Motorsport is an inherently dangerous pursuit and a total of 51 drivers have died whilst driving Formula 1 cars. Some of these were outside race weekends but 32 were during the weekends either during practice, qualifying or the race itself. The first F1 fatality was Cameron Earl who was test-racing a car, which overturned and left him with a broken skull.
Modern technology has led to advances in motorsport safety but of course there have also been advances in speed and levels of competition. Although the element of danger is one of the attractions of motorsport, event safety, particularly F1 safety is a huge consideration for circuit owners; not only do they have to take the safety of the drivers into consideration, but also that of the pit crews, officials and spectators. We look at the top 10 motorsport safety improvements.
Since the FIA undertook their first F1 circuit event safety inspections in the years between 1963 and 1967, circuit safety in Formula 1 has continued to develop. Some key developments include: an obligatory permanent medical centre (1980), track side barrier and pit wall minimum heights (1989), the reduction of ‘high risk’ corner numbers to 2 per circuit (1996) and pit lane straightening for 100m before the pits (1998).
The Banning of Ground Effect Technologies
Ground effect technologies were an innovation of the Lotus team and involved techniques that caused a car to function in a similar way as a giant aeroplane wing, with corresponding downforce to retain maximum contact with the track. The ground effect technologies succeeded but escalating corner speeds became a motorsport safety concern and when Alfa Romeo driver Patrick Depailler’s car failed to take a corner during testing for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in 1980, his death was followed by an F1 ban on skirts. This ban proved difficult to implement and ground force technology continued to be blamed for deaths such as that of Gilles Villeneuve during qualifying in 1982. In 1983 flat-bottomed cars became a mandatory F1 safety measure.
Limited Pit Lane Access
To increase pit lane safety, pit crews are confined to their garages until just before a pit stop. After the pit stop they must retire to the garage as soon as they have completed their allocated tasks.
Mid Race Refuelling
In 1994 Jos Verstappen and one of the Benetton pit crew suffered minor burns when fuel leaked and ignited whilst they were in the pits. Because of this and other similar incidents, mid race refuelling in the pit lane has been banned in Formula 1 since 2010. Most pit lane tasks revolve around tyre changes but wing adjustments and other minor repairs may also be undertaken. Pit lane refuelling was hazardous and required a large pit lane crew of around 20.
Pit Lane Speed Limits
Pit lane speed limits vary during events (usually 100km/h) but are set at 60km/h for all free practice sessions. Speeds in excess of the speed limit are banned in the pit lane. Drivers who break these speed limits during a race will incur either a time or drive-through penalty (where he is not allowed to stop in the pits). If pit lane speeding occurs during practice, fines will take the place of penalties.
Removable Seats and Quick Release Steering Wheels
In 1990 quick release steering wheels that allowed for speedier driver extrication or self-extrication was made compulsory for F1 safety. Removable seats which allowed for an injured driver to be removed from the vehicle whilst remaining in his seat became compulsory and standardised in 2001. Seats have to all either be removable using the same standard tool or without any tool and without cutting the seatbelts. These removable seats are particularly important when there is a risk of spinal injuries.
Head and Neck Protection – HANS
The HANS (Head and Neck Support) device is a type of head restraint that was adopted by Formula 1 in 2003. It is attached to a driver’s helmet via 2 anchors and is secured via the harness, not by the seat but by the body of the driver. The HANS device has been designed to prevent the head from excessive movement backwards and forwards during a crash. It also restricts, to some extent, over articulated head rotation. It has been suggested that the HANS device may have prevented the basilar skull fracture that contributed to Ayrton Senna’s death at San Marino in 1994.
Since 1999 it has been compulsory for wheels on Formula 1 cars to be tethered to the car. These tethers are designed to reduce injury to drivers, officials and spectators from wheel and wheel components that become detached from the vehicle during high-speed crashes.
Wet Weather Starts
Wet weather presents particular dangers and although this brings with it additional spectator excitement, event safety is paramount. In 1997 more powerful safety cars were introduced and alongside this, the option to use safety cars for wet weather rolling starts was also given. After criticism that these rolling wet weather starts denied fans the excitement of a real start, it was decided by the FIA for the 2017 season that wet weather starts would be still be undertaken behind a safety car but that cars would come to a standstill and start in the usual manner once the track was judged safe enough.
Head Protection – the Halo
One of the biggest dangers to F1 drivers is the vulnerability of their heads, which stick out of the cockpit and are protected by a helmet alone. A driver’s head in this position risks injury from uncontrolled debris or car inversion. One possible solution for this, the halo, was proposed for 2017. The halo is a titanium oval shape, which sits above the driver’s head and is fastened to the chassis at 3 points. Initially unpopular with drivers for its unattractiveness, the halo was rejected by the FIA for the 2017 season but is expected to become mandatory in 2018.
Improvements in motorsport safety will no doubt continue as technology allows and future accidents indicate. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of event safety is the presence of experienced and highly trained medical personnel. At MDD we offer the very best in medical cover and driver extrication. For professional help and advice regarding all of your FIA approved medical equipment and cover please get in touch with our experienced team today.