Friday, August 19, 2022 by René Fagnan
Almost all Formula 1 fans know former driver Martin Brundle, an analyst on Sky F1 television and very popular because of his famous “Grid Walks” performed before the start of the Grands Prix. However, his career almost came to a halt in 1984 due to a tragic accident which could have deprived him of one, and perhaps both of his legs.
Although he failed to win in F1, Brundle enjoyed a fine career, climbing the podium nine times between 1984 and 1996, and also claiming the title of World Endurance Champion in 1988 in addition to victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1988 and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1990.
British Formula 3 runner-up behind Ayrton Senna in 1983, Brundle was one of the future stars of F1. In 1984, three very talented rookies made their F1 debut: Brundle, Senna and Stefan Bellof. The Briton began his career as an F1 driver with the small Tyrrell team in 1984.
During qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, Brundle suffered a major accident when his Tyrrell 012-Ford, with broken brakes, hit the rails at the Bureau de tabac bend, flipped over and slid upside down on the asphalt. He’s not broken, but has a concussion. He doesn’t even know what circuit he is on anymore.
Three weeks later, Brundle achieved a feat by finishing second in the Detroit Grand Prix, a few seconds behind the winner, Nelson Piquet on Brabham-BMW.
Fifteen days later, F1 discovers the horrible street circuit of Dallas with its stifling heat, its asphalt which crumbles in all the turns and its terrifying concrete walls.
Friday afternoon, approaching the first chicane, Brundle’s Tyrrell swerved suddenly due to a puncture. It hits the concrete wall then rebounds in the middle of the track and crashes against the opposite wall. The red flag is deployed and the medical services go to the scene.
It’s a second disaster for the Tyrrell team after technical inspectors in Detroit discovered weight irregularities on Brundle’s 012 after the race. Moreover, the Tyrrell team will be disqualified from the 1984 season for having been found guilty of ballasting its single-seaters with lead balls at the end of the races in order to respect the minimum weight.
But back to Brundle’s accident. The front of the single-seater, in aluminum, is crushed. The British pilot is still conscious, and tries to get out of the cockpit. The stewards arrive on the scene, extract him from the wreckage and Brundle tries to stand. “I had never fractured a bone before. I tried to take a few steps and fell to the ground because my left foot was no longer attached to my leg. My foot was only held in place by a tube of skin,” says Brundle in his book “Martin Brundle Scrapbook”.
Brundle said he lost consciousness a few times during his transfer to the circuit’s medical center before being rushed to hospital. Some doctors are really worried about the onset of gangrene and believe that their foot should be amputated. Luckily, Dr. Sid Watkins is on site and prohibited from performing this surgery. In addition, his right leg is also damaged, but the fractures are less serious.
Dr. Watkins organizes the repatriation of Brundle to the United Kingdom in order to operate. Pilot Tyrrell, on strong painkiller medication, lies on two reclined first-class seats. In London, Watkins consults with fellow orthopedists around the world and finds a good way to operate, which is quickly done.
Brundle spends a full month in a medical clinic in London. He, who had a good start to the season and collected a podium in Detroit, is immobilized, unable to walk and has just learned that the Tyrrell team has been disqualified for the entire season!
Back home, he languishes spending long days doing nothing. His wife Liz constantly has to help him. Martin goes up and down the stairs sitting on the ground, by the strength of his arms. Then, he finally begins to redo rehabilitation exercises in order to restore mobility and strength in his left ankle despite the presence of three huge screws.
Three months later, Brundle received a call from Renault UK offering to drive a truck in the British Truck Racing Championship round at Donington Circuit. This is a great test to see how hard his left ankle can press the clutch pedal. Brundle is terribly emaciated and weakened. He distinguished himself on the track, competed in the Grand Final, led the race, but retired three laps from the end following a brake failure.
Brundle did not return to F1 until the start of the following season, 1985. He competed in the first Grands Prix at the controls of an atmospheric Tyrrell 012-Ford before taking the wheel of a Renault turbo-powered 014. Later in the summer, Brundle will debut the endurance Jaguar XJR-6 at Mosport Park in Ontario.
Brundle will then drive in F1 for the Zakspeed, Brabham, Benetton, Ligier, McLaren and Jordan teams, then will devote himself to endurance racing before becoming a television analyst.
“I still have the scars of that accident,” Brundle told me recently. “I don’t limp, however I can’t walk for long periods of time. My foot quickly becomes sore. But that never stopped him from performing his legendary “Grid Walk”!