Like many I was sad to see professional racing driver, coach and established journalist, Mark Hales, end up in court with legendary former driver, David Piper, after the engine in Piper's glorious Porsche 917 let go during a track test for a magazine. Despite Hales' objections, Piper successfully argued that driver error was to blame - with catastrophic financial ramifications for Hales.
Much well-informed opinion has been written elsewhere on this case, so I'll not delve into the specifics of their situation further - other than to say that, as a professional driver myself, who is often offered the great privilege of racing or testing priceless and powerful cars by generous owners, I could never set foot in any car were I knowingly exposed to ANY financial liability.
Whether racing, testing, track testing for journalistic purposes, or driver coaching in a client's own vehicle, rarely is there a document signed or even a discussion had with the owner about "what if". This may sound pretty stupid now given recent events (and indeed I'm beginning to think it probably is), but to my knowledge there has always been an 'understanding' that you are being hired as a carefully selected professional for the particular driving services required on that day. Whether the owner is a private collector, a professional team, or a major car manufacturer, you can be sure that you have been hired, not because your bank account will support a 'bend-it-mend-it' policy, but because your reputation and experience have been deemed fit for purpose.
Now that's not to say you can't still cock it up - of course you can! One hopes not, but sh*t happens in motor racing, it's an inevitable consequence of a sport who's raison d'être is to take things to the limit. But the understanding (that word again) is that it is not your life savings at risk - it's your job, being invited back, and most valuable of all? Your professional reputation.
I'm aware however that the key word here is professional. I understand that in Mark Hales' case, he may not technically have been hired in a professional capacity, and in fact that there was a rental fee paid to Piper for use of the car. I don't want to focus too much on this as there are considerable contradictions in both parties' version of events, but if this were the case for Hales, it may be considered an unfortunate but critical detail.
Regardless, let's remember that these are reciprocal arrangements. Any owner will usually stand to benefit in some way from putting a pro their car. This may be to enhance the prospects of winning a race, generate publicity for the car via a magazine feature (thus potentially raising its value), improving its provenance, developing a better set-up, enabling more effective driver coaching and so on. The point is that, like the best deals in life, these situations are genuinely win-win.
And while there is risk for the owner, so too is there for the driver. Any time we step into somebody else's car, we are willingly accepting the car's anticipated level of safety and preparation. We accept the potentially life-threatening risks of mechanical failure or on-track incident in exchange for the payment or simple driving pleasure on offer. Just as the owner may be nervous, so too (believe me) can be the driver.
If any good has come from this mess, it's that it's got everyone talking about it. Perhaps now we'll realise we've all been terribly British about it and avoided the awkward conversation for fear of missing out on the opportunity. Hales vs. Piper is a reminder that the world has changed and it's time to take our heads out of the sand. It's time to get indemnified.