Sunday, 27 April 2014

Imola at 20: Why did Erik Comas stop at Tamburello?

By Simon Wright – Follow me on Twitter @Siwri88

Motorsport is dangerous, it always has been and always will be but no-one could predict the horrific chain reaction of accidents that marred the weekend at the Imola circuit in April/May 1994. By the end of the weekend, mechanics and spectators had been hurt, and two drivers had been killed on consecutive days – one of them perhaps the greatest human being ever to have sat behind a steering wheel – Ayrton Senna.

20 years on and in a series of daily posts on Viewing Perspectives – I reflect on San Marino 1994 as we approach this sad and painful anniversary. Whilst my Formula One passion has dwindled in the last year, the past can’t be ignored. Coming up this week, there will be pieces on the rule changes, the pain the Simtek team had to deal with following Roland Ratzenberger’s death and pay tribute to Ayrton Senna by choosing his top five races of his career.

This piece though focuses on one of the stranger incidents of that horror weekend. Why did Frenchman Erik Comas stop at Tamburello to try and save Ayrton Senna?

Spa history
Erik Comas was among a crop of promising French drivers emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Along with Jean Alesi and Eric Bernard, he was producing some great results in the junior categories. After losing out on the 1989 F3000 title to Alesi on count-back of positions, Comas went one better and achieved the crown in 1990.

That won him a Formula One contract with Ligier for 1991 but the French team was already in rapid decline. Only minor points finishes were achieved with fifth place his best result in the 1992 French Grand Prix. It was four races later though where he cheated death.

On a sunny Friday morning during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, Comas had a monumental accident at the fast Blanchimont corner and was knocked out in the impact. Senna was the first driver to approach the scene. He drove past slowly and seeing the stillness of the Ligier driver, he switched his engine off and got out of his car, rushing to the aide of his stricken colleague. Senna managed to switch Comas’ engine off to stop a potential leaking of petrol that could be catastrophic and held his head in a stable position until medical assistance arrived on the scene.


Senna was the only driver to stop to help him. Even Erik’s Ligier teammate at the time drove past. In an interview recorded in French years later, Comas revealed what he was told of Senna’s heroism. He said: “I don’t remember anything but I have seen the videos. The front right wheel hit me on the helmet which knocked me out. The car then slid back onto the track but I was accelerating full throttle. Ayrton arrived and immediately heard the sounds, the revving of the engine. He stopped, took off his seatbelt and came running towards me while there were still cars running. He then looked for the short circuit and shutdown my car because at that time, there was a real risk of an explosion or fire. It’s likely Ayrton saved my life at that moment.”

Attempting to return the favour
When Senna crashed on Sunday, 1 May 1994 – the rest of the field carried on racing as they would during a Grand Prix. The race was halted pretty quickly and the medics started working on the stricken Brazilian. Comas was desperate to find out what state his friend was in.

He revealed: “For the first time in my career, I find myself sitting next to him at the driver’s briefing. Ayrton was very touched by the accidents of the weekend; he remarked that something had to be done to prevent this from happening. However I do not believe at all there was emotional weakness behind Ayrton’s accident.”

Erik Comas driving in the prettier of the two Larrousse liveries of 1994
Comas was now driving for the financially crippled Larrousse team who had split liveries for the season (green livery pictured above). At Imola, he and teammate Olivier Beretta were driving in the hideous and ugly looking red and white striped Larrousse car with heavy sponsorship from French beer Kronenbourg. Whether it was Larrousse or the track officials who made the mistake to wave him out of the pits during the red flag, it could have had even further tragic consequences.

Eurosport commentators Allard Kalff and John Watson are stunned (video below) when they hear the noise of Comas’ Ford engine scream out of the pits and drive virtually flat-out to the scene of the crash. Only at the last moment did marshals managed to flag Comas down, narrowly missing corner workers and the helicopter that had landed on the track to airlift Senna to hospital in Bologna.


Comas added: “When I came up to Tamburello, the medical helicopter, the ambulances, Ayrton’s car…were already there. I saw Ayrton was already put on a stretcher so I stopped my car. I was in the middle of the track a few feet away from the drama.

“As I arrived, I understood that…there was a message…that Ayrton was a man who sort of radiated and there it felt like an atomic bomb just exploded at Tamburello. There truly was a very heavy atmosphere hanging over the area and without knowing any details, I knew it was very bad. A sort of paralysis came over me because there I was standing next to a man who two years earlier had saved my life and I couldn’t do anything to help him. That felt horrible.”

Distressed by what he had seen as medical staff attempted to revive Senna, Comas retired from the race and it was a pain that he only revealed 10 years later to French television. He went on to say in the interview that Williams should never had allowed Senna’s teammate Damon Hill to take the second start and the podium celebrations that happened afterwards were scandalous as everyone knew at least the severity of Senna’s condition by the end of the race.

For Comas, he was done with Formula One. His motivation and passion for the sport was gone and he quietly went away at the end of the 1994 season, continuing his racing career in Japan. Today, he runs Comas Historic Racing which provides paying customers the chance to enter historic rallies driving cars from his fleet of automobiles.

Some will feel that the actions of Erik Comas on that Imola weekend were idiotic and unforgivable. Whilst driving out of the pits at full speed was brainless, he was only concerned for a man who had saved him from a similar fate less than 18 months earlier at Spa in 1992. He had his reasons for stopping at Tamburello and it is a sight that always will remain with him, even 20 years on from these distressing moments of anguish for everyone connected with Grand Prix motor racing.

6 comments:

  1. I rarely comment on the SUBJECT of writers' and bloggers' contribution, rather choosing to compliment style or criticise sloppiness. But in this case, I would like to thank and commend you for taking this sliver of Formula One history and sharing it. Much has been said over the years, obviously, about one of sport's darkest weekends. But even in this new age when rarely is a thought left unspoken, one would find scant information about Erik's Spa crash in 1992 CONNECTED to Ayrton's fatal crash in 1994. I don't have a good reason as to why the two events have not been pondered. To me, it would seem only natural that Ayrton's heroism at Blanchimont and Erik's...well, I don't know how to describe Erik's actions because I'm sure they were motivated by a desire to help, to reciprocate...ultimately futile of course and some would consider it rash, under the circumstances. I had not heard this commentary before today. The night I watched (I was in Aus, so European races were on TV about 10pm Sunday evening) Murray Walker was commentating. Anyway, many thanks for a nicely wrought contribution.

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  4. This is a proof that F1 is a fake sport for the rich!and only

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  5. I am a big F1 fan and i think i know stories - I remember the car-sound that was on TV but I do not remember that Comas was also seen on TV with his car

    thanks for this article :)

    Formula One rules

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  6. Comas left the pits as the officials waved him out. I don't know why Larrousse got him ready as the race was under a red flag

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