the GTE Pro category. But while there must have been a sense of elation and accomplishment, the sense of loss would have been palpable.
A tragic loss, yes. But a waste of a life? I somehow doubt that Simonsen would see it that way.
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