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As you will no doubt be aware, it is twenty years since that fateful weekend in Imola when both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died at the wheel of their racing cars.  You can read memories of these two drivers from Tom, Adam and Todd on the website, not forgetting Jake’s tribute.  I thought it would be worth remembering how much safety in the sport has improved.

The figures below are just driver fatalities; they do not include any figures for team members, marshals or spectators. Forty nine drivers have dies while driving a formula 1 car, either in championship event, non-championship events or test sessions.  During the first two years of the Formula 1 world championship there were no driver fatalities, and only one in 1952 when Cameron Earl died during a test at MIRA driving an ERA.  The number of fatalities in the first decade of the world championship is shown below:

Year

Number of fatalities

1950

0

1951

0

1952

1

1953

2

1954

1

1955

3

1956

0

1957

2

1958

4

1959

2

15 for the decade

Seven of these fifteen deaths occurred at the Indianapolis 500 (which was part of the world drivers championship at that time).   The higher speeds and close proximity of the barriers mean that accidents at this circuit are likely to result in more significant injury to the driver.   This is still the case today.

Through the 1960’s there were still a high number of fatal accidents in Formula 1 despite the disappearance of the Indy 500 from the championship.

Year

Number of fatalities

1960

3

1961

3

1962

2

1963

0

1964

1

1965

0

1966

1

1967

2

1968

1

1969

1

14 for the decade

These figures just include drivers who were driving formula 1 cars at the time of their death, so it doesn’t include the many fatalities of formula 1 drivers who died while racing or practicing in other racing cars (Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren etc.).  Suffice to say, the number of drivers who lost their lives during this period is higher than shown in these tables.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s some safety developments started to appear, thanks largely to the efforts of Jackie Stewart who campaigned for seatbelts and better on site medical facilities.  In the 1970’s the figures were:

Year

Number of fatalities

1970

3

1971

1

1972

0

1973

2

1974

2

1975

1

1976

0

1977

2

1978

1

1979

0

12 for the decade

Into the 1980’s and the safety improvements made to both car and circuits were really beginning to show results in the improved outcomes for drivers following accidents.

Year

Number of fatalities

1980

1

1981

0

1982

2

1983

0

1984

0

1985

0

1986

1

1987

0

1988

0

1989

0

4 for the decade

Following Elio de Angelis’ testing accident in 1986, formula 1 started to feel safer and safer.  Drivers were now having big accidents, like Gerhard Berger in Imola in 1989, and walking away with relatively minor injuries, missing a race or two and then coming back.  In the 1990’s it therefore came as a significant shock to not only the F1 paddock but also the vastly increased global TV audience when two drivers died during the same weekend.  Huge changes were made to the cars to offer greater head protection and chicanes were built to slow down cars on the faster circuits.  Temporary chicanes were even installed in some places as circuit modifications could not be made in time.  Ratzenberger and Senna were the only drivers to perish in formula 1 cars during the 1990’s, and have been the last to do so during any championship event.  However in the 2000’s two drivers did die at the wheel of F1 machinery (John Dawson-Damer at the 2000 Goodwood Festival of Speed driving a Lotus 63 in an incident that killed one marshal and seriously injured another, and Fritz Glatz driving a Footwork in the 2002 EuroBOSS series at Most).

As stated above these figures do not include anyone other than the drivers, fatalities are still occurring in formula 1, just last year a Canadian marshal was killed while helping to recover a car during the race.  Two drivers lost their lives over the Easter weekend during UK club racing, so motorsport continues to be dangerous, and we should not fall into the trap as some of us did before Imola 1994 of thinking that F1 is now safe, and that no more drivers can die in an F1 car.  Wheel over wheel incidents will usually result in one car flying through the air (ask Mark Webber or Esteban Gutierrez), and open cockpits will always leave the driver exposed to flying debris form an accident (e.g. Felipe Massa, Henry Surtees).  So unless formula 1 ceases to be open wheel, open cockpit racing there are some dangers that cannot be eliminated.  Even if the cars were changed to have enclosed wheels and closed cockpits the dangers would not be completely eliminated, fatalities still happen with these types of cars.  However risks can still be reduced even if not eliminated, and perhaps we shouldn’t complain too loudly the next time rule changes are introduced to control the cars speeds.

 

 

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A long time fan of Formula 1 and grass roots motorsport, I am interested in the engineering aspects not only of F1 but the 'men in sheds' who develop homemade specials to take on the products of the big racing car manufacturers.
  • Tom Firth

    We should never become complacent over safety, The evolution of motorsport safety has come so far, particularly at the very top of the sport but it will ever evolve, as will the sport. Thank you so much for reminding us of this.