Formula 1 | Safety in F1: Awareness of the 60s and 70s

Once seen as a pursuit at odds with motorsport’s DNA, safety has become a priority for F1 organisers. In this three-part article, we look at its history, obstacles, and successes.

Although zero risk is not a reality, pilots are taking less risk of serious injury than before, and it is sometimes difficult to convey to the collective unconscious that they are not exceptional athletes, or even modern gladiators.

However, safety has quickly become a concern in F1’s history, and it has been at the center of many technical, regulatory or moral developments in more than 60 years of the discipline’s 72-year history.

However, the lack of technology progressed at a slow pace until the 1990s and 2000s, when the greatest strides were made to ensure that pilot deaths were as preventable as possible.

Carefree early years

Drivers’ protection did not start with the creation of the Formula 1 World Championship in 1950. Despite the discipline’s 12 deaths in the first decade of the 1950s, it gave manufacturers a lot of freedom to enter whatever cars they wanted.

Eight of those took place at the Indianapolis 500, then counted toward the championship. But the tragedy that struck the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955, killing more than 80 people among the public, proved that changes needed to be made, even if it took longer to see a real awareness of the dangers inherent in circuits.

It was in 1961 that the first wave of measures was passed, including the obligation for pilots to wear helmets and suits. If today it seems inconceivable that the 11-year existence of the F1 world championship would lead to such an obvious decision, then it shows the progress to be made in the collective unconscious in the face of danger.

In the same year, the FIA ​​introduced safety inspections and adopted a system of flags to alert drivers to problems on the track. In addition, the fuel tanks have been strengthened and the seat belt system has been made safer.

A number of technical developments were added to the single-seater, with the displacement of the engines reduced, which had to be suitable for the forced atmosphere, the fuel was standardized and the braking cycles were doubled.


Efforts that do not prevent tragedies

However, as Wolfgang Von Trips’ crash at Monza in September 1961 proved, Formula 1 was still very dangerous. A total of 16 people died that day, and the following year two deaths, including one in a sporting event, were to be regretted. best wishes, Ricardo Rodriguez.

John Taylor’s 1966 crash at the Nürburgring after his Brabham caught fire forced F1 to review its standards, particularly with regard to fires, and many changes were made in the latter part of the decade.

The late 1960s and early 1970s presented a catastrophic human toll. In just over four years, F1 has indeed lost seven drivers, including Lorenzo Bandini, Jo Schlesser, Piers Courage, Jochen Rindt and Jo Siffert.

It was during this period that single-seaters were equipped with rear gear, a roll bar, cockpits with dimensions set by the FIA ​​to facilitate interventions and, above all, a system of fire extinguishers, which were supposed to prevent accidents like Taylor’s.

However, this did not prevent Schlesser and Courage from dying in similar circumstances, raising questions about the tanks themselves and their magnesium frames, which are known to facilitate the spread of fire. Between 1970 and 1972, the chassis was strengthened, the tank made flexible, and protective foam was added to prevent rips and burning single seats.


Jackie Stewart, head of security

In addition to this black death streak in the late 1960s, F1 almost lost one of its most famous representatives, Jackie Stewart, in a major crash at Spa-Francorchamps in 1966.

After crashing into a telephone pole and ending his race on a farmer’s property near the circuit, the Flying Scot strapped himself to the steering column of his single-seater and appeared to be bathed in his car’s fuel, which was drained into the cramped cabin. .

But this crash was a deeper expression of F1’s dysfunctions: there was no doctor where no medical infrastructure had been installed. Stewart, rescued by Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant, was put on the back of a truck and brought to the circuit’s medical center.

Lying on a stretcher in the middle of cigarette butts and all sorts of rubbish, he was picked up by an ambulance and taken to a hospital in Liege… not lost in the process.


It didn’t look good to talk about security

He then began a crusade for safety, notably accompanied by BRM boss Louis Stanley, prioritizing the presence of marshals and medics to draw laps and treat injured drivers.

“If I have a legacy in this sport, I hope it will be in the area of ​​safety, because when it came to the Grand Prix, the so-called precautions were taken and the safety measures were abysmal.” he said much later.

“We raced circuits where there were no barriers in front of the pits and the fuel was put in cans on the ground. The car could crash into the pits at any moment, it was ridiculous.”he remembered too.

This gave him a bad image at the time, and he knew he was offending public opinion by asking for security. “I’d be more popular if I’d said what people wanted to hear. I’d die, but I’d be more popular.”, Stewart told Speedhunters without irony. But also thanks to his radical stance and the boycotts he instigated, the Scotsman managed to change standards, especially at circuit level.

Safety did not depend only on single seats

It was in 1970 that the first passive safety measures were implemented to prevent aggravation of the number of accidents by structures and infrastructures. One of the fundamentals that was also a battle for Stewart was the separation of the track and the garages by the famous pit wall, which did not exist until then.

Double guardrails were adopted, a three-metre grass strip was added to the side of the track and inspections were made mandatory to ensure compliance with new regulations on rail width and surface characteristics.

In 1972 and 1973, straw bales were abandoned and obligations for fences to protect spectators emerged. The size of the starting grid was also changed, and in 1974, sand pits were added to the grids to define the edge of the track. In 1975, the FIA ​​required the installation of roads around the circuits to allow assistance to move faster.

It was in 1979 that the rails became obligated to have ventilation systems to help pilots breathe in the event of an accident. But this decade of circuit safety improvements saw many other improvements in cars and driver equipment that were not linked to the reduction in F1 fatalities.


Improve asset security in parallel

As mentioned earlier, much work was done to prevent ignition at the fuel tank level, and this improvement continued with the introduction of an electric switch device in the single seats, six-point harnesses, red light. back of single seats and external holder for fire extinguisher.

The following year, the tank was even surrounded by a deformable structure, and the suspensions no longer needed to be chromed. In 1976, a year after the advent of fireproof suits, safety regulations were drawn up for the design of car pedals and dashboards.

After the banning of the Brabham BT46B and its turbine in 1978, new restrictions were introduced to strengthen the bow and bulkhead separating the pilot from the engine. Ronnie Peterson’s death prompted the FIA ​​to further spread the starting grid positions, which were 14 meters apart.

It wasn’t until 1979 that mirrors became mandatory on F1 cars, and the use of fire extinguishers was further regulated. But along with the progress on cars and circuits, there has also been training of rescue squad members and Grand Prix personnel, allowing better and better control of the problems that arise during crashes.

The number of dead has not decreased

Marshals received equipment in the 1970s with the advent of special instructions and training, as well as a real infrastructure to enable pilot resuscitation. Thanks to these mandatory training courses, first responders are able to save lives that would have been unsalvageable just a few years ago.

But despite all these improvements and the abandonment of the Nürburgring after Niki Lauda’s accident, Roger Williamson was killed when his single-seater caught fire at Zandvoort in 1973, and the new protective bars cost the lives of Francois Javert and Peter. Revson, even Helmuth Koinigg.

These deaths, added to the tragic death of Tom Preece, who hit a marshal at Kyalami in 1977, proved to the FIA ​​that everything must be done in terms of safety, on all fronts and all eyes were on each other. With the risks they take, the pilots will sit where their speed is more visible.

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