For the large majority of motorsport fans, masculinity is a defining factor. This (regrettably) male-dominated sport is riddled with references to the good old days, “when men were men” and what have you. Older motor racing fans more often than not lambast modern drivers as Prima Donnas, and call them weak because of their apparent “cushioning”; modern safety standards combined with the impeccable construction of today's racing cars means that Motor racing, while still harbouring an element of danger, is a much safer environment than as recent as 20 years ago. This therefore over-protects drivers and causes them to become weak-minded PR machines as opposed to “real men”, right?
Now, don't get me wrong. I think that today's racing world is dominated by over-sanitisation, politics and inter-driver spats. But the notion that real men raced back in the day because the cars were petrol tanks on wheels and death was around the corner every step of the way is plain stupid.
You've got to realise that modern drivers have it just as hard as they did 50 years ago – just in different areas. We often think that modern racing cars are easy to drive, PlayStation-controlled machines, but this is not the case at all. The standard of competition is much, much higher, and one has to be on the limit for every corner of every lap. There is much less of a margin for error, but when you do get it wrong, the greatest penalty you can expect is a bruised ego, and a broken car. Before at least the 1970s, the limit was not reached anywhere near as much, but once a driver went over it, they were often as good as dead.
It's the simple fact that driver deaths don't happen as much anymore that is the defining factor. It enrages me to think that there are people out there who put down modern drivers simply because of the fact that they are more cocooned. By doing this, people are undermining recent leaps and bounds in safety, and the work many highly talented individuals have done to achieve this. Worse still, with the recent deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli – two very highly regarded competitors in their respective fields – the notion that Safety Makes People Pussies® has been brought up once again. Consider this comment from a YouTube video about Valentino Rossi's helmet tribute to Marco. By the way, this is unedited:
“Anyone that wants to show there repects by putting a banner out, Sticker on the bikes or the helmet Rossi has is fair enough. No more talk of parade laps n that tho. All this attention is just gonna attract the health and safety nutters. Lets keep this one of the few remaining sports that have an element of danger. Look at the freaks in F1. That stopped being a man's sport a long time ago. ”
...Words fail me.
Okay, this was about MotoGP, which in my opinion is nigh-on impossible to be made any safer than it is. And I would agree that Motorcycle racing is one of the only sports left in which there is an ever-present threat of death. But using Marco's tragic death as a booster for your argument about danger equalling manliness? I am disgusted.
The problem with the human mind – moreover, the human male mind – is that (more often than not) facing danger is equated to bravery. I acknowlege that this attitude was the one more suited to motor racing pre-1980s – the threat of death on track was considered a part of the deal, and there was no escaping it. You would have to have had nerves of steel to drive the old Grand Prix cars at speed in any condition. But even more inescapable is the fact that there is a sensitivity required to grasp what was actually happening – that competitors, many great ones, were dying needlessly when measures could easily be put in place to make sure they lived to fight another day. A well-covered example of this is three-time F1 World Champion Jackie Stewart, who initiated the first real safety measures in F1 after watching his friends get killed on track one by one and nearly dying himself.
And herein lies my main point. What we are dealing with here is clouded judgment. We are dealing with human beings. Human beings who love and are loved by their families, friends and fans. We need to get rid of the rose tinted spectacles and make sure that today's racing drivers continue to do what they do best without their remarkable lives being cut short.