CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Over the years death has become relatively rare in motorsports, so when it happens as it did this past Saturday during the opening laps of the 24 Hours of Le Mans when Dane Allan Simosen suffered fatal injuries when his Aston Martin slammed into a tree, the hue and cry about the safety of the eight-and-a-half-mile Sarthe circuit is brought front and center.
In truth, Simosen’s demise, the first since 1986, some 27 years previously, highlights the efforts the Automobile Club du L’Ouest, the organizers of the classic 24-hour affair that celebrated its 90th anniversary this year.
So dramatic are the changes that in many ways the course, much of which is made up of public roads that haven’t changed in and of themselves, is nearly unrecognizable to the “old-timers” of the past.
Yet, no human endeavor is without flaws, something which Saturday’s tragedy clearly demonstrated. Even so, the accident raised a larger question: whether or not the speed and sophistication of today’s cars have exceeded the circuit’s ability, despite the ACO’s best efforts, to contain them. Put another way, is the present Le Mans environment safe enough for the 24-hour event to continue in its present format?
This year’s constantly changing weather, with showers dousing some portions of the course, while leaving others dry, led to a series of accidents that tore up the temporary guardrails installed on its public sections so much that almost five hours of the race was run behind pace cars led under full-course yellow-flag conditions. However, those guardrails did their job. Overall despite those mishaps, the majority of the cars involved where able to return to the race.
Motorsports is built around speed and danger and Le Mans over the years has had plenty of both. In fact, before chicanes were installed on the three-and-a-half-mile Mulsanne straight, the faster prototypes were touching 250 mph. And, even now, there are at least four places during a lap where the front runners still exceed 200 mph. Yet, Simosen’s tragic loss, rather than pointing out the need for more change, in its rarity demonstrates just how far the sport has come in protecting those who are involved in it.
Today’s cars have huge margins of safety built into them, while the tracks themselves, as is the case with Le Mans have be crafted to control the increases in performance that are ever ongoing.
The 24-hour with its Audi-Toyota battle that began at the start and continued to the end, made 2013, despite the weather and the yellow flags, a dramatic compelling affair.
Nothing is perfect, and one would expect that the ACO will take steps to make Le Mans even safer for the future. But, in the meantime, we all need to remember just how far we’ve come in the 90 years since the first 24-hour was held and be proud of what we’ve accomplished.