May 8, 2021

Sports Legend

F1 2021 | The ‘terrible’ F1 tragedy that claimed the life of Elio de Angelis

As the Formula 1 circus travels to Portugal this weekend, many athletes will remember the first race victory of the great Ayrton Senna, who arrived in this country in 1985.

In torrential rain, the Brazilian was brilliant, finishing a lap ahead of everyone except Michele Alboreto’s second Ferrari, and showing why he would ultimately be considered one of the best in the sport.

But there is a dark side to that 1985 race, a sobering number that seems horribly out of place in modern sport.

While Senna’s victory is the first thing many associate with this race, what is often overlooked is the fact that four of the top six finishers on that day subsequently died in racing crashes.

That’s a dreadful number, which you more readily associate with racing in the 1950s or 1960s, when safety in the sport was practically non-existent.

When Wide World of Sports told Alboreto teammate Stefan Johansson, who finished eighth in that race, the Swede was momentarily stunned.

“Wow,” he said softly, before pausing briefly.

“You’re right, I never even thought of that.

“It was a difficult time.”

Senna’s death in 1994 made world headlines, of course, but Alboreto, second, Elio de Angelis, fourth, and Stefan Bellof, sixth, also paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of speed.

Next month marks the 35th anniversary of de Angelis’ death, a completely unnecessary tragedy that revealed an outrageous attitude towards the safety of the sport.

The Italian, who was 28 when he died, was killed in a crash during testing in France, despite suffering nothing more than a broken collarbone in the crash.

His Brabham suffered a rear wing failure at the end of the pit straight, just before a high-speed S-turn at the Paul Ricard circuit.

De Angelis was nothing more than a passenger as the car turned, jumped over the guardrail and ended up coming to a stop upside down.

Although he suffered only relatively minor injuries, de Angelis was unable to extricate himself from the car, which caught fire as fuel began to leak.

Johansson was one of the many drivers who stopped to try and help, and as Australian Alan Jones later said, it quickly became apparent that the circuit fire marshals consisted of a few more than two dudes in t-shirts “who just didn’t do it. get a clue.”

“I was there to try to get him out of the car,” Johansson recalls.

“We were seated in the pit lane 10 minutes before the accident. He came out, and I followed a few minutes later. I came to the corner and saw the smoke.

“There was me, (Jacques) Laffite, Jonesy and Alain Prost.

“We couldn’t get close to the car, we tried to turn it over but there was nothing we could do.

“It was horrible.”

Video footage of the immediate aftermath, which Wide World of Sports chose not to publish out of respect, shows properly dressed marshals struggling to control the fire with woefully inadequate equipment.

“If he could have gotten out of the car he probably would have been fine. It was the suffocation that made him, the fumes,” Johansson said.

Not only did the absence of the firefighters mean a nearly 10-minute delay in getting Angelis out of the car, but there was no medical helicopter on hand to transport the Italian to the hospital, a situation that would never have been allowed if it had been an official race weekend.

De Angelis died the next day in a Marseille hospital from smoke inhalation.

Johansson noted that the very strict safety standards that applied to race weekends were completely lacking during testing, a situation which was corrected after de Angelis’ death.

“Every time you get into a racing car the danger is there whether you are racing or testing,” he explained.

“In many ways the testing back then was worse as the safety procedures weren’t necessarily in place like they would be in a race.

“But now they are, they won’t even go out on the runway these days unless the medical helicopter is there and everything is ready.”

The fact that de Angelis mainly remembers his death is a tragedy in itself. Winner of two grand prizes during his career, he finished third in the 1984 world championship behind Niki Lauda and Alain Prost.

One of the sport’s leading journalists, Nigel Roebuck, wrote in 1986 that de Angelis had “effortless talent and flair”, although he added that he was “sensitive, perhaps too much for anyone. one in such a fierce business. Being rude and aggressive. was against his nature. “

A concert pianist, he once entertained fellow pilots by playing classical music during a strike before the 1982 South African Grand Prix.

Coming from a wealthy family, de Angelis had to overcome the perception that he had bought his place in the sport, and to be fair there were some bumpy times when he was younger, like when he was disqualified from the British Grand 1981. Prize for ignoring the yellow flags.

But to simply tag him as another rich kid is unfair, according to Johansson.

“He was a top driver, one of the best of this period,” he explained.

“But it’s unfortunate, if you come from a wealthy family, you automatically get this stigma whether you deserve it or not.

“It’s a bit the same with [Aston Martin’s] Lance Stroll at the moment he’s a great pilot, and he’s shown it more than enough to prove his worth, but because he’s grown up in the circumstances he’s in he’s automatically labeled as someone. who has the wheel because of the money. “

Johansson, who was a teammate of Senna and Prost during his career, is now a California-based artist, an interest he began to pursue immediately after Angelis’ death.

“We were very tight when we raced in F1, we developed a good friendship, we hung out a lot, both during races and even between races. He was a wonderful guy, lovely, very sophisticated, very classy” , Johansson mentioned.

“It was a lot of fun to be with him, we got along really well. We loved each other’s company.”

The couple were never teammates, but ironically their friendship away from the car blossomed after a number of track brawls.

“We had known each other a bit from the years before F1, when we were in F3 or F2, even though he was a few years ahead of me,” recalls the Swede.

“But the friendship really started when we had a few tough battles together. I think we both ran hard, but very respectfully, and when you get out of the car after the race it’s hard to explain, but there is a certain level of respect and admiration at the same time.

“You hug each other and say ‘that was a good fight’ and then we would go out to dinner.”

It was once noticed that de Angelis “couldn’t help but be handsome and rich” but dig a little deeper and all contemporary publications from that time point to his generosity and charm.

Fluent in several languages, an assessment published in the 1986 edition of the sports bible, Autocourse, describes him as “a warm, healthy, intelligent and perceptive human with a gleam in his eyes and a devastating smile.”

He added that he was “the most captivating of storytellers” who could “engage you in a frank and compelling conversation on a range of topics and then make you laugh at his jokes.”

The saying that “ only the good die young ” might be overused, but in De Angelis’s case, it’s very apt, says Johansson, and makes the Paul Ricard circuit tragic scenes on that Wednesday morning in May 1986 again. more difficult to digest.

“I don’t think you will find a single person in the paddock who has a bad word to say about them,” said Johansson.

“Hey was a great guy.

“He also played some pretty tunes on the piano, just a really cool guy.”

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