• Top ten ... first lap crashes

Chain reactions

Martin Williamson April 25, 2011

The start of a grand prix is a fraught time for even the best drivers, and a mass of cars piling into the early corners can too often cause chaos. We look at ten first-lap pile-ups

Cars are strewn over the track after the mass pile-up at Monza ©
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Italian Grand Prix, 1978
In terms of the number of cars involved, the 11-vehicle shunt at Monza holds the record and it also resulted in the tragic death of Ronnie Peterson. Much of the blame was levelled at the starter who turned on the red lights before the grid had finished lining up, and then several mid-field cars started before those at the front. The net result was a catastrophic funnelling of cars into the chicane - James Hunt was forced to swerve to avoid Riccardo Patrese and clipped Peterson who careered into the barriers. Eight other cars piled into the melee, and for a time medical efforts centred on Vittorio Brambilla, who had been hit on the head by a loose wheel and was unconscious. Peterson had been pulled free of his Lotus by other drivers and lay on the track with serious, but apparently not life-threatening, injuries but it was an age before he was treated. Eventually both drivers were taken to hospital - Brambilla was soon discharged but following surgery, Peterson developed complications and died the following day of an embolism.

Belgian Grand Prix, 1998
Not one but two first-lap crashes in the wet at Spa. The first came when David Coulthard lost control of his McLaren, turned 90° and wiped out a number of other cars, causing the race to be stopped. At the restart four drivers were absent - three because their teams had run out of cars, one, Rubens Barrichello, was injured. When they tried for a second time there was more trouble as championship leader Mika Hakkinen spun at the first corner and took out Johnny Herbert, and then Coulthard collided with Alex Wurz, bringing the safety car into action. Coulthard's forgettable day was not finished even then - as Michael Schumacher, leading by a long distance, tried to lap him, Coulthard mucked up his line and took Schumacher out. A livid Schumacher stormed into the McLaren garage and yelled "eere you trying to f***ing kill me?" at Coulthard, and the pair had to be separated by mechanics.

Monaco Grand Prix, 1950
Proof that first-lap crashes are nothing new came in what was the second Formula One championship race. Nino Farina, in second place, skidded on the part of the road soaked by the sea at Tabac Corner after a manic start. In the resulting melee, eight others were put out and by the end of the second lap only nine of the 19 starters remained and the tracked was soaked in spilt fuel. Only Juan Manuel Fangio and Luigi Villoresi escaped the chaos, but as Fangio came round again he became aware of yellow flags waving. "The spectators … were not looking at me leading the race but the other way," he said, and instinctively raised his hand to warn drivers behind him of the danger. Arriving on the scene, Fangio found the track blocked and fuel spilling everywhere, along with marshals desperately trying to clear the area. He leant out and gently nudged one of the crashed cars out of the way and continued. Villoresi and Alberto Ascari followed but none came close to catching Fangio who finished a lap ahead of Ascari.

The resulting carnage after Jody Scheckter triggered a first lap crash at Silverstone © Sutton Images
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British Grand Prix, 1973
A multi-car pile-up which could have been far more serious had it not been for the quick thinking of Jackie Stewart. The race started with a two-car accident on the grid when Jackie Oliver rear-ended Niki Lauda, and developed into a multi-car pile-up after one lap, causing it to be stopped. Rookie Jody Scheckter was held to blame after he ran too wide, clipped the grass and spun across the track and into the pit wall. The pack was left with nowhere to go and many cars were caught up in the resulting melee. The leaders were oblivious, other than by yellow flags, of the extent of what had happened until they sped round a lap later to be confronted with a wall of debris. Stewart did superbly to brake in time, holding up his hand to warn those behind him to do likewise. "His lightning appreciation of the situation undoubtedly saved lives," noted Eric Dymock in the Guardian. Most drivers escaped unharmed, but it took 40 minutes to cut Andrea de Adamich out of his Brabham, and he never raced again. Most affected were the Surtees team, already suffering a poor season, which lost all three of its cars. By the time the race restarted 100 minutes later, nine of the original starters were missing.

British Grand Prix, 1976
Three years later and another shambolic start to a British Grand Prix triggered a near riot. A huge crowd flocked to Brand Hatch to see James Hunt, but when he was caught up in a first-corner crash which started when Clay Regazzoni hit Ferrari team-mate Niki Lauda, his day seemed to be over. As debris from at least half-a-dozen cars was cleared, several teams prepared spare cars for drivers whose own ones were undriveable. But stewards ruled replacement cars could not be used unless drivers had completed the first lap, ruling out Hunt and others. Faced with an increasingly angry crowd, they backed down, Hunt raced and went on to win. His joy did not last as Ferrari appealed, and more than two months later he was disqualified and Lauda declared the winner.

German Grand Prix, 2001
Proof even the greats have off days came at Hockenheim when world champion Michael Schumacher struggled with his gear selection off the line, and Luciano Burti was unable to avoid slamming into the crawling Ferrari. "Burti's Prost twisted in the air before landing upside down between the Orange Arrows of Bernoldi and Jos Verstappen," the Daily Mirror reported. "The impact thrust Schumacher 's Ferrari at least an extra 200 metres down the track and left Burti shedding wheels and debris in all directions." A re-start was ordered but Schumacher did not enjoy the reprieve as his replacement Ferrari expired, leaving him to watch the remainder of the race from the cool shelter of trackside trees. The home crowd still had a Schumacher victory to cheer, Ralf enjoying one of his six career wins.

Jacques Laffite's Ligier is carried away after the accident which ended his career © Sutton Images
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British Grand Prix, 1986
Not so much a pile-up as a roadblock as damaged cars littered the track after a mechanical failure heading into the first bend caused Thierry Boutsen's Arrows to spear across the track and bounce back off the barriers, with many of those behind unable to avoid the debris. Jacques Laffite's day started with him being feted for equalling the most number of grand prix starts but ended with him in hospital with two broken legs: career-ending injuries. Far luckier was Nigel Mansell who suffered driveshaft failure in the opening seconds and who had radioed his pits to say his race was over. The re-start allowed him to jump into the reserve car, in which he went on to win, a feat made all the more remarkable as in their haste to get the Williams ready, the pit crew had forgotten to put a water bottle on board.

Canadian Grand Prix, 1980
There was no giving way when Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet stormed from the front row into the second corner at the cramped Ile Notre Dame circuit. The pair touched wheels and Piquet slammed into a wall, "triggering a chain reaction of skidding, bumping cars behind him" reported the Times. Bernie Ecclestone, at the time Piquet's manager, wailed: "Jones leaned on Nelson and pushed him into the wall." Six drivers jumped into reserve cars, while others had to surrender theirs to senior drivers in their team. At the re-start Jones beat Piquet off the line only for Piquet to battle back into the lead soon after. He seemed set for victory when his engine died, and although Didier Pironi crossed the line first, he was disqualified for jumping the start and Jones awarded the win, and with it the world championship.

Argentina Grand Prix, 1979
Eight cars were involved in a crash as the field headed into the esses on the first lap when John Watson and Jody Scheckter touched wheels and took several others with them in the resulting accident. Fortunately, nobody was injured, and a day which started in chaos ended in farce when Juan Manuel Fangio waved the chequered flag a lap too soon, mistaking the Lotus of Mario Andretti, a lap down in fifth, with race leader and winner Jacques Laffite.

French Grand Prix, 1989
One of the more spectacular crashes came at Paul Ricard, with Mauricio Gugelmin's March flying through the air after colliding with Thierry Boutsen's Williams and landing on Nigel Mansell's Ferrari. Again, several reserve cars were called into action, and although Mansell suffered neck and head injuries, he knuckled down, took over team-mate Gerhard Berger's car, started from the pit lane and finished second.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA Martin Williamson, who grew up in the era of James Hunt, Niki Lauda and sideburns, became managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group in 2007 after spells with Sky Sports, Sportal and Cricinfo