June 18th 1967: the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, a fateful day for Mike. On the first lap he was following Jackie Stewart’s BRM H16. Here is Mike’s description of what happened next, as told to the writer Mark Kahn: “Spa I had driven at many times. I like it because it’s an extremely difficult and fast circuit … Towards the end of the first lap I found myself in third place. Jimmy Clark was leading in a Lotus, Jackie Stewart was second in a 16-cylinder BRM, and Chris Amon was fourth. I think he was some fifty yards behind me. The BRM was a flat 16 – a flat eight on top of a flat eight – and it had a reputation for consuming a lot of oil. Because of this it used to be filled absolutely to the gunnels with oil – you aren’t allowed to stop during the race and top up. On one part of the circuit there are two very fast left-hand corners that virtually become one corner [Blanchimont]. Due to this double left-hand curve, I think it is a reasonable assumption that the oil accumulated to one side of the BRM’s engine, it poured out of the breathers – and I slid on Jackie Stewart’s oil. … I recall nothing of the accident itself, only about thirty seconds before it. I am going on what Chris Amon told me. He saw me slide, took his foot off the accelerator, and he said he damn nearly slid off the road as well. … He said that my car had gone into a very fast left-hand corner at about 130 mph. The tail slid towards the outer edge of the corner, and the car because of this started to move towards the inner edge, the left-hand side of the road. I was correcting all the time. And Amon says I very nearly caught it and corrected it so it didn’t go off. Anyhow, the car went more and more to the left of the road and mounted the bank. It went broadside and started rolling over and over. At that time we didn’t even wear seat belts in cars. When it was going from upside down to right way up, centrifugal force threw me out of the car; when it came back upside down it pushed me back into it. Because of my length I wasn’t thrown out of the car straight away. What happened was that at first … my knee joints bent inside out. This tore the ligaments behind the knees. Because I still didn’t come out of the car, my leg started to break up in small pieces from the knee down until I was thrown out. Both my legs were broken. My right wrist was broken, I expect because I pushed out my hand trying to protect myself. There is a picture of me lying in the road with my legs crossed – one foot pointing up and the other pointing down … I was picked up by the ambulance and taken to the first aid centre. The man in charge afterwards told me that he remembers picking up the ends of bones, picking the grass out of them, scrubbing them, before I was flown to hospital in Liège.”
Luckily for Mike, by 1967 it had become routine practice to have a properly equipped first aid service at all F1 races. It was as a consequence of Jackie Stewart’s accident at that very same circuit in 1966, when the provision of first aid was shown to be totally inadequate, that the Grand Prix Racing Drivers Association, led by Stewart, fought to put this right. In 1967 Louis Stanley set up the International Grand Prix Medical Service featuring a mobile hospital and ambulance unit which went to all the races.
Initially Mike remained in Liège hospital, heavily concussed; the fear at that stage was that he could suffer a brain haemorrhage. After twelve days, when he was out of concussion and could be moved, he was flown to the U.K. and taken to Luton and Dunstable Hospital. Lawrence Plewes, the orthopaedic surgeon responsible for his care, decided not to operate immediately, in order to let the skin heal on the tibia and see how well the bones would knit together without further intervention. To begin with, Mike kidded himself that he would recover soon enough to drive in the Monza G.P. that autumn. As he commented seven years later: ”Little did I know at that time that it wouldn’t be until September of the following year that I would go to Monza, still on sticks, to watch the Grand Prix. Had I known this then, I would have been tempted to do something pretty drastic. … My whole world had been shattered it seemed as time went on. I was finished. And there was not really much point in … not much more to live for.”
Mike had suffered injuries from driving accidents before; in 1964 he injured his back while testing a Ferrari on the Modena test track and was in plaster for a while, but it was nothing compared with this.
Gradually, he was led to realize just how severe his injuries were: “It was a very dramatic day for me when Mr. Plewes walked into my room and said: ‘I’ve got some good news for you’. And I said whoopee! It looks as though things are going really well and I’ll be out of here sooner than I expected. He replied: ‘I can tell you now , there is no shadow of doubt that we won’t have to amputate your leg’. I’d no inkling until then that my injuries were as serious as this, no idea that this might happen and it shook me. But the delicate skin that protects the shin bone was healing. The infection that existed had been arrested, and the tissues were going to re-form. … Mr. Plewes told me: ‘Many surgeons believe if in doubt, cut it out. My philosophy is totally opposite. If bones will mend on their own, they’re going to mend better by being left alone than by being messed about by someone like myself. We’re going to wait now. We’re going to see if your bones heal. And by Christmas you should be out and all will be well’. I was pretty disappointed because I thought I was going to be out and back in action sooner. But, still – September to Christmas, the end of the year …I’d still got both legs in plaster up to the hips, and my wrist was in plaster, so all I could do was to hope those bones would mend quickly. It got to November and I got out of hospital and went back to live at home, hopping about with all that plaster on.”
In January 1968 Mike went back into hospital for X-rays. Dr. Plewes explained that the X-rays would show whether the fractures had healed properly. If they had not, he would have to operate which meant cutting back the leg bone to a point where it was still healthy, and taking out a piece of bone from the hip to replace the missing section so that one leg would not end up shorter than the other. In fact the X-rays showed an area of bone which had not healed and therefore it was necessary to operate.
Sometimes during his long stays in hospital, with the target date of his full recovery moving further and further ahead, Mike got very depressed. As he confessed to Kahn: “There is something very pathetic about a has-been racing driver. It’s something the ordinary public will never know or understand, because they don’t know the feelings of an actor who has been a top box office draw and is then put on the shelf.”
In February 1968, after a frustrating delay due to catching a cold, Mike went back into hospital for the grafting operation, which he described in a letter he sent to Enzo Ferrari: “My operation took place on the 15th February when they removed some bone from my hip and grafted it into my broken leg where they fitted a titanium plate over the break; they also removed some bone from my left leg which was fitted to my still broken right wrist. I was in some considerable pain for about 10 days after the operation but am now feeling much better. At the end of the month they will remove the plasters and take some X-rays after which I am hoping that they will put on new plasters which will enable me to put some weight on my right leg and allow me to walk. I have made so many programmes in the past and been disappointed by not being able to maintain them that I now find it dangerous to make any forecasts. However, I would hope to be in a condition to start my convalescence in Italy at the end of April.”
In reality, his convalescence dragged on and on, with periodic X-rays and changes of plaster.
By early August he was convalescent with a detachable plaster, at the end of October he had his final hospital check-up, in November 1968 he went back to work at Ferrari and by January 1969 he was testing cars once again. Altogether the accident had kept him away from Ferrari and his work for a year and five months.
In June 1968 he lost one of his dearest Italian friends, Ludovico Scarfiotti, who had been his co-driver and rival in so many races. They had had a lot of fun together, on and off the track. Ludovico died in a mountain trial event. Mike went back to Italy for the funeral, still hobbling on plasters.