Core Characteristics of Formula One: Safety
Written by Jake O’Callaghan, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
This series "Core Characteristics of Formula One" seeks to take a look at the qualities that lie at the essence of the Pinnacle of Motorsport. Through past instances and famous quotes, writers will aim to explain why each characteristic forms the essence of Formula One. Continuing our series is Jake O’Callaghan, writer and journalist for Divebomb, covering the development of safety throughout the history of the sport.
The 1950s and 1960s - Nascent Stages of Safety
In the early years of Formula One, cars were required to meet fewer regulations. In fact, according to the “Cars Eligible” section of the original Formula 1 rulebook, cars had to meet only four criteria in order to compete: They must have four wheels, the engine must be 1500cc for supercharged engines and 4500 for non-supercharged engines, each car must have sufficient and effective rear-view mirrors. The final, and most important one, each car must have “some form of protection” between the driver and the engine, to “prevent the passage of flame in[to] that part of the car occupied by the driver.”
This lack of clarity and specificity in the regulations would be inconceivable today, with the 2023 F1 technical regulations rulebook consisting almost 200 pages. The 1950s were an exceptionally dangerous era of Formula 1, with deaths not only common, but accepted as a normal side-effect of racing.
The 1960s were still an exceptionally dangerous time for drivers, deaths still being a commonality. However, the mid-1960s sparked the beginning of more wide-ranging safety regulations. Roll bars were introduced for the first time, intended to protect a driver from being crushed, should their car roll over. Improvements were made to protect drivers from engine fire, and the original flag signal code was established, one that is still used today.
The deaths of Jim Clark and Lorenzo Bandini prompted the FIA to impose stricter regulations on safety barriers, with straw bales being banned as a trackside safety device. Bandini suffered terrible burns after crashing in Monaco and igniting the straw bales lining the track, in a fatal injury.
Armco barriers were first introduced in Formula 1 at the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix, under the recommendation of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. In the race, both Lotus drivers Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill suffered rear wing failures but survived, thanks in no small part to the brand-new barriers that had been installed.
1970s and 1980s - Improving safety measures, despite tragedy
The 1970s saw the rapid development of F1, as cars became faster and more aerodynamically efficient, but safety did not develop at the same rate. Deaths remained common, and F1 still raced at dangerously fast, and less safe tracks.
The 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza would be the site of another tragic and completely avoidable accident. As the cars were lining up to the grid, officials prematurely waved the green flag. With the front of the grid stationary, and the rear unaware of this, the field bunched dangerously, resulting in an accident involving Ronnie Peterson. Peterson’s car was thrown into the barriers, and struck by another car, bursting into flames. Other drivers caught up in the accident rushed to aid the Swede, including Mclaren’s James Hunt.
Then-F1 safety delegate Prof. Sid Watkins was blocked from attending to the injured drivers, as misinformed Italian police had cordoned off the crash site. The ambulance took over 15 minutes to arrive at the scene. Peterson was brought to hospital with badly broken legs, injuries to which sadly, he would later succumb to.
This accident would prompt Formula 1 to take direct action, introducing a medical car to follow the cars around the first lap, ready to provide instant medical assistance to stricken drivers. This is a practice used even today, and has helped many drivers - from Michael Schumacher at Silverstone in 1999, to Romain Grosjean’s fireball crash at Bahrain two decades later.
The 1980s saw a new era of safety for F1, following Peterson’s crash, with many improvements being established. Despite this, three drivers died early in the decade: Patrick Depailler at Hockenheim, Gilles Villeneuve at Zolder, and Riccardo Paletti at Canada. Formula 1 had been using ground effect cars, dramatically increasing cornering speeds, and leading to dangerous high-speed crashes. Ground effect was banned in 1983, and would not return for nearly 40 years. Owing to these safety improvements, F1 would not see another driver death for the rest of the 1980s.
The 1990s - A fatal crash rattles Formula One
The first half of this decade remarkably saw a practical regression in F1 safety. F1 hadn’t seen a driver death in over 10 years, and the FIA appeared complacent, banning electronic driver aids for the 1994 season. Many cars were designed around these aids, and seemingly became difficult and unpredictable when driving. This led to an increase in dangerous accidents.
This came to a head at the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix, at Imola, one of F1’s darkest weekends. Each day spelled a new tragedy. Friday saw the terrible accident of Rubens Barricello, the Brazilian hospitalised after going airborne over a curb, and slammed into the barrier at dangerously high speed. Saturday saw rookie driver Roland Ratzeberger suffer a fatal accident at the Villeneuve chicane. The most infamous of them all was on Sunday, which saw the death of three-time champion Ayrton Senna, a steering failure leading to his car slamming into the concrete barrier of Tamburello at high speed.
A raft of new safety changes were introduced in the aftermath of the weekend. Pit lane speed limits were seen for the first time, and fire safety was taken more seriously, with fireproof suits becoming mandatory for pit crew. Additionally, high-risk areas of many tracks were identified and modified with safer crash barriers, wider runoffs, and even slowed-down cornering speeds.
2000s - Advancements in safety
The first decade of the new millennium saw a new dawn for F1 safety. Vastly safer cars and tracks meant no driver died during the decade, a first for Formula 1. The most significant safety improvement was the introduction of the mandatory HANS device in 2003, designed to protect a driver’s neck from being broken in the event of a head-on impact. These were introduced as a result of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt’s death at the Daytona 500, in which such a device would have saved his life. This was the only major safety improvement during the decade.
2010s - A fatal crash calls for stringent measures
The 2010s unfortunately did not continue the clean record that the 2000s maintained, in terms of driver deaths. At the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, Marussia driver Jules Bianchi was seriously injured after his car ran off the road at Dunlop curve in extremely wet conditions and hit a recovery tractor that was retrieving another car from the gravel trap. Bianchi went into a coma, tragically succumbing to his injuries nine months later. This accident was the catalyst for a renewed look at driver head protection, with the open-cockpit design significantly exposing drivers, swapped out for a safer design incorporating the Halo in 2018.
The Halo is a titanium device surrounding the driver’s head, and protects them from flying debris, thus preventing serious head injury. Drivers initially weren’t in favour of the halo, but with time, the halo has gone on to save countless lives. The most obvious instance was Romain Grosjean in 2020, the halo preventing the Frenchman’s head from striking the barrier, preventing what could have been a fatal incident.
Formula 1 safety has come a long way since the dangerous years of the championship’s infancy, yet motorsports is not without risk. It is a terribly dangerous sport, and there will always be improvements that can be made to protect the brave drivers that risk their lives for our entertainment.