When Jackie Stewart first came up with suggestions to make Formula One safer, many scoffed at him. They said his suggestions would remove the romance from the sport; that the safety measures would take away the excitement from F-1. “They said I had no guts,” said the F-1 legend and a three-time World champion from Britain a few decades ago.
Formula One is probably a hundred times safer than what it was when the first race was run in Silverstone (England) in 1950. The cars then were purely designed for speed, with front engines and drum brakes, but they ran without medical back-up or any form of safety net.
But despite many rule changes, motorsport continues to be the most dangerous sport in the world. The recent death of English driver Dan Wheldon after a horrific crash in the IndyCar World championship's final race in the U.S. and the celebrated Italian rider Marco Simoncelli's death on Sunday, after a horror crash that saw the Malaysian MotoGP at Sepang cancelled, are the latest disasters to hit the sport.
Stewart himself witnessed 11 driver deaths in F-1 racing during his eight years on the circuit, between 1965 and 1973. But the fact that the last fatal accident in F-1 — which claimed its biggest star Ayrton Senna — happened 17 years ago at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, is proof of how much the world body, FIA, and Formula One have done to make the sport safer.
Stewart, who had a brush with death at the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix and who had lost a few of his close friends in other racing accidents, has played a big role in improving safety in F-1. The current F-1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, who was the Brabham team owner in the mid-1970s, also used his growing influence to demand improvements in safety at the various circuits and he hired Prof. Sid Watkins to oversee the safety improvement programme.
In the early days, even fatal crashes were almost accepted as part of a Grand Prix weekend. There were 11 driver fatalities in the 1950s and an equal number the following decade. The first safety measures in F-1 were introduced in 1960 — a full decade after the World championship came into being. Roll-over bars and flag signals along with improvements in fuel tank construction to prevent vehicle fire were the major additions.
Out in five seconds!
FIA assumed responsibility for safety at racing circuits in 1963 and drivers were required to wear fireproof suits and unbreakable full-visor helmets. Cockpits were also restructured to allow drivers to get out more quickly, in about five seconds.
FIA introduced circuit inspections before races in the 1970s as well as double crash barriers, a safety distance of three metres between fences and spectators and a six-point code of conduct for all drivers.
In 1978, only drivers with an FIA super licence were allowed to enter Formula One, and a little later, a stricter process followed.
Helicopters on stand-by were made mandatory in 1986 and crash tests for the car's safety cell and fuel tank were brought in, in 1988. The height of track safety walls was also raised to one metre and the pit wall to a minimum of 1.35m. Detachable steering wheels became mandatory in 1990 and two years later came the F-1 official safety car and stricter crash tests. Dope tests were also introduced.
Following the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, more safety measures were put in place like extra protection for drivers' heads and cutting down the power output of the engines.
Ten years ago, FIA introduced a rule that made it necessary for a driver to allow a vehicle to pass when a blue flag is shown for the third time. Time penalties (stop-and-go) for drivers who trigger a false start, cause an accident or collision or force another driver off the track were brought in. Time penalties were also handed for exceeding the speed limit in the pit lane.
In 2003, many circuits, including Silverstone, Nurburgring, Magny-Cours, Budapest and Suzuka underwent changes to make them safer. That same year, HANS (Head and Neck Support System) that reduces the risk of neck and skull fractures which were the biggest cause of death in racing accidents was made mandatory.
This year, to reduce the speed of F-1 cars and to facilitate overtaking, the double diffusers, used since 2009, and the F-ducts, developed in 2010, were banned. This meant a significant reduction in the down force.