Martin Brundle : My own goal

The Formula One motor racing driver from Norfolk last week signed a contract to race again for the Ligier team. Here he recalls an incident in last year's Japanese Grand Prix, an event he thought would be his last . . .

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:02

IT WAS bizarre, because in the drivers' briefing I was the one who'd said it was dangerous having the caterpillar tractors that the organisers use to move damaged cars going against the flow of racing traffic. In qualifying I'd found one coming ro und a corner after an incident.

In the race it was pouring and I had just radioed in to say my McLaren was aquaplaning. There's a distinct possibility I had a slow puncture in my right rear tyre from debris from various crashes. I was also a few inches further to the left through that quick fifth-gear left-hander, the Degner Curve that leads back uphill behind the pits. My car swapped ends on exactly the same puddle that had just made Gianni Morbidelli crash.

Apparently there were yellow warning flags, but you're driving in a ball of spray. I'm not romanticising it but sometimes you cannot see your own dashboard. You can't see anything. You know when you're at that critical point just up by a truck's rear wheels on the motorway, where if you stay in the spray you're in trouble, so you have to drive through it and overtake. In Formula One the guy in front doesn't let you past, so you have to stay in the wet. And you don't have wipers.

Anyway, I'm now travelling backwards, trying to keep it on the road, then as soon as I touched the grass, as you can imagine, it just accelerated. And as the car gyrates you look out of whichever side you're going, and it became very clear that I was heading for a nasty situation. There was a red Honda Accord Estate that was reversing out of the way, the wrong side of the barrier; I don't know what it was doing there.

As I got very close to Morbidelli's wrecked Footwork, my part of the car was heading for the caterpillar tractor about five metres away. I can see it now, a blue tractor, out of the right side of my cockpit, looming up. And I'm going at enormous speed still. And I really thought that I was going to die.

What's amazing is that I wasn't scared, which is really scary in itself. I saw it coming, and it's the first time I've really thought: `You've had it, you're not going to make this one.'

I just stamped the brakes again. I'd released the brakes, then stamped them again. I did that in the Race of Champions events in America once when a guy called Rusty Wallace pushed me off at Michigan; I was hurtling towards the end of the pit wall, remembering what I been told: `Whatever you do, don't hit the end of the pit wall!' And I did the same thing then. If you jump on the brakes it can actually make the car go into a different kind of spin. I did that and by some miracle it just whistled past the caterpillar. Before that my shoulder had been going right for it. There was no way I'd have survived, no way on earth.

Somehow I then went clean through the gap between the caterpillar and the barrier, where the Honda Accord had been and where the caterpillar was moving to. I'm sure this slightly chubby Japanese marshal with his crash hat on went across my cockpit. I have this real vision of his crash helmet in front of mine. Another broke a leg.

I never did suffer any follow-up reaction - perhaps because racing drivers are conditioned. These things are in your head but while they don't ever come much to the front of your mind, at the back of it you know that this could happen one day. So when ithappens there's absolutely no shock. Most people would have a month off work.

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