As Formula 1 fans wait and hope that seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher pulls through after suffering severe head trauma while ski-ing off piste above the French resort of Meribel yesterday, those of us with long memories of F1 may recall what happens when the emergency responders and medical teams don’t recognise this kind of injury, and act quickly enough to make a difference.
Michael Schumacher was diagnosed and treated quickly ...
Schumacher was able, it seems, to walk away after hitting his head on a rock after falling. He was wearing a protective helmet. It may have been something and nothing. But he was airlifted to hospital in Moutiers, which was shown to be the right course of action as his condition deteriorated rapidly. He was later moved to a larger hospital in Grenoble, where surgeons operated to relieve pressure on his brain.
Back in 1973, in the infinitely more dangerous days of F1, two equally famous and well-regarded drivers decided to retire, relieved that they had survived as long as they had. In the UK, three-time F1 world champion Jackie Stewart left at the end of the season and was never persuaded to return. His Tyrrell team-mate François Cevert had been killed in practice for the last round in the USA.
... while Mark Donohue (seen after his Indy 500 win) wasn't
Over in the USA, Mark Donohue, 1972 Indianapolis 500 winner and driver of the awesomely powerful long-tail Porsche 917/30 that laid waste to the rest of the field in the 1973 Can-Am series, also retired. His friend Swede Savage had died in that year’s Indy 500. But Donohue was persuaded by his former mentor Roger Penske to come back later the following year for a crack at F1.
Formula 1 was not such a straightforward proposition for Penske and Donohue, and in the middle of the 1975 season their own car was sidelined in favour of a bought-in March 751, which immediately rewarded its owners with a points finish at the British GP. But in practice at the Austrian race some weeks later, Donohue suffered a burst tyre and crashed the car at the fastest part of the circuit.
The March left the track and fatally injured a marshal. Donohue hit his head on what was thought to have been either a fence post or advertising hoarding. Like Schumacher, he initially walked away. He, too, was wearing a helmet. But he later complained of headaches. Only the next day was he airlifted to hospital in the nearest city, Graz. And there he died.
Like Schumacher, Donohue had suffered serious head trauma. Like Schumacher, he had then suffered a haemorrhage. But unlike Schumacher, the diagnosis and response was not fast enough. And, of course, the sport lost drivers to accidents every year in those days. Fortunately for Schumacher, sports medicine has advanced way beyond where it was in the mid-70s.
So, unlike poor Mark Donohue, at least he has a fighting chance.