Disaster struck the Monte Carlo rally yesterday. On the first stage of the first event of the 2017 season, driver Haydon Paddon and co-driver John Kennard hit a patch of black ice, lost control, and struck a spectator who later died. Racers – or drivers of any kind, including you and me – accept the risk of injury or death every time we get behind the wheel. We don’t think about it much, but it’s true. It’s a small chance – in my 25 years of driving I haven’t died even once – but it’s still non-zero. Rally spectators, on the other hand, make no such bargain. They head out into the woods for the day, then wait for hours to watch cars go flying by at incredible speeds for a few minutes. If they’re lucky, the stage will repeat hours later so they can get a second look. They never expect to head into the woods to watch a rally and not make it back alive.
The crash was not Paddon’s fault. Any driver who has ever hit black ice knows that you’re pretty much just along for the ride until you reach the other side and regain traction. At full race speed, there was no margin for error once Paddon lost control. Nor was it co-driver Kennard’s fault for not calling it out in the pace notes. Conditions change during rally, especially in a winter tarmac event like Monte Carlo. The ice wasn’t there during recce. The unfortunate spectator was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But is there ever a right time to be just one meter away from the road when a rally stage is hot? As reported on Axis of Oversteer, a witness said:
We were just ten meters away on the special stage and had seen this guy putting his GoPro on the road and then sit just one meter away on the embankment.
We yelled at him not to stand there, we figured he would realize it was a bad place after one or two cars went by.
Unfortunately he didn’t, and Paddon was third on the road. I’m not knocking his enthusiasm. I’ve gotten close to rally stages myself as a volunteer. I’ve put cameras on the road, too. And you know what? After David Higgins pelted me in the shoulder with a rock, I realized I was too close and got the hell out of there. Later on, another driver made a wrong turn into exactly where I was standing when Higgins threw rocks at me. When I tweeted about it, Higgins actually apologized to me for inflicting the injury. But he had no reason to apologize. I was the one who put myself in range for that rock shower. He actually did me a favor, since I got hit by a rock rather than the car that turned in there later. As a racer of various disciplines myself, including rally, I should’ve known better.
When I drove the course opening car at Black River Stages in 2015, we personally canceled a stage because the spectators were out of control. They were outside the official spectator areas, on the road itself, and way too close for safety. See for yourself.
Hyundai Motorsport immediately withdrew Paddon from the rally, with heartfelt condolences to the victim and his family. Paddon himself tweeted a statement today, which I think is well worth reading in full.
— Hayden Paddon (@HaydenPaddon) January 20, 2017
While also expressing condolences for the loss and appreciation for the support of his fans, he also admonishes us – ALL of us – to take responsibility for spectator safety. I completely agree with him. If a stage marshal says you’re too close to the road, move away from the road. You should also listen if another spectator tells you you’re in an unsafe location. Think about what would happen if a car crashed where you are, and where it would go off the road out of control. Don’t be there. Be somewhere else. Generally, this means avoiding the outside of any turn. Inside a turn is generally OK. Up an embankment is great, since cars would be likely to hit it rather than climb it. If you simply don’t know where you should be, ask a nearby marshal. They’re the guys and gals wearing the special shirts or safety vests. They’ll tell you where it’s safe to watch. They want you to have a fun, safe time, not ruin your day. And getting hit by a car would ruin anyone’s day. For this poor guy in Monte Carlo, it ruined his life.