Will Gray

How F1 went from death trap to relatively safe

Will Gray
Will Gray

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What was left of Niki Lauda's car after his crash in 1976 (Imago)

In the 1970s, Formula One averaged one death per year, not to mention countless other lucky escapes.

The dangers, drivers claimed, were unnecessarily high.

When Niki Lauda somehow dodged death at the Nordschleife in 1976, progress had already been made but there was a long way still to go.

Sir Jackie Stewart, who raced in the 1960s and 1970s, was one of the leaders in the crusade for improved safety and continued his campaign when he retired in 1974, with a focus on improving both the circuit layouts and the cars themselves.

“We were losing an immense number of drivers,” he recalled in a US magazine interview. “From 1968 to 1973, my ‘big’ years, if you raced (continuously) you would have had a 2-in-3 chance of dying. It was like a General Hospital, a serial death program. We lost far too many people...”

Circuits still used straw bales at the start of the 1970s, but they were quickly replaced by catch fencing, guard rails and grass verges as the quest for improved safety began.

The presence of marshals, a medical service with a resuscitation centre and compulsory rescue training also became mandatory.

Fire was seen as the biggest hazard back then, and at the time of Lauda’s accident, the old metal fuel tanks had already been replaced with a puncture-proof safety bladder known as a fuel cell, surrounded by a crushable safety structure. These days, that fuel cell is made of military-grade Kevlar, reinforced with rubber.

By 1976, the FIA had also made seatbelts mandatory, increased cockpit sizes, introduced standards for fire resistant clothing and enforced a minimum driver evacuation time of five seconds.

At least some of these developments probably saved Lauda’s life – but there would still be three more fatalities that decade.

Unsurprisingly, given Lauda’s helmet came off in his crash, standards were quickly improved in that area and two years later, Lauda, Carlos Reutermann and Mario Andretti also began racing in overalls made of five layers of fireproof material, brought in straight from NASA.

But while the focus on safety elements was improving, the safety of the cars themselves was going the other way.

The ground effect downforce cars of the early 1980s lead to a massive increase in cornering speeds and with it came three more deaths and countless career-ending crashes.

Once they were banned, massive strides were made in car safety as extremely strong carbon fibre monocoques became the standard chassis design, the fuel tank was moved to a position behind the driver and several different crash tests were introduced.

The sport had gone almost 12 years without a single race meeting fatality when disaster struck in 1994, with the deaths at Imola of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.

From then on, safety has became the number one priority – with focus on reducing speeds and improving crash protection.

Almost immediately after Imola, a raft of different elements were introduced to slow cars down and side and rear impact structures and tests were quickly introduced. The drivers got more protection too, with lengthened cockpits and large areas of side and rear padding and more stringent regulations on helmet design.

The circuits came under scrutiny again, with 27 different corners identified as high risk. There was a new push for high-grip asphalt run-off areas to replace raked gravel traps, tyre barrier designs were changed and SAFER water-filled barriers were introduced.

Since 2000, crash test speeds and loads have been increased, cockpit walls and roll bars have been thickened and toughened, cockpit padding has been increased and the Head and Neck Safety (HANS) device has massively increased driver neck protection.

Wheel tethers have also been introduced, and improved, in response to two tragic incidents that saw flying tyres kill trackside marshals in 2000 and 2001.

And driving standards have also came under the microscope, with blue flags for backmarkers, the introduction of in-car LEDs linked to all marshalling signals and heavy penalties for aggressive driving.

F1 in 2013, then, is a world away from what it was back on that fateful day in 1976.

But it doesn’t stop here.

New crash tests are coming in 2014 and since Felipe Massa suffered a fractured skull when he was hit by a rogue spring during a race in Hungary in 2009, the possibility of introducing closed cockpits is under ongoing investigation.

F1 has had its wake-up call, and even this year a marshal was killed in Canada in a freak accident as a reminder that motorsport, as it says on the ticket, is dangerous.

It is now the longest period ever without a driver fatality in a race, but the sport is determined to keep doing all it can to extend that record indefinitely...

Rush: A biography of Austrian Formula 1 champion driver Niki Lauda and the 1976 crash that almost claimed his life. Mere weeks after the accident, he got behind the wheel to challenge his British rival, James Hunt. Released 13th September.

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