When watching Formula One, it can be easy to forget these drivers are taking their lives in their own hands.
Hitting speeds north of 300km/h with audacious overtakes and heart-stopping moves and counter moves, the death defying act of getting behind the wheel can sometimes play second fiddle to the excitement of racing.
But former F1 driver turned Sky Sports analyst Martin Brundle knows too well how drivers take their lives in their hands when they sit behind the wheel.
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Brundle raced in Formula One between 1984 and 1996 and claimed nine podiums in his 158 starts with best finish coming in 1992 when he finished sixth.
Racing alongside the likes of world champions Nigel Mansell, Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill to name a few, Brundle came into the sport during an ultra-competitive time.
Turning to commentary after his driving career finished, Brundle has established himself as one of the voices of F1, but after a long career behind the wheel and at the track, Brundle has seen the highs and lows of the sport.
Speaking on Mark Howard’s podcast The Howie Games, Brundle remembered one of the sports’ darkest days and weekends, when three-time world champion Senna died at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy on May 1, 1994.
Brundle said it was an awful weekend with a massive smash on Friday for Rubens Barrichello, before Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger died on the Saturday after a crash during practice.
He said Senna was “hugely upset” over Ratzenberger’s death, which revealed the paradox of Senna, in one moment seemingly driving opponents off the road or leaving the decision whether there would be an accident to the move of the other driver, but also being the first to run back and check if they were alright.
“I saw Ayrton the night before in the lift in the hotel and it was hard because he was really cut up about Roland Ratzenberger and the driver’s briefing on the Sunday morning was a pretty tense affair,” Brundle remembered.
“It was just one of those times, the start line crash and all the things that went on. I remember dodging all these bits that were flying around and the race was obviously red flagged. We go back to the grid. Initially the word was it was Damon Hill in the Williams that had crashed but we heard and hoped he was OK and then we heard it was Senna Williams that had crashed. Because we were preloaded with fluid before the race, we walked through the garage to find a bathroom and I noticed all the TV screens being turned off.
“We restarted the Grand Prix, which annoys me to this day 26 years later, so we raced past a pool of his blood for 50-odd laps, the old the race must go on kind of analogy. In Italy, you don’t die at the racetrack, you die in the helicopter on the way to the hospital, you die in the hospital. I don’t know what it is about insurance or liability.
“I’ll never forget the silence at the end when it became clear that Ayrton had died. People were crying, but the silence was eerie in many respects.”
Senna had significant blood loss and head injuries after hitting the barrier at over 300km/h, suffering fatal skull fractures, brain injuries and a ruptured temporal artery.
Brundle said the accident shook up the entire grid with drivers asking themselves why they were involved in such a barbaric sport.
It wasn’t the first instance Brundle had seen a driving death and led to one of his great regrets.
“I’d been in races where drivers had been killed and it’s awful,” he said. “We all started the next couple of weeks ‘do we need this, why are we involved with this barbaric sport?’
“One of my great regrets in life is not going to Ayrton’s funeral in Brazil, in Sao Paulo. My teammate was killed back in 1985, Stefan Bellof, my Tyrrell (former F1 team) teammate, but were in sports car racing together.
“I saw the accident and ran down to see if I could help. He died in a Porsche at Eau Rouge (corner at Belgium’s Spa track) and I went to his funeral in Germany and saw the absolute destruction of his family, his girlfriend, his friends. I’d been in Formula One for just over a year and I watched this destruction and thought ‘I cannot see this again while I’m a professional racing driver’. You can’t function if you imagine it’s your family so I didn’t go. But I seriously regret that now but that was my feeling at the time. It was truly awful times.”
Brundle also shared why he believed Senna’s story still resonates more than 25 years on from his death, with some placing the Brazilian among the best ever drivers.
“He had a god given talent, he was an emotionally driven man,” he said. “I often get asked the difference between Senna and Schumacher and Schumacher was driven from the head completely and Senna was driven from the heart.”