It’s one of the biggest scandals in Formula One’s history, a driver killed despite suffering only minor injuries in a crash.

As the Formula One circus heads to Portugal this weekend, many in the sport will recall the first race win of the great Ayrton Senna, which came in that country in 1985.

In torrential rain, the Brazilian was brilliant, finishing a lap ahead of all but the second-placed Ferrari of Michele Alboreto, and showing why he would ultimately be regarded as one of the sport’s very best.

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

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

It’s an appalling number, one you more readily associate with races from the 1950s or 1960s, when safety in the sport was virtually non-existent.

When Wide World of Sports mentioned it to Alboreto’s Ferrari 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’d never even considered that.

“It was a rough time.”

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

Next month marks the 35th anniversary of de Angelis’ death, a completely needless tragedy that exposed a scandalous attitude to safety by the sport.

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

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

De Angelis was nothing but a passenger as the car flipped, vaulting over the guardrail and eventually coming to rest upside down.

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

Johansson was one of a number of drivers that stopped to try and help, and as Australia’s Alan Jones later said, it quickly became apparent the circuit’s fire marshals consisted of little more than a couple of blokes in t-shirts “who just didn’t have a clue.”

“I was there trying to get him out of the car,” Johansson recalled.

“We were sitting in the pitlane 10 minutes before the accident. He went out, and I followed a few minutes later. I came around the corner and saw the smoke.

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

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

“It was awful.”

Video footage of the immediate aftermath, which out of respect Wide World of Sports has chosen not to publish, shows marshals in regular clothes battling to control the fire with woefully inadequate equipment.

“Had he been able to get out of the car he probably would have been just fine. It was the asphyxiation that got him, the fumes,” Johansson said.

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

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

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

“Every time you step into a race car, the danger is there, whether you’re racing or testing,” he explained.

“In many ways testing in that era was worse, because the safety procedures are not necessarily in place as they would be at a race.

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

The fact that de Angelis is remembered mainly for his death is a tragedy in itself. A winner of two grands prix 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 overly so for one in such a cut-throat business. To be rude and aggressive was against his nature.”

A concert-standard pianist, he once entertained his fellow drivers by playing classical music during a strike prior to the 1982 South African Grand Prix.

From a wealthy family, de Angelis had to overcome the perception that he’d bought his way into the sport, and to be fair, there were some bumpy moments when he was younger, such as the time he was disqualified from the 1981 British Grand Prix for ignoring yellow flags.

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

“He was a top driver, one of the top guys through that period,” he explained.

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

“It’s a bit the same with [Aston Martin’s] Lance Stroll at the moment, he’s an excellent driver, and he’s shown that more than enough to prove his worth, but because he’s grown up in the circumstances he has, he’s automatically labelled as someone who’s got the drive because of the money.”

Johansson, who was a teammate to both Senna and Prost during his career, is now an artist based in California, an interest he began pursuing immediately after de Angelis died.

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

“He was a lot of fun to be around, we hit it off incredibly well. We loved each other’s company.”

The pair were never teammates, but ironically their friendship away from the car blossomed after a number of on-track tussles.

“We knew each other a little bit from the years before F1, when we were in F3 or F2, although he was a couple of years ahead of me,” the Swede recalled.

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

“You give each other a hug and say ‘that was a good battle’ and then we’d go out for dinner.”

It was once remarked that de Angelis “couldn’t help being handsome and rich” but dig a little deeper and all the contemporary publications from that era make note of his generosity and charm.

Fluent in several languages, an appreciation published in the 1986 edition of the sport’s bible, Autocourse, describes him as “a warm, wholesome, intelligent, perceptive human, with a glint in his eye and a devastating smile.”

It went on to note that he was “the most captivating of raconteurs” who could “engage you in frank, fascinating conversation on a range of subjects, then have you reeling in laughter at his jokes.”

The saying that ‘only the good die young’ might be overused, but in the case of de Angelis it’s very appropriate, says Johansson, and makes the tragic scenes at the Paul Ricard circuit that Wednesday morning in May 1986 even harder to digest.

“I don’t think you’d find a single person in the paddock that had a bad word to say about him,” Johansson said.

“He was a super guy.

“He played some nice tunes on the piano as well, just a really cool guy.”

For a daily dose of the best of the breaking news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.