A SIGN reading ''Motorsport is dangerous'' adorns the gate to every racing circuit in the world - and with good reason. Anyone stepping through those gates is entering a world devoid of cotton wool. I can't tell you what the rest of the sign says because, like every other racing driver, the only thing concerning me is to get in there and win.
From the earliest days of racing on the open roads between Paris and Madrid in the 1900s, the sport has been about learning how to manage the risks involved. A dozen fatalities led to the formation of closed circuits.
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Over time, leather caps and goggles became carbon fibre with Kevlar and fire-retardant liners. The space-frame chassis with the driver sitting on a fuel bomb evolved into monocoque survival cells with isolated fuel tanks and automatic extinguishers.
But danger is always relative. The commercialisation and technology of the sport has driven the costs of competing to such ludicrous levels that across the board, from formula one to Indy, V8 Supercars to Le Mans, a driver's chances of scaling the slippery ladder to the top has too much to do with the size of his wallet rather than the scale of his talent.
The result is that while the machines and circuits have become safer, the driving has become more ferocious, with ace pilots racing wheel-to-wheel with Sunday drivers. The cost bubble is hurting talent.
Some of the shunts during last year's Le Mans race were so colossal, the immediate conclusions were of fatalities. Thankfully, we were proven wrong but, at the time, the shoulders of every driver being crunched into his or her five-point harnesses were tenser than usual.
Assuming you decide to continue racing, the stark focus on risk evaporates. Speed demands your absolute attention, so while fear might liven up the senses, it doesn't get in the way. The passion for the chase runs too deep.
In 1999, I partnered future IndyCar champ Scott Dixon in the Indy Lights series and we followed the main series around the US. I took to ovals like a duck to water, with an equally impressive splash in my first event at Homestead Speedway when I split the car in two at 300km/h. It became apparent that IndyCar racing was the greatest driving challenge on Earth and the purest test of a driver's instinct and courage.
Racers in that category must master a universe of different skills to be crowned champion. They muscle their bucking broncos around the tight streets of Long Beach, California, one week, sweep around a grand prix track the next, then run inches from the walls of speedways ranging from one mile (1.6 kilometres) to 2.5 miles (4.06 kilometres) long.
At the Indy 500, they run an average speed of 365km/h, forging champions and heroes of the art, such as Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon. Pushing 600kW through a set of squirming tyres, under double the car's weight in aerodynamic downforce to within an inch of a concrete wall, requires surgical precision and balls of steel.
Turbulent air pushes and pulls at the pack of 20 or 30 other cars like a hand of God and at 320km/h or 35 metres in the blink of an eye, you need to trust your fellow racer.
At Las Vegas last October, a situation developed whereby every driver in the field could run at full speed, full throttle, around a relatively tight (2.4-kilometre) oval. In that environment, the question is not if but when someone will drop the ball.
Despite winning his second Indy 500 earlier in the year, a shortfall in sponsorship meant Wheldon was only competing in a handful of races last year. He had a talent that burnt brightly throughout his career.
In the main event at Vegas, a special challenge was laid before him to win the race from last place on the grid. With an opportunity befitting his nature, Wheldon was blazing through the field when a crash ahead led to an unusual chain reaction that claimed his life.
The spirit of competition that drives the sport to continue in the face of such a tragedy is difficult to comprehend but it is a spirit that defines racers worldwide. The intense emotions are the lifeblood of the sport and the memories of racers who created those moments are never forgotten.
Ben Collins is a racing driver who was once The Stig on Top Gear.
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