The remarkable story of Philippe Streiff

This article first appeared in the 13th February edition of Autosport magazine

Gerard Saillant on left with Philippe Streiff recently – Photo with thanks to Philippe Streiff
The dreadful remains of Streiff’s AGS after the accident – Photo with thanks to Philippe Streiff

Should you believe in fate, then you could say it runs through Formula 1 like fuel through a pump. In the case of Philippe Streiff, the random cruelty of it was tellingly callous 25 years ago, when a testing accident at Rio’s Jacarepagua circuit left him quadriplegic. What made it worse is that his life-changing injuries need never have occurred.

The full story has never been told by the man himself – until now. Streiff took many years to investigate and piece together the unedifying details. This is the shocking story of one of F1′s forgotten and shameful ignominies.

“When I awoke from my coma it was like a living nightmare, but one that even at that stage I knew I could not wake up from,” he recalls. “But then I found out what had happened to me after the accident, and in some ways that was more difficult to comprehend.”

Streiff was more than the jobbing, journeyman driver he is often portrayed as. Backed by Renault in the mid-1980s, he made his F1 debut at Estoril in 1984 in a third RE50 alongside Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay. The following season he replaced the sacked Andrea de Cesaris at Ligier for the final few races, outqualifying Jacques Laffite three-one and scoring a creditable third place at the season finale in Adelaide.

Two seasons at an underfinanced and struggling Tyrrell followed from 1986, where he scored points and was often a match for highly rated team-mates Martin Brundle and Jonathan Palmer. For ’88 Streiff returned ‘home’ to the tiny AGS team, for which he’d campaigned various F2 designs from 1982-84 and in F3000 in ’85, and recorded David-over-Goliath results such as a win in the last European F2 race at Brands Hatch in ’84.

Streiff regularly qualified in the midfield in 1988, and on a few occasions challenged for a top-six position, particularly at Detroit and Montreal. When you consider that, including the driver, the team consisted of 12 personnel, then there was a lot of punching above weight going on in Gonfaron, southern France.

He had seriously thought of quitting the day after Elio de Angelis’s fatal accident at Paul Ricard in spring 1986. As Streiff drove his rental car up the autoroute to Paris, the radio announced that de Angelis had succumbed to his injuries in a Marseille hospital. Twenty-four hours earlier, Streiff’s Renault-powered Tyrrell had been immediately behind the Italian’s Brabham BT55 when it left the track and cartwheeled with such grave consequences.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘Philippe, it is time to stop now. You have a new son who needs his father. Why take crazy risks in these cars when there is nobody to rescue you, if you do crash at these tests?’ I was thinking of the words I would say to Renee [his wife] and also to Ken Tyrrell when I got home and retired.”

Those conversations never happened. Such is the competitive mentality of a racing driver that, by the time he reached Paris, plans for the Canadian Grand Prix were uppermost in his mind. He was sad for de Angelis and his family, but he thought it wouldn’t happen to him.

Just under three years later it almost did happen. At sultry Jacarepagua, Streiff was testing the AGS JH23B, an updated version of the 1988 car. It was just before 11am on March 15, and his team was conducting a pre-Brazilian GP tyre test. It was scheduled to be his final day at the wheel; his new team-mate Joachim Winkelhock had arrived the night before and would take over the following day.

As well as new-spec Goodyears to evaluate, AGS wanted to try new wheels. Streiff pitted and they were applied to the car under the instruction of his engineer, Claude Galopin. And then…

“I remember leaving the pits and then just black, a void,” says Streiff, 25 years on. “The accident happened at the fast right-hand kink before the hairpin onto the back straight. There was no footage of the actual accident, just the aftermath, but I ended up rolling many times, tearing the engine, gearbox and all the wheels off. But, most importantly, the rollhoop of the car was gone too. The car was completely destroyed and I ended up over the guardrail.”

The violence of the accident was extraordinary; so too was the fact that Streiff came away from it with only a broken shoulder and two fractured vertebrae – his C4 and C5 – exactly the same ones that Frank Williams had dislocated in his 1986 road crash.

The top of the chassis, where the rollhoop mountings were fixed, was broken off at the base by the massive forces of the impacts with track, grass and barrier. There is no doubt that the car satisfied the safety regulations of the day, but it was no coincidence that governing body FISA mandated more stringent lateral and vertical hoop tests from 1990 onwards.

Rushed rescue worsens injuries

Streiff’s neck injuries were to be compounded by questionable care that ensured that he would spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair. His AGS had landed inverted on the marshy grass beyond the guardrail at the locally-named Suspiro (‘sigh’) kink.

There were four marshals in attendance there that day. One was stunned and suffered minor injuries by a piece of flying wreckage from the AGS, the other three rushed to the scene and immediately righted the remains of the car, which was semi-inverted.

The rebounding energy of this manoeuvre on Streiff’s head and neck was considerable. According to eye witnesses, who spoke to Streiff’s wife at the time, they then pulled his helmet off as he sat strapped to part of the fractured monocoque, the rear of which had mostly been wrenched away, complete with the rollhoop and fuel cell. He was then taken from the cockpit and rested on the grass before an ambulance arrived.

“The people who reached me first were corner workers and they did what they thought was right, of course,” asserts Streiff. “But they were not medically trained people who worked to a procedure. Today, after an accident you cannot move the head and you must keep a casualty completely still and block any movement with special padded restraints. So what happened to me immediately after my accident ensured I would never walk again.”

As the red flag was shown at the start-finish straight the AGS mechanics hurried to the scene by car, but were denied access to where he was being treated. They could see he was moving his arms and legs but, by the time the ambulance had ferried Streiff back to the paddock, 30 minutes had already passed.

Unbelievably, there was worse to follow as he was loaded onto a medical helicopter bound for one of Rio’s top neurological hospitals – the Sao Vicente clinic. The golden hour of treating severe injuries had long gone.

“The pilot of the helicopter was from Sao Paulo and he didn’t know where the hospital was in Rio,” says Streiff. “He took over an hour to get near to the hospital. It was 22km away from the track!”

Such were the delays in transferring him there that his wife Renee and physio, Pierre Baleydier, arrived at the hospital before he did. The lost pilot had initially landed, surreally, on Copacabana beach among the sunbathers.

Once at the hospital, Renee demanded to use the hospital’s international phone. On the other end of the line was Dr Gerard Saillant, who recently oversaw Michael Schumacher’s treatment following his skiing accident and is the current president of the FIA Institute. A specialist in spinal surgery and a long-time acquaintance of the Streiffs, Saillant was instrumental in attempting to retrieve the desperate situation for his friend.

Saved by ‘Schumacher doctor’

In a rare stroke of fortune, one of the doctors at the hospital in Rio had studied under Saillant in Europe and they talked through an initial surgery over the phone. By now, 10 hours had passed while medical consultants deliberated and specialists were brought in from Sao Paulo.

“Renee called Gerard and told him what had been happening and he immediately decided to come over to Rio,” recalls Streiff. “He was there the day after the accident and immediately saved my life twice when my heart started to fail. He is a true lifesaver. I am so grateful that Renee called him to come over. Without him I would have died in 1989, for sure.”

Saillant also supervised Streiff’s return to Europe. That transfer would take place five days after the accident, and was a nightmarish journey.

“Of course I was unconscious but it must have been terrible for Renee because it was a small plane, and they had to ensure I was stable and flat at all times,” he says.

“Somehow we made it back to Paris safe and I was taken to the Institution des Invalides. But the damage had been done, and Gerard told me that the lack of care in Brazil after the accident had compounded the injuries and brought on full quadriplegia.”

A support team formed around the Streiff family, with future French president Nicolas Sarkozy, then mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, organising a police escort for the ambulance to rush Streiff straight to the ‘reanimation’ care unit.

“We had to leave my son, Thibault, in Brazil with the team, can you imagine?” recalls Streiff. “A two-year-old child left there without his parents. It was tough but the AGS people were superb and looked after him well. Philippe Alliot, Alain Prost and Yannick Dalmas were very helpful, and Nelson Piquet offered his private plane at short notice, but we had to get a specialist medical one. But those offers of help will never be forgotten.”

So too will be the community spirit that F1 showed as all the drivers rallied round at Suzuka that year to donate a large sum of money for Streiff’s care and medical bills. Renee Streiff had already visited the French GP at Paul Ricard, where she was given emotional support by many in the paddock, notably from Prost, Tyrrell and, of course, AGS.

Five weeks that went missing

After the trauma, a new challenge was just beginning for Streiff. His life hung in the balance for many weeks. An emergency tracheotomy was performed to aid his breathing – that simple reflex had gone.

As he started to awaken on a tide of queasy amazement, he focused on one of the nurses at his bedside and began to speak: “You have to get me out of here. I need to get to the Jacarepagua circuit for the Brazilian Grand Prix.”

The nurse replied that he was in France now and, yes, there was a race at the weekend but it was the San Marino GP, not the Brazilian.

“I was sure I was still in Brazil when I awoke,” he remembers. “I couldn’t take it all in. They had to get my rallying friend, Bertrand Balas, to make me realise I was in France. And you know what Bertrand did? He brought a TV into my room and we watched the San Marino GP with [Gabriele] Tarquini driving ‘my’ car. I was so confused because in my mind I had driven out of the pits with those new wheels just a few hours before.”

Streiff is under no doubt what caused the crash and some years afterwards talked it through with Galopin and other members of the AGS team.

“It was the new wheels we were testing. They were two-part aluminium ones from a small French company that we wanted to evaluate,” he says. “It was the second lap after I switched to these and, with the very bumpy surface of the Jacarepagua circuit, they just couldn’t take the loads and it deformed and caused the rear to lock. The wheelrim split when it was fully loaded and that caused the accident for sure. The corner was a kink you could not make a mistake in. Easy flat.”

The psychological fall-out from these life-changing events was immense. It took two full years for Streiff to perfect his breathing reflex and regain some movement of the shoulders. Such was his precarious state that he only returned to his newly adapted home in early 1992. The rehabilitation was hard, but so too were the financial and insurance realities.

Far from bitter, Streiff today exudes a remarkable and inspirational spirit, one that has been valuable in what he calls his ‘new life’. A successful business empire was accrued in the 1990s, and his Bercy karting event became a key season finale for the racing fraternity for many years. He even came close to becoming an F1 team owner when, in partnership with ORECA’s Hugues de Chaunac, they put together a proposal to buy the Ligier team in early 1994, but plans for it to become a Williams junior team were shelved and Flavio Briatore picked up the pieces.

“After witnessing what happened to Elio that day in 1986, I was sure nothing like it could ever take place again,” he reflects. “It did – to me. But being happy really is a state of mind, and I still have that, which allows me to love life again.”

The Sarkozy & Williams effect

Nicolas Sarkozy was the president of France from 2007-12, but 25 years ago he was a highly ambitious 34-year-old mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine in the western suburbs of Paris. His first wife was Corsican-born Marie-Dominique Culioli, a childhood friend of Philippe Streiff’s wife Renee, who was also born on ‘Napoleon’s island’.

“Nicolas was a very smart and hardworking guy and I realised that he would be useful to look after my commercial and contractual affairs,” says Streiff. “His attention to detail even at that stage in his career was incredible. He was a trained lawyer and so was very useful after my accident.

“He brought my son back from Brazil; organised the whole thing. We were very close, and I still occasionally see him. He did OK for himself in the end, didn’t he?!”

It was a phone call from Frank Williams that proved to be a crossroads for Streiff’s future. Instead of pursuing legal actions for compensation – as Sarkozy had suggested – he was persuaded by Williams to remain part of Formula 1′s fabric.

“Frank told me that I could have a good future,” recalls Streiff. “He said, ‘It is not easy Philippe, but you have to be strong and my advice is to keep in contact with the F1 family. Keep working in racing and it will help you focus and achieve again.’

“So that is what I did, and I started to work and organise events like the Elf Bercy karting. It was a great success and with the support of the F1 family it all came together. I was close with Alain [Prost] and Ayrton [Senna] and we had that fantastic occasion in 1993 when they raced against each other for the last time. Ultimately it was Frank who gave me the strength to do this.”

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