F1: Safety is Par for the Course

Mitchell Yelverton
by Mitchell Yelverton

F1 is the prima donna of the motorsports stage, steeped in tradition. To the idealistic amongst us, Max and Bernie’s show stills sings a siren song: dazzling technology, elite pilots, glitz and glamour, the passion of competition and the pursuit of perfection. The reality is somewhat grimier and less spectacular than the sport’s aura would lead us to believe. Even so, there are good reasons why today’s races have so little in common with the epic and sometimes fatal battles of the sport’s golden age.

The romantics among us picture Fangio’s Maserati 250F on the banking at Monza or Stirling Moss thrashing his revolutionary, mid-engined Cooper around Goodwood. Today, Monza’s banked corners are slowly going back to nature, their concrete remains spotted with graffiti. The German Hockenheimring has suffered a similar fate. Organizers have abandoned its tree-lined forest straights for a new, sanitized, Herman Tilke-fied version. The course is now utterly devoid of the character that gave the original circuit its allure. F1’s powers have dismantled and discarded some of the defining facets of the sport.

And no wonder. While today’s spectators will never see Schumacher’s 248 F1 dart through the Masta Kink at Spa or streak through an un-chicaned Tamburello, drivers will never face the sort of needless dangers that typified these tracks. Lest we forget, Spa nearly claimed Jackie Stewart in ’66.

Stewart went off at Masta at more than 130mph, struck a stone wall. Trapped in his mangled machine, the driver lay battered in the cockpit covered by searing racing fuel for more than 15 minutes before rescue personnel arrived. Once the rescue team extricated Stewart from the car, it was a further 20 minutes before he arrived at a medical facility (the ambulance crew got lost en route). Upon arrival, the Scot was shocked to find that the “medical facility” was a dirty concrete slab surrounded by cigarette butts.

Stewart’s shunt at Masta shed light on the inherent danger of circuits run through villages and farmland, bordered by houses, trees, fences and light poles. The inherent dangers that almost led to Stewart's demise was remedied by the evisceration of the historic nine mile circuit at Spa-Francorchamps, curtailing its length by more than fifty percent and reducing average speeds considerably. Consider that the highest average speed achieved by a Formula 1 car over a lap at Spa was over 150mph, achieved in 1970 by then 20 year-old Pedro Rodriguez. As a sign of the times, Rodriguez was dead less than 12 months later, a victim of the same safety deficiencies that defined early F1.

The Tamburello circuit's design contributed to Ayrton Senna’s death in ‘94. Both incidenta were catalysts for a sea change in safety and course design. That said, Senna’s tragic end elucidated the immense improvements in circuit safety. Unlike Stewart, Senna was surrounded by medical personnel and marshals less than 15 seconds after his Williams struck the barriers. Senna’s death has been attributed to a strike on his helmet by a piece of wildly flailing front suspension, ripped from his machine as he made contact with the Armco. Senna’s tragic end accelerated the push for greater driver and spectator safety that had begun in earnest following the notable shunts of the early 70’s.

Europe’s legendary circuits may lack the air of danger that made them legendary, but they’ve become quantitatively better circuits. For drivers, strategically placed run-of areas, deformable barriers and safety-conscious circuit design provide a critical measure of extra safety. The tracks are also designed with rescue crew response teams and medical helicopter access in mind (F1 races are now subject to cancellation should weather conditions ground the medical helicopter).

The removal of the trees that lined so many circuits, undertaken in the interest of preventing accidents like Jim Clark’s at Hockenheim, has improved sight lines. The 100k plus spectators that attend the German GP at Hockenheim annually are able to see much of the circuit from their grandstand seats. The dark forest straights may be gone, but the spectacle is not. The much-lamented loss of character and length of many circuits has, in this case at least, greatly benefited the spectator experience.

The danger and heroism of the world of early F1 has passed into memory. And yet that legacy lives on beneath the increasingly corporate veneer. Moss’ Cooper, which had its humble beginnings as a 500cc F2 racer, has formed the basis for every F1 car that followed it. Spa’s Eau Rouge remains as daunting as ever. The MP4/21 McLaren Mercedes wears the silver that adorned its Teutonic predecessors. And the fact remains that just like in 1955, a Formula 1 car remains the absolute fastest way to get around a road course.

Mitchell Yelverton
Mitchell Yelverton

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  • Esldude Esldude on Aug 28, 2006

    Thanks for the heads up on the SpeedTVbook. I am not advocating a return to yesteryear's lack of safetly. I am advocating a return to racing where the driver mattered more. In fact, putting driving back into the hands of the driver does only a little if any to make the sport more dangerous. Outlawing downforce producing bodies greatly reduces cornering speeds, which combined with keeping all the other modern tech safety items would make F1 far safer than what it is now. And you still have interesting racing instead of what we see now. Wings and huge downforce make the racing more dangerous not the reverse.

  • Mitchell Yelverton Mitchell Yelverton on Aug 29, 2006

    There are a few ways to look at "making the driver matter more" - on one hand, the absolute ultimate of this ideal is NASCAR or Star Mazda Series, one of the truly spec series - and they do produce good racing. On the other hand, F1 has always used technological innovation and progress as a key selling point - there are 2 championships, the drivers' and the constructors', and most importantly, there are innumerable instances of inferior drivers succeeding with great equipment and vice versa (Jacques Villeneuve is a great example, famous name aside). Removing the element of aerodynamic development from the mix would change the sport immensely, not to mention greatly change the layout of most modern F1 tracks. There have been efforts in recent years to limit aerodynamic development differently - rather than reduce overall levels of downforce by changing wing heights or endplate designs, design rear wings that don't disrupt airflow to cars behind quite as badly - the so-called Center Downwash Generating Wing, the CDG wing.

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