With Mark Webber’s return to the cockpit just twelve weeks after his cycling accident that left him with a broken right leg, my thoughts turned other drivers who have suffered fractures in the past and how they went about returning to the sport that they so dearly love. Needless to say, Webber’s healing process took a lot less time than those who raced during the sport’s dawn in the ’30s and ’50s, but you’d be amazed at what they got up to back then…
Following his accident, Mark Webber was well looked after, of course. As soon as he came off his bike pre-planned procedures were put in place and the Australian was rushed to hospital without question or hesitation. And being a sportsperson who needs his legs, the only real option for Mark was to have a pin inserted. This speeds up the recovery process as the bone is forced together; waiting for the bone to heal naturally would take too long and would have likely put Webber out of action for the start of the 2009 season.
Undoubtedly, Mark relaxed over the Christmas period but it wouldn’t have been long before he was in the swimming pool, in the gym and being tortured by a physiotherapist. Clearly though, the hard work has paid off and Webber drove the new RB5 car earlier in the week at a test session in Spain. The lap times set by the no-nonsense racer were competitive from the off.
Webber’s break is the first in a few years for a competing Formula One driver, the last time it happened being in 1999. Back then, the driver being carted off to hospital was none other than world champion Michael Schumacher. A rear brake failure on the first lap of the British Grand Prix resulted in the Ferrari pilot charging into the tyre barrier at Stowe. I believe the quote from Schumacher went something like: “As soon as I impacted the tyres, I knew there was something seriously wrong. It didn’t hurt very much though.”
Schumacher’s recovery process for a broken leg took about the same as Webber’s, and like his fellow-sportsman, Michael too had metal placed in him. The German driver missed six races but returned with a point to prove; Michael took pole position in both the remaining races of the season, and finished second in each. Arguably, Schumacher could have won in Malaysia, but the team player dutifully allowed his team mate Eddie Irvine to finish ahead knowing he was still in the hunt for the world championship.
Two years before Schumacher’s accident, Olivier Panis had a fairly horrific crash at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Canada. On the back part of the track where the armco-lined tarmac gently weaves between the over hanging trees, Panis suffered a double impact in his Prost. A hard whack on the right side of the track sent his car over to the left for second blow. The result of this incident left the French driver receiving medical attention at the side of the track for quite some time. In fact, it is the only race I have actually witnessed being stopped early (I believe).
Olivier’s accident resulted in both his legs being broken, but intense physio meant the Prost driver only missed seven races of the year, the recovery time being about 14 weeks. Upon his return at the Luxembourg Grand Prix, Panis (like many others) had a point to prove. And in fact, it was a point he won, finishing in sixth which at the time earned one point in the championship. The French driver was only 0.5s shy of fifth and drove a pretty competitive race.
These drivers are lucky to an extent though – they all raced (and still do) at a time when safety is considered paramount in such a dangerous sport. Although some things cannot be made safer for a driver hitting 180mph, the advances in medical knowledge have helped them all. The pins inserted in Panis, Schumacher and Webber have sped up their recoveries and the tailored physio they all went through improved the strength of their broken limb more than at any time previously…
In 1969, world champion Graham Hill was competing in the United States Grand Prix in a Lotus 49B. Considered a fragile, but ultimately quick car, Hill had used it to his advantage in 1968 to take the title. But a year later, when the car was dated and less competitive, Hill’s career would be dealt a bitter blow. It was during the Watkins Glen event that Hill spun his Lotus. This meant the double world champion had to get out of the car and push-start it. Not being able to refasten his own belts, the Briton decided to just get on with the race.
However, Hill’s Lotus had a puncture – likely to have been caused by the spin – and Hill signalled his wish to come into the pits to have the tyre replaced. Graham never made it back around that lap, as the tyre let go at the end of the straight and sent the Lotus somersaulting into the embankment. Hill was thrown from the car and suffered broken legs as a result.
Thankfully for Hill, the accident happened at the penultimate race of the year and thus only one race was missed. Upon his return to testing prior to the 1970 season, Hill struggled to get in and out of the car on his own and was said to be in pain as he drove around the circuits. However, with grit and determination, Graham competed in the first race of the year in South Africa and scored a point. Unfortunately though, Hill was never truly the same after his accident. The Briton failed to win again, perhaps due to his injuries and perhaps also due to the cars he piloted not being as competitive.
When thinking about racing drivers who have suffered broken limbs though, one name stands out above all others. In fact, it was this driver that prompted me to write about the accidents and recoveries of Formula One drivers today because the stories behind this name are quite simply astonishing. The driver is Tazio Nuvolari, and the Italian raced before Formula One became the organised sport that is today.
Nuvolari raced in the pre-War era, a time when an accident often meant a fatality as well. Safety was almost unheard of and the bravery and courage (or perhaps stupidity) of the drivers back then was legendary. And if any one man deserves to be catergorised as a legend, Nuvolari is at the top of the list. Coming off his motorcycle and crashing his car more times than people care to remember, Tazio went down in history for two things; his injuries, but most importantly, his outright skill despite the injuries.
The Tales Of Tazio
In 1925 and enjoying success as a motorcycle racer, Nuvolari was invited by Alfa Romeo for a trial in one of their Grand Prix cars at Monza. Ever impressed with all things fast, Nuvolari agreed. However, after just a few laps of driving the P2 car, Tazio crashed and was taken to hospital. The doctors ordered Nuvolari to take a month off to allow the lacerations on his back to heal. This didn’t wash with the Italian though, and heavily bandaged up, Nuvolari competed in the Nations Grand Prix at Monza less than a week later on his motorcycle. It is reported he had to be tied to the bike as his legs were also injured in the car accident.
He won the race.
The following year reports of Nuvolari’s death reportedly hit a German evening newspaper following a sizable accident on his Bianchi 350 motorcycle at the Solitude Circuit near Stuttgart. A concerned telegram had also been sent to Rome and it wasn’t until people saw the Italian traveling home the day after the race that they finally believed he had survived and was relatively unhurt.
By the early ’30s, Nuvolari had made the switch to race cars and was setting the world alight with his skill and bravery. At the Le Mans 24 Hour he and Raymond Sommer competed in an Alfa Romeo. The pair had been doing well until the fuel tank developed a leak. The drivers were forced to continually pit to have chewing gum reapplied to cover the hole. Despite this though, they won and Tazio broke the lap record nine times.
In 1934 and while competing in a race in Northern Italy, Nuvolari crashed his car while taking avoidance action to dodge a stricken Carlo Felice Trossi. The accident resulted in a broken leg for Tazio, and the Italian was ordered to rest up in hospital. Fortunately for us, that wasn’t Nuvolari’s style. Four weeks after his accident, Tazio decided that he was done with being bored and entered himself in the AVUS-Rennen. With one of his legs still in plaster, Tazio’s Maserati was adapted to allow him to operate all three pedals with his other foot. Understandably, Nuvolari suffered from cramps during the high-speed race and he finished fifth. Unbelievably, the Italian took part in the race in the first place.
Tazio would race again that year, but although his leg was soon out of the plaster, it was still causing the Italian considerably amounts of pain. Of course, the show went on though, and Nuvolari continued racing.
Two years later in 1936, Nuvolari suffered one of his bigger accidents – yes, believe it or not his injuries thus far aren’t that bad in comparison – while practicing for the Tripoli Grand Prix. It is alleged that Tazio damaged some of his ribs and may have even damaged some vertebrae. Despite this though, Nuvolari was strapped up in bandages and went out to contest the race the following day. If the stories of his damaged vertebrae are true, then Nuvolari can be considered one of the luckiest drivers ever, for he appeared to suffer no further ill-effects after he healed from the accident.
During practice for the 1938 Pau Grand Prix, Nuvolari’s Alfa suffered a split fuel tank and the car caught on fire. The ensuing accident left Nuvolari with minor bruising and burns to his face, arms and legs. Finally, the Italian was shocked enough to take a break from racing. Annoyed at the shoddy workmanship of the car, Tazio walked away from the Alfa team and travelled to America. He returned to racing with Auto Union a few months later, but World War II soon interrupted motor sport.
After the Second World War had ended in 1945, Nuvolari was 53 years old. Still wanting to compete though, the Italian entered a few races. Towards the end of 1945 Tazio was hit in the face by fuel during an event and this, along with general exposure during his career, lead to severe asthma. It did not lead to Nuvolari’s retirement though, despite the doctors orders. In 1946, Nuvolari contested the Milan Grand Prix while driving one-handed. His other was holding a blood-stained handkerchief to his mouth.
The man was simply unstoppable.
Tazio Nuvolari would eventually survive motor racing, which in fairness is a somewhat incredibly achievement in itself. Furthermore, Nuvolari would go down in history is one of the greatest drivers to have ever graced the tarmac of a racing circuit. He won when he shouldn’t have, even upsetting the Third Reich at times, but continued despite injuries and the personal tragedies of losing both his sons when they were still very young. Tazio died in 1953 at the age of 60 following a deterioration in health and eventually, a stroke.
Drivers continue to injure themselves, either as a result of their passion or as a result of training or moving too quickly in an elevator. But what marks a racing driver out from many other sportspeople is their determination to return to competition as quickly as possible. Racing drivers rarely just quit. Many have died in competition, some reach an age when they feel they cannot keep up anymore and gracefully call it a day. Injury though is just a minor inconvenience in the relentless pursuit of going that little bit faster.