Thursday, September 21, 2006

Richard Hammond and Ayrton Senna

A couple of brief notes on Richard Hammond, who, as has been noted already on this blog, we all hope to see back, fit and as enthusiastic as ever at some point in the future. Hospital messages seem mixed to say the least (dumping phrases like "Severe brain injury" and "good recovery" in the same release suggests to me a medical team still hedging their bets) so we wish him all the best.

The entire affair has uncomfortably reminded me of the sad death of Ayrton Senna, over a decade ago. For those who didn't spend every second sunday of their childhood sat watching cars go round very fast in a wonky circle, Senna was (and still is despite the statistics of a certain reptilian German who shall remain nameless) the greatest racing car driver of all time. At Imola, in Italy, in 1994 his car (for reasons still shrouded in Diana-esque levels of conspiratorial conjecture) didn't turn at the circuit's fastest corner and he hit a concrete wall at 135 mph, causing a piece of steering column to break free and pierce his helmet, resulting in massive and fatal brain injuries.

At the time there was a similar journalistic slavering over footage, as various networks played moral chicken, lingering on shots of Senna's car hitting the concrete wall and the resulting wreckage. Similarly I find slightly distasteful the obligatory shots of Hammond driving fast, stock footage of a 'similar' jet powered vehicle, suitably grainy and edgy shots of Hammond driving this particular vehicle and then long, panning shots of the crash site. The knowledge that somewhere in a room in the BBC there is most likely first rate footage of the whole accident is like the elephant in the room that every broadcast seems to be hinting at and longing for. As the recent furore over the Italian magazine publishing of a Diana crash photo (and every rubber-necking inspired post-crash tailback you've had to suffer through) attests to, we remain unhealthily fascinated by car crashes.

The hang-over from all this drooling glee is the obligatory guilty hand-wringing that follows. In the Senna case, various tribunals, investigations and Panorama-styled television specials with resonant voiceovers resulted in an end to the Tamburello (Imola's legendary and now Brazilian-slaying corner), a lengthy manslaughter inquiry and a great deal of hot air about the safety of Formula One. Already various programes have begun to intone about presenters being forced into ever more dangerous stunts in an inhumane ratings-chase and the BBC has been lambasted into launching an unsurprising knee-jerk enquiry.

Top Gear, for all its bad points (and it had many) was a show based around three of the most watchable and (even in Clarkson's case) likeable television personalities around doing what they passionately enjoyed the most. Like formula one, these people drive things fast for our (and their) enjoyment. When you drive things fast and they stop working, despite all the precautions in the world, its not going to be pretty. If the greatest driver in the history of driving was unable to prevent this, its unlikely that a more experienced driver than Richard Hammond (who knew a thing or two it must be said) would stand much of chance. If you are to allow people to drive machines fast (planes, trains or automobiles) they might have an accident and people will get hurt.

So, the problem comes because this was done for television. The moral equilibrium, tipped by our communal televisual rubber-neck, must be set straight by hours of earnest consternation about everything from boy-racers, to the thrill culture, to tv-ratings wars.

We live in an imperfect world filled with even more imperfect machines. Although it may seem unpalatable with hindsight to promote activities that endanger the lives of those involved, despite all the safety precausions possible, playing with the kinds of machines that we have grown to love involves an unavoidable element of risk. It is a fact that those who follow formula one have long appreciated. In the words Senna himself:

One particular thing that Formula-1 can provide you, is that you know you're always exposed to danger. Danger of getting hurt, danger of dying. This is part of your life, and you either face it in a professional, in a cool manner, or you just drop it, just leave it and don't do it anymore really. And I happen to like too much what I do to just drop it, I can't drop it.


Devil's Kitchen said...


Excellent stuff! Good to see you back and on form, sir.

Sorry, didn't get to London this week, but soon I think.

Come, write more often: you know I'm a fan...


Soupdragon said...

Good points. Play int street and you'll got knocked down, an all that.
Still, I liked the Hammster ~ the say he found out he was technically an alcoholic cos of his weekly intake had me in fits.
Maybe now he'll stick to commentary. Hoping he can, of course.



Anonymous said...

"If you are to allow people to drive machines fast (planes, trains or automobiles) they might have an accident and people will get hurt."

I fear the usual suspects are working on that 'allow people' part of the equation right this very minute.....

chris said...

it's already there, CiF can work quickly when there is some pleasant pastime to ban.

Pogo said...

Just one minor point... Senna was killed by a piece of suspension top-arm. The broken steering column bit is one of the conspiracy theories of what caused the accident in the first place.

Andrew Field said...

I stand corrected.

Mr Eugenides said...

Senna was a driver entirely without peer in the modern era. Hammond's job, while occasionally risky as this accident has shown, was not to be considered in the same breath. Most of the work the Top Gear team do revolve around car-boats, "racing" against ferries, light aircraft and the like, and racing round an open track at admittedly high speeds. Both require a good deal of bravery, but Senna's greatness was in his utter fearlessness and dedication to chasing the tenth of a second that separated him from the merely very good.

Mark Lawson's claim, in today's Grauniad, that television presenting is "statistically more dangerous than racing driving" had me gasping in disbelief. I generally quite like Lawson, even if I don't share his politics, but this was a classic example of Guardian towers out-of-touch-edness. Back to bickering with Paulin, speccy twat.

Andrew Field said...

Agree entirely on both counts.

It was the reaction rather than the incident itself that reminded me of Senna (a hero of mine who I almost met at silverstone in 1990, and I have the picture of him and Berger through a chainlink fence to prove it).

Senna's death also demonstrated, I feel, that when you are dealing with vehicles of a certain power and speed, ability is not a guarantee of safety.

I think it must be said that both do share(d) an enthusiasm for driving and motorsports (Hammond is apparently a huge motorbike lover - almost always a guaranteur of someone with a oil in their veins) and though Senna was a breathtakingly driven character, with an unparalled passion for his sport, (while Hammond was by any estimation more of an entertainer than a sporting legend) they both lived in a world in which they were fully aware of the danger posed by their passions.

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