Richard Hammond

Hammond on Massa’s crash

Young Henry Surtees is killed by a wheel hitting his head in a Formula Two race and then, just six days later, Felipe Massa sustains horrific head injuries when a suspension part hits his head following a crash. Felipe looks set to make a full recovery and return to F1. Henry, son former double World Champion, John Surtees, died at the scene of his accident.

I'd be lying if I said my stomach didn't lurch a bit when I heard about each of these incidents. And I'd be lying too if I said that it didn't make me think about my own experience of head injury, although my thoughts were very much with Felipe and with the Surtees family, not myself. From the look of the photos taken after Felipe's crash, with his one open eye staring wildly out of his shattered visor, it was clear the suspension part that caused the damage had landed front left of his head.

I damaged the front of my brain in my crash in 2006, and the thought of someone else having to set off on the lengthy journey to recovery from such an injury was a glum one. The front of our brain is considered to be the place responsible for our emotions, our personality. It's where we live, who we are. And any damage there is potentially catastrophic and can take years to get over. I know that for me, three years later, the process is still ongoing. Although it's impossible to imagine how happy the Surtees family would be to have been given the chance to help Henry set out on exactly that journey.

"After my accident, I remember being so desperate to prove to the doctors that I was well that I’d quote them random facts. But I didn’t know what day it was"

It sounds now as though Felipe will have escaped brain damage; his carbon-fibre crash helmet soaked up the impact that could so easily have killed him. But every time I read that he hopes to return to racing in F1 soon after sustaining that head injury, I'll admit that my shoulders slump a bit. It's not the idea of him risking hurting himself again - that, frankly, is his own business. It's just the memories it stirs of being desperate more than anything else to ‘get back', to go to work, to be ‘normal' again. If you've ever twisted an ankle whilst running in front of other people but carried on running, pretending everything is OK when it hurts like hell, then you know the feeling I am talking about.

It seems an especially powerful need in head injury victims. I remember being so desperate to prove to the doctors that I was well and could function properly that I would quote random facts I had picked up from watching daytime TV in my room. When asked what day it was or where I was, I hadn't a clue. But I still wanted to show that I was fine. Perhaps it comes with the slow-dawning realisation that you've hurt your brain; that you've damaged the very place you live.

Whatever it is, I saw it in action when I visited The Children's Trust in Tadworth to open the rehabilitation unit used by children with Acquired Brain Injury. It's an amazing place, a place full of hope for even the most profoundly damaged young people as they undertake their own journeys to whatever degree of recovery they will each be capable of.

A young woman, a resident there since she received her injury earlier this year, cornered me outside the unit. She leaned on her walking frame, still having trouble with balance - though getting better by the day - and gave me a searching look. She asked me if it was true I had problems with my spelling for a while following my crash. I told her that yes, I had. She asked if it had got better, and I told her that yes, it had. And she wept with relief. All she wanted to hear was that it is possible to get better, to lift yourself out of the confusion and the fear, and be the person you were before and feel you should still be.

And it's a type of injury that will always haunt motorsport and motoring. From Sir Stirling Moss' head injury in the 1962 crash at Goodwood that finished his glorious racing career, to Felipe Massa's and Henry Surtees' in July, to the thousands of injuries sustained on the road by bikers and car drivers alike, there is, it seems, a particular vulnerability here.

And, at the risk of being boring and preachy, do excuse me if I flag up that it really, really can only serve as a warning to every one of us riding motorcycles, racing cars or even riding bikes, that a helmet is more than a legal requirement, it is a necessity and a life-saver. For some, like Henry Surtees, even a helmet cannot stop the worst happening, and my sympathies go out to his family. For others though, like Felipe Massa, a good crash helmet is the difference between carrying on running whilst trying to pretend everything is OK, or not having the chance to even try.

Richard Hammond, Column

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