Formula 1 and the Relationship Between Death, Danger, Safety and Popularity

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2013


The biggest problem with modern Formula One, despite what you may read elsewhere, is not Pirelli, nor the difficulty of passing without the drag reduction system, nor the financial struggles of various teams.

It is the lack of danger.

The spectre of death no longer hangs over every Grand Prix and, while this is certainly a positive development, it has robbed Grand Prix racing of some of its essence.

Indeed, the sport’s current problems would have seemed quaint to the drivers of F1’s primitive years, who worried more about whether they would survive the race than about tyre compounds or sponsorships.

Former F1 driver, Anthony Davidson, said in an interview with The Guardian that "I feel a driver should be challenged and should be punished for mistakes. It's what makes people follow the sport in quite a gruesome way—it's the danger, racing drivers should be heroes."

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A Blood Sport No More

I was sitting with a friend at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve when the young Polish driver, Robert Kubica, lost control of his car at 300 kph approaching the casino hairpin at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix.

His BMW Sauber clipped Jarno Trulli’s Toyota and was launched over a small embankment, hitting a concrete wall head-on before spinning and rolling across the circuit, pieces of metal and carbon-fibre showering the racetrack.

What was left of the car slammed into a steel barrier on the opposite side of the track and finally came to rest on its side.

Sitting at the far end of the circuit, with the roar from the engines of 18 other cars powering around the track, I must have only imagined that I heard the impact, but I will never forget the images on the screen and the silence of 100,000 spectators as Kubica was extricated by the medical team. We thought he was dead.

And 20 years earlier, he would have been. Thankfully, he suffered only a sprained ankle and a concussion, missed one race and finished fourth three weeks later at the French Grand Prix.

The next year, Kubica left Montreal triumphant with his first career Grand Prix victory (to date, it is also his last—his right hand was nearly severed in a rallying accident in 2011 and he has not raced in F1 since).

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F1 Grand Prix racing became popular in the middle of the 20th century because it combined the glamour of fast cars driven by young men in exotic locales, from Buenos Aires to Monte Carlo, with the danger of fast cars driven by young men through deep forests in Germany and Belgium and at high-speed, purpose-built tracks from Italy to South Africa.

The inaugural F1 World Championship season was in 1950, although Grand Prix racing has existed for almost as long as the automobile.

In the early days of the championship, death was a regular occurrence. The tally of F1 drivers killed changes based on the parameters of the list (drivers killed in practices or testing, drivers killed in non-championship races, etc.), but between 1955 and 1961, nine drivers were killed during races alone (including the Indianapolis 500, which was part of the World Championship from 1950 to 1961).

Francois Cevert drives the #6 ELF Team Tyrrell 006-Ford       during the British Grand Prix on 14 July 1973 at the Silverstone Circuit in Silverstone, Great Britain. (Photo by Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images

A few days before his death during qualifying for the 1973 U.S. Grand Prix, Francois Cevert told Sports Illustrated that, "as for the accidents and tragedy—the circus goes on. There's no room for tears."

In the early days, it was common for F1 drivers to race in other series as well. Jim Clark, for example, was killed in a Formula Two race at Hockenheim in 1968 while still actively competing in F1 (he won the last three Grands Prix in which he competed, including the South African GP three months before his death).

As safety standards slowly improved, the number of F1 fatalities by decade (including those in testing) decreased steadily from 15 in the 1950s to two in the 1990s. No driver has been killed since Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died on the same weekend at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.*

This is not a coincidence.

Senna is considered one of the greatest racers of all time and his death shocked the motorsport world.

Safety regulations, which had often been implemented piecemeal in response to various on-track catastrophes, were significantly augmented following Senna’s death. Circuits deemed too dangerous were either castrated (such as Hockenheim) or removed from the calendar (such as Imola, which took Senna’s life).

Anton Want/Getty Images

These safety improvements are a great achievement for F1. While other motorsport series have continued to struggle with protecting their drivers (Champ Car, for example, has had seven fatal accidents since 1996), F1 has made real progress.

However, the new safety standards have also presented F1 with a double-edged sword: No one, myself included, wants to see drivers die, but by eliminating the potential for death (as nearly as possible), the danger which led to the popularity of the sport is lost.

The remaining glamour, without the danger, is empty and superficial—glamour for glamour’s sake—an endless parade of celebrities shuffling up and down the pit lane and drivers throwing their cars into turns knowing the risks have been diminished should they get it wrong.

Acres of asphalt run-off areas at modern circuits ensure that drivers can push their cars to the limit without fear—and without sponsors having to endure the ignominy attendant from a car with their logo being stuck in a gravel trap or smashed against an Armco barrier or tyre wall.

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There is bound to be another death in F1 at some point. Human bodies are not built to operate at speeds in excess of 300 kph. However, the next fatality will likely be a freak accident.

As described above, even at circuits where significant impact with a solid barrier is still likely (think Canada or Monaco), the cars have evolved to the point where most of the impact is absorbed by the chassis, keeping the driver safe.

No, the next fatal accident will look more like what happened to Felipe Massa at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.

During qualifying, traveling at more than 270 kph up the straight towards turn four, he was struck in the head by a small spring that had broken loose from the suspension of Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car. Unconscious, Massa’s feet pressed both the brake and accelerator pedals, slamming his car into a tyre barrier at approximately 100 kph.

Although his injuries were initially thought to be life-threatening, Massa recovered and was released from hospital after a week. He later had a titanium plate installed to strengthen his skull and missed the final seven races of the 2009 season.

By 2010, he was back in the cockpit of his Ferrari, although he has not won a race since the injury (his teammate, Fernando Alonso, has 11 victories since Massa’s return).

These types of accidents have happened throughout the history of motorsport. Unlucky bounces and twists of fate have ended many lives on the track: If only that wheel and piece of suspension had flown six inches higher and missed Senna’s helmet; if only those marshals had not run across a blind crest in front of Tom Pryce.

But death also came regularly from the overexertion of men and machines, straining for glory.

Death is death—its finality and magnitude cannot be increased or decreased—but the meaning associated with individual deaths is more fluid.

A racing death from a random, freak accident will be a greater tragedy than ones that have come before: The deaths that resulted from men pushing their machines faster and faster, ignoring the extreme danger, until either their car or their body faltered, maybe only for a moment, and that moment was their last.

* In October 2013, Maria de Villota died, just over one year after a significant accident while testing a Marussia F1 car. The autopsy suggested that damage to her brain from the accident may have contributed to her death. Whether De Villota's death is counted as an F1 fatality or not is largely irrelevant—either way, it reminds us of the dangers of the sport, even with modern safety standards.

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