Danger in Formula 1 racing is a subject that is never out of the news. There is a continuous effort to make the cars go faster and be as spectacular as possible.
In all this, drivers are putting their lives at ever greater risk. This is the reason the International Automobile Federation (FIA) is always trying to make motorsport safer than it is already.
Over 50 drivers have died competing in F1 races or in qualifying or even in practice, with the last fatality being of Frenchman Jules Bianchi in 2015.
Back when the Formula 1 World Championship started in 1950, there was hardly any thought of safety. The driver had no shell like today, ordinary clothing, no full face helmets, fencing to keep spectators away was not always present, no medical assistance; it was dangerous to be competing those days. To top it all, teams used alcohol-based fuels that produced tremendous power. F1 racing in the 1950s was not for the faint-hearted.
Any thought about safety came only 10 years after the F1 World Championship began. The 1960s saw the introduction of flag signals and roll bars, cockpits had to be redesigned so that drivers could exit more easily in case of an emergency, fuel tank protection and drivers had to wear fireproof suits. However, one of the most important developments among these in 1963 was that the International Automobile Federation (FIA) took over responsibility for safety at tracks. At this time, engine capacities were controlled to keep a check on excessive speed.
The 70s saw more safety measures being introduced to make racing less dangerous. The crusade to make F1 safer was led by British three-time world champion Jackie Stewart.
Double crash barriers and a distance of three metres between track fencing and spectators was introduced. The cockpit had to be built in such a way that the driver could be rescued in five seconds, head rests and red rear lights were introduced, fuel tanks needed to have security foam and a six point seatbelt harness were all introduced in the early 70s.
In 1975, the FIA put out standards for fireproof clothing. In 1979, Niki Lauda, Carlos Reutemann and Mario Andretti were the first to compete in five-layer fireproof overalls, the same used by US space agency NASA.
The early 80s saw dramatic changes in safety even as drivers continued to die, with the most prominent being Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, father of 1997 world champion Jacques.
One significant development was that permanent medical centres became mandatory in 1980, while helicopters had to be on standby all the time from 1986.
The Lotus 79 F1 car, designed mainly by genius Colin Chapman, was the first to take full advantage of Ground Effect, or aerodynamic grip. The car was successful and other teams began to develop and use cars with high aerodynamic grip. However, the cornering speeds were so high that the FIA eventually banned these from the 1983 season. It was banned because the ’82 season had seen a number of violent and fatal crashes. In ’84, refuelling was banned and the fuel tank had to be placed between the driver and the engine.
The ’89 season saw only naturally aspirated cars on the grid as turbocharging was banned after the ’87 and ’88 seasons.
Throughout the 90s, the FIA kept tightening crash test regulations in an effort to keep drivers safe. The FIA also mandated the use of accident data recorders in cars for analysing crashes.
Though detachable steering wheels were compulsory from the ’90 season, new regulations in ’98 said that a driver should be able to detach the wheel, get out of the cockpit and reattach the wheel within 10 seconds.
The 2000s saw several circuits being upgraded and modified to make them safer for racing and these included Silverstone (England), Nurburgring (Germany), Magny-Cours (France), Budapest (Hungary), Suzuka (Japan) and Monte Carlo. The newer circuits in Shanghai (China) and Bahrain were built with very good safety standards.
In 2003, the Head and Neck System (HANS) was made mandatory for all drivers. This is a restraint system to prevent injuries to the head and neck.
The most recent safety measure was the ‘halo’, a guard in front around and on top of the cockpit opening so that flying objects do not injure the driver’s head. But its effectiveness has been the subject of constant debate.
The FIA has continuously endeavoured to make racing safer through strict regulations. Despite this, there are fatalities.
Bianchi’s death is a case in point. His Marussia F1 Team car slid off the track under the Safety Car in a wet Japanese Grand Prix in 2014. His car collided with a car recovery crane and he breathed his last a few months later.