PETER WINDSOR ON MICHAEL
Formula 1 was once a sport that dealt with the death of its heroes as an almost routine occurrence. Yet the terrible consequences of the seemingly innocuous, nonracing, accident that befell Michael Schumacher have encouraged the F1 community to reflect on
The F1 community pauses to reflect and struggles to make sense of Michael Schumacher’s terrible accident
One rainy Monday morning in 1968, I was sitting in our house in Sydney, Australia, when my little transistor radio changed my life forever: “Scottish racing driver Jim Clark was killed yesterday, in a motor-racing accident in Hockenheim, Germany. Clark, a double world champion, left the road in a wooded area….”
Then, in what seemed like a nightmare that would blight my adolescence, it was Mike Spence, Ludovico Scarfiotti, Lucien Bianchi, Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, Jochen Rindt, Pedro Rodríguez, Jo Siffert, François Cevert…
I moved to the UK to work as a journalist. By the time I was 30, I had been to 15 funerals. I knew Tom Pryce well. We always had a laugh. I ew back to England the day he died, with Nella, his widow, sitting just a row in front of me in the SAA 747. The jumbo bumped and plummeted its way through a thunderstorm. It seemed like the end of my world. Or was there something else? Roger Williamson, Brian McGuire, F3 racer Juanito Campos, Patrick Depailler, Stefan Bellof; I knew them all well. Gunnar Nilsson, too – and of course John Thompson, the photographer who was killed driving out of Ricard after a test, and dear Russell Bulgin, my colleague and journalistic superior. In 1975, Mark Donohue drove me around the Nürburgring in his black Porsche 911 only a couple of weeks before he died in Austria following a tyre failure on his March. Alan Henry
and I flew out of that race in a little twin-engined Cessna – out into the Alps in the midst of another giant thunderstorm. Graham Hill was ying the plane ahead of us, and ten minutes into the ight we heard his voice over the R/T: “Mayday, mayday…” And then one of the engines failed on our plane. The Cessna dived to the right, the young pilot struggling to regain control of it. My fresh-air vent, I vividly remember, was jammed open. My clothes were soaked through from watching the race. My teeth rattled as I shivered helplessly in my seat. Again I was compelled to ask that question: “Is there something more than this? Could this horror story be put into the context of something greater – of something more logical?”
It went on. Three months later came the news that Graham, the brilliant Tony Brise, Tony Alcock (another good friend), Terry Richards, Andy Smallman and Ray Brimble had all lost their lives in an air crash.
I chatted to Ronnie Peterson after Saturday practice at Monza in 1978. He squeezed up in the open boot of his Rolls Royce, me, the journalist, quizzing him about the 1979 ground-effect McLaren. The next day he was sitting up on a stretcher, right in front of me at the crash site, as they carried him to an ambulance.
“Oh no. Not another one,” cried Colin Chapman, running towards me. “His vital signs are okay,” I said quickly. “Bad leg injuries, for sure, but he was sitting up and looking around.”
It was on Monday morning, as I was checkingin at Linate Airport in Milan, that John Glover of Champion Spark Plugs broke the news. “Haven’t you heard? Ronnie died in the night. There was some sort of complication with a blood clot…”
In the Trident on the way home, my thoughts were only of the fragility of life and of whether it was all worth it. I’d read Faster! A Racer’s Diary, the book Peter Manso had written with Jackie Stewart, in which Jackie talks emotionally about the day after the 1970 Italian Grand Prix, when he was back in London, beginning to rebuild his life after the death of Jochen Rindt. So it was with Ronnie. At Heathrow a news board barked out the headline: “Ronnie Peterson dead”. I needed to nd some respite.
The elegant Elio De Angelis was killed at a Ricard test with my friend Nigel Mansell doing all he could to reach into the ames to draw him clear. In March 1986, I was sitting alongside Frank Williams when we veered from a French country road one sunny Saturday afternoon. I rolled myself up into a ball before impact. Frank continued to ght the wheel and took a blow, fully vertical, through the spine. I was bruised but ne; Frank was rendered quadriplegic.
Gilles Villeneuve, Roland Ratzenberger, Jeff Krosnoff, and many, many more. I stayed with it because, I guess, it is human nature to push ourselves to the limit in whatever we choose to do. And I had, and have, nothing but total respect for those who were and are out there, taking the real risks. Slowly, though, accident by accident, I began to understand that what makes us ultimately fulfilled isn’t just something like motor racing; it’s what we do with our lives as a whole.
Our hopes and prayers are with Michael. What we know, though, given the above, is that these days in Formula 1, the racing goes on. We still do what we do. We still laugh, we still get annoyed by security checks at airports. We still go racing, luxuriating in the safety of today’s cars and circuits. We still spray the champagne. We still start again on Monday mornings. Yet Michael is there in the background of our combined subconsciousness, – a reminder of what can happen in a millisecond. We send him letters and cards and we post messages on our websites and on the F1 cars themselves.
I know it has made me think more deeply about the meaning of my own life, prompting me to seek my own answers to questions to which the traditional responses have, in some cases, been unsatisfactory. What are we thinking as we try to transmit positive energy to Michael as a Formula 1 community? Are we doing this for ourselves, to make ourselves feel better? Or are we subliminally aware, amid the nebulous layers of F1 life, that there is some higher being out there who will listen and just might help? I don’t recall F1 ever being so close to ‘delving within’. We’ve all had months now to think about Michael and wonder how it is that freak accidents like this can occur to someone so special after a career so dazzling.
It was not long after we’d lost IndyCar racer Scott Brayton, who was killed during practice for the 1996 Indy 500, that I met Dr Joan LaRovere via a mutual friend at Minardi. I was very sad – as we always are, of course, when another driver is lost in some senseless accident. I didn’t know Scott that well – but I’d seen enough of him, both in and out of a car, to know he was a brilliant oval driver and a courteous, dignified human being. Then he was gone. One minute we were having a laugh at an Indy cocktail party; the next I was wiping away the tears.
Joan is a specialist in heart surgery, for children. She was working out of Great Ormond Street at the time, then the Royal Brompton, and she now works at Boston Children’s Hospital. She knew the F1 world, through friends; she also knew death. When I met her, on any given week she was operating on ve to six very sick kids. On a good week she’d save three of them.
I was astounded by her fortitude and general sense of calm. Most of my friends had died doing something they had chosen to do: Joan’s little patients had had no say in the matter.
The world has both doctors and racing drivers, I know – and it also has motor racing enthusiasts, like me. Each has a different nature and each has different circumstances within its own life. All are compatible – but motor racing is just a part of it. I began to put my life into some sort of context. “How do you cope?” I asked Joan. “How can you keep doing that, week after week?”
“Because I’m lucky enough to have been given this opportunity to learn and to work,” she said. “And because I know that death isn’t the end. I know that the soul lives on. I know that a higher power – or whatever you want to call the creator of everything we know – is just.”
I had been raised in an Anglican-orientated family, even though we’d lived in Australia. I was a believer in the sense that I attended church when I could, prayed when something bad seemed to be happening, tried to remember to be thankful and attempted – usually without much
success – to be ‘a good person’. Like most people, though, I’d never really found the answer to the perennial question: if God exists, and is just, then how can little children die of heart failure? Worse, I’d spent so much time in F1 that I now had an ingrained belief that money, power, ego, gossip, back-stabbing and general materialistic thirst were the inevitable product of capitalintensive sport. It had become a way of life. We overcame tragedy by forging on to the next race, sitting and chatting in the hotel lobbies and ‘returning to reality’ as the cars left the pitlane for yet another lap. That is how it works today, as I say, even as we think of Michael.
Motor racing, I’ve come to realise, isn’t really very different from any other human endeavour. There are people in every eld imaginable, who are similarly back-stabbing, materialistic and in search of power, and every one of us has the ability to lose sight of time-honoured human values: ethics and the other dimensions of life can easily be forgotten.
“You don’t think there is an inner being to your existence?” Joan would ask me, talking not to a philosopher but to your basic F1 person wanting simple, logical answers. “Then answer me this. What do you think of when you picture someone – living or dead? Do you think of esh and bones or do you think of the person – the smile, the thoughts, the presence?” “The person, I guess,” I would reply. “Ah,” she would say. “The inner being. The soul. Science has spent very little time focused on what I would call true spirituality. Some tests have proved that the human body actually loses weight at death, as the soul departs. If we had spent as much time over the past 2,000 years trying to understand the workings of our inner being, then I’m sure we’d all be much further down the path.”
She elaborated on this: “Why shouldn’t we apply modern technology – science – to try to understand the way forward? If you want to drive around London you don’t use a road map from 1824 – or 32 AD. You use the most modern technology available. And so it is with life.”
I asked Joan again about how she came to terms with death. “I think that death is just a step towards an ongoing existence,” she replied. “I think all the great religions agree on this. I truly believe it. Life is about learning – about listening to your conscience – your inner self – and about making correct choices. To continue the analogy, I want to try to develop some sort of road map for my next life.”
Joan never fails to impress me, with her sense of tranquillity. “When you put life into the perspective of learning from everything we do, and of trying to apply the correct time-honoured ethical principals to life as it moves around us, then you start to operate at a level where nothing either overly excites or depresses you. Again, this is something that is very hard to achieve – but it is a goal. I could lose my job, my husband, my children all in a day. They could all disappear in an instant. And so I must think ahead – think also of the next life even as I’m living my life every day.”
So here it was: a highly skilled, rational professional showing me that she could also be highly spiritual. Surely, I, too, as an F1 person, could be spiritual and ethical – albeit in a different way – in my own life?
“So how does it work in the real world?” I asked her. “How do you think? How do you get through the day?”
“I try to remember the key ethics – to respect the rights of others at all times; to perform my duties and to respect my personal rights; and to be as kind as I can to other people. I stress that these are my goals. Living up to them all the time would be impossible.”
It’s true. In a sport as materialistic as F1 it’s very difficult not to be caught up in gossip and envy and jealousy and everything else that the websites and the motorhome coffee areas engender – but we can reach a point, I think, where we come to accept everything that happens around us as something from which we can learn (rather than as things that may cause shock or depression or even ridiculous highs). Everything Joan spoke about – and still speaks about – makes sense to me. It’s not a question of “Do you believe in a unique creator?” It’s more a question of “Let’s think about this as F1 people are very good at thinking about things. Michael’s accident has given us the spark.”
I have tried over the years to talk to key F1 people about their thoughts on the existence of something that we can call the soul – about something that lives on beyond the fragility of the human body – and the results have been interesting. Max Mosley and Keith Duckworth were adamant that “this is all there is” – to which I would say, “yes, but what is ‘ this’?” And so it would go on… Ron Dennis thought for a while and said: “I’m not sure whether the next life exists or not, but if it does I’d like to think I’ve qualied…” And Paddy Lowe was sure: “I think there is something else. I don’t know what, but I think it’s there.” Most people I know tend to chortle fashionably at American golfers when they thank god for their latest win, or at Lewis Hamilton when he speaks or tweets about his spiritual beliefs. But I wonder how these same people think about life’s iniquities and about Michael now.
Me? I need constantly to be reminded that I need Him much more than He needs me, so Hamilton’s tweets about the unexpected sight of churches just around the next corner in São Paulo, exotic mosques in Kuala Lumpur, shrines in Suzuka and even car-bumper stickers in Austin are more than welcome to my little world. I’m more cautious, though, about religions that are in any way fuelled by money or power or dogma. I don’t really understand them. ‘Religion’ for me now means much less than ‘spirituality’.
The usual way was to forget about F1’s violent deaths, to move on and then to have the inevitable laugh: “we’re still here!” But things for me today are different. We don’t want to forget about Michael. We all need to confront what’s happened. Which means that there’s a chance, right now, for the F1 world to delve a little deeper. I know that my sport can make us better human beings if we dig deep inside ourselves and seek the truth of life when calamity strikes. The proof comes when we all treat one another with a little more kindness and consideration – when we celebrate F1 while remembering that there’s more to life than merely the world around us.
Call it Michael’s legacy.
ELIO DE ANGELIS