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Formula 1 has never been safer

As long as there is motor racing, the shadow of death will loom large. But Formula 1 has come a long way in making the sport safer for its drivers.

September 06, 2019 / 01:41 PM IST

Last week, it was Anthoine Hubert, aged 22 years. Back in 1973, there was another likeable Frenchman called Francois Cevert who gave himself to motor racing—and it took him. In a biography published soon after Cevert’s death in a racing accident at the age of 29, these evocative words of his framed an enduring paradox.

“This lightheartedness (racing and celebrating in the shadows of death) might seem out of place. It is not, for we all know, everyone of us, that there is death in our contract. The more I drive, the more I realise it could happen to me; but in fact, it would take more courage for me to give up racing than it would to go on," Cevert is quoted as saying in Formula 1: The Autobiography, an excellent anthology edited by Gerald Donaldson.

In F1 history, a few did give up, but most have gone on. A day after Hubert’s death in a terrifying crash in a tier-II race, all 20 drivers in F1 raced. That decision is partly made easier today, than say in the 1970s or in the 1950s, by the advances made by the sport in driver safety. F1 has never been safer—that, though, being a relative word—than it is now.

When the sport began, the fear, the danger, the risks were more palpable. Till the mid-nineties, death was a constant reminder. A dataset lists the cause of death of all drivers who have raced in F1, and it shows the number of deaths due to racing accidents—be it in F1 or in other series—has been progressively decreasing.

The 1950s and the 1960s were the worst decades. On the one hand, the cars were touching top speeds of above 250 km/hour—imagine that, about four times the maximum permissible speed on Indian city roads. On the other hand, driver safety died many deaths in the name of bravado and pushing the boundaries.


The tyres were about one-third the width of the current tyres, which meant less grip. Tracks did not have runoff areas, gravel traps and tyre walls to cushion the impact of moves gone awry. In Europe, some of those tracks meandered through forests, which meant it would take longer for help to arrive.

Drivers were perched a couple of feet from the ground, in a road-car kind of sitting position. Except they had no windshield, they did not wear helmets or wore flimsy ones, their overalls were made of cloth and their shoes of canvas. And they did not wear seatbelts, preferring to be thrown off the car at speed than be trapped in a mangled and burning piece of metal.

As the fatalities mounted, and F1 organised itself better as a sport the conversation around safety increased, and changes came. In track design and features. In car material and design. In requirements of a driver while in the cockpit.

Today, the cars are much faster, but also more stable and reliable. For example, the share of retirements in F1 races due to technical reasons (for example, engine or brake failure) and accidents—the two things that put a driver’s life in great peril—have each started to converge around the 5-10% mark.

The significant improvements have come from the technical side. Since the beginning of the sport, the share of technical-related retirements was consistently above 25 percent, peaking at 48 percent in 1986. Similarly, between 1975 and 2002, the share of accident-related retirements was mostly above 10 percent, peaking at 22 percent in 1993. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, accident-related retirements were around the 10% mark, but weaker safety regulations and features resulted in more driver fatalities.

Ferrari, the only team that has been in the sport through its 70-year history, has lost seven drivers, more than any other team. Six of them died in a crash in an 11-year stretch between 1950 and 1961, and the seventh, the brilliant and popular Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, in 1982.

But the 1950s were not Ferrari’s worst period in terms of accidents and technical travails. Its worst was the decade between 1986 and 1996. Its accident count was, at times, double that of the 1950s, but it emerged without any fatalities, again a testament to safety advancements.

Data for the last decade shows that it’s the mid- and lower-rung teams that are more accident-prone. Sauber (now Alfa Romeo) and Renault both have an accident rate above 10 percent. Staying out of trouble is also partly about racecraft. And, in the past decade, Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have shown a greater knack of staying out of trouble than Ferrari. Then again, as Cevert said, when you are racing, the shadow of trouble is always there.
first published: Sep 6, 2019 01:41 pm

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