Since I’ll be covering a few horrible well-known crashes, I would like to warn readers beforehand that some of what follows can be distressing to read as it can bring up a negative emotional experience.
Formula One has come a long way in its seventy-year history, especially in terms of safety for the drivers. Following Anthoine Hubert’s tragic death in 2019 at Spa-Francorchamps and Romain Grosjean’s horrible crash (where thank God, he made it out alive, safe and well) during the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, motorsport safety has once again become a hot topic.
These are the moments when this beautiful sport can take a massive curveball. Moments like these awfully remind us how dangerous the sport can be and what a risk the drivers take every time they step into their car.
That is why I’m writing this article to find out what measures have been put in place to make the sport safer and to prevent reoccurrence. The fact that last year we celebrated seventy years of Formula One, I thought it was a good moment to compare modern day safety in racing that we know today with some stories from the past.
“It was generally acknowledged that racing carried a real risk of serious injury or death.”
Let’s rewind to the sixties and the seventies, it took a long time for the sport to strive to protect lives in these years. During that era, it was generally acknowledged that racing carried a real risk of serious injury or death as the death rate in Formula One was 1 in every 8 crashes.
On official Grand Prix weekends, 32 drivers were killed in total. If test drives and non-championship events are included, the number even rises to a sad 52. Something that thankfully doesn’t happen a lot anymore in racing today.
One of the most talked about stories about Formula One and its safety occurred before I was even born. As a Formula One fan, I have only read, heard and saw a lot about the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. As of today, I’m still shocked by the fact how it was possible back than, that a race weekend resulted in two casualties out of 3 serious crashes.
Austrian racing driver Roland Ratzenberger died in a crash during qualifying, while the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, three-time World Champion, died the following day during the race.
Ayrton Senna and his crash has been a big subject of investigation by the Italian authorities, who went so far as to bring charges against the Williams team who Senna was driving for at the moment of the crash. Many theories have been put forward but no official or clear cause has ever been released.
Regardless of the cause or causes, Senna’s car left the track at the Tamburello turn at 310 km/h and struck the wall at 217 km/h. The right front wheel including a piece of the suspension broke away in the impact and hit Senna’s head; his helmet was penetrated, which caused his death.
As a direct result of the two deaths that weekend, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GDPA) was reformed as Ayrton Senna was to be appointed as a director, but because of his tragic death it unfortunately could not continue. In 2021 George Russell was appointed as the director of the GPDA. In conclusion this association is one that is still present up to this day.
Both fatal crashes brought Formula One’s safety standards under even more international scrutiny as never before. To make the sport safer, drastic improvements were introduced. They aimed at slowing down the cars, engine sizes were reduced, more demanding crash tests were implemented, and the FIA was more aggressive in its pursuit of circuit safety. It was obvious that drastic steps were needed to improve safety in Formula One.
The FIA launched a special campaign to improve safety in motorsport in 1994, which resulted in the creation of the FIA Institute for Motorsport Safety.
Now let’s talk about the Safety Car. Former Canadian racing driver Eppie Wietzes drove the safety car for the first time at the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix as a result of a series of difficulties during bad weather. When the car was first used, it put a car one lap down in the wrong position. After the race, it took several hours to decide the winner and clear up the confusion. It would be another two decades before the safety car was seen on track again. The safety car was eventually officially introduced during the 1993 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix and the British Grand Prix.
An accident during a racing event is dangerous. If the Race Director needs to reduce speed for safety reasons, because of an accident, to aid a driver in need of assistance, for bad weather, or for the marshals to clear the track, the safety car is used. Safety cars are used “whenever there is an imminent danger, but the circumstances do not cause the race to be interrupted,” according to the official regulations.
Throughout the race, the driver of the safety car is on standby, interacting with Race Control via communication equipment. German driver Bernd Mayländer has been the safety car driver for all Formula One races since 2000.
When the car is called to act, it enters the circuit and no overtaking between drivers is allowed from that point forward. The safety car will flash green lights to allow drivers to pass it before the race leader is directly behind it. The safety car will leave the circuit after one final lap when the danger has passed. When the lap ends, the safety car’s orange flashing lights will turn off. Drivers must stay in formation but be ready to race as soon as the lap is completed and the safety car has left the circuit for the pits.
Following the death of driver Jules Bianchi in a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, the FIA formed an accident panel to investigate the complexities of the accident and ways to reduce the risk of a crash in similar situations that do not warrant the deployment of a safety car and cannot be handled simply with yellow flags.
“Following a 30G crash involving Max Verstappen, the VSC was officially used for the first time.”
Based on the “slow zone” method used in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the accident panel recommended the introduction of a ‘virtual’ safety car (VSC).” However, unlike a real safety car, the virtual one does not appear on the track. A “VSC” icon will appear trackside and on the drivers’ steering wheel displays, in addition to not being allowed to overtake under yellow flag conditions in the affected area. Beside that it requires the drivers to not exceed the posted speed limit resulting in a 35 percent reduction in speed.
During parts of free practice sessions during the final three races of the 2014 season, the VSC was put into practice. Following a 30G crash involving Max Verstappen, the VSC was officially used for the first time in 2015 at the Monaco GP.
Even though it still really hurts me to be talking or thinking about it, I feel like I have to mention Anthoine Hubert in this article as well. As his accident became a turning point and somehow a real wake-up call for me personally. It made me realize how even the next generation of Formula racers are true heroes for stepping into the car every race, no matter the potential danger and therefore trying to live their dream at all costs.
This is probably still one of the most horrible days of my life as I was present at the track during the accident and saw it happen from a distance while being at the fanzone. What started off as an amazing day at the track in Belgium with my parents and some of my best friends whom I met through Formula One, ended in a terrible nightmare….
Anthoine Hubert was a young French Renault junior driver who died at the age of 22.
He was seriously injured in a massive crash on the second lap of the Formula 2 feature race of the 2019 Spa-Francorchamps round on the 31st of August. Due to a puncture he got earlier in the lap, Trident driver Giuliano Alesi lost control of his car as he climbed the Raidillon curve, causing his car to spin and crash into the circuit’s left wall ripping off his rear wing and scattering debris around the track.
Ralph Boschung, another Trident driver, slowed and headed towards the run-off area to avoid Alesi’s destroyed car and the debris field as he approached the crest of Raidillon. Anthoine Hubert, who was closely trailing Boschung’s slowing car, moved right as well, his front wing clipping Boschung’s right rear wheel.
Hubert’s car collided at an extreme angle with the tyre barrier on the right side of the road, deflecting sideways into the direction of Charouz driver Juan Manuel Correa, who collided with the left side of Hubert’s car.
Correa’s speed in the moments leading up to the collision was determined to be between 250 and 270 km/h. Deceleration of 70G was caused by the effects. The impact of the crash ripped both cars apart. Following the crash, Hubert and Correa were taken to the circuit’s medical center, where Hubert succumbed to his injuries.
Anthoine Hubert died of “non-survivable trauma,” according to the FIA which is similar to how Ayrton Senna died 27 years ago.
Juan Manuel Correa has thankfully recovered completely and will compete for ART in the 2021 Formula 3 Championship. I followed Juan Manuel through all of his surgeries and revalidation along the way to his recovery, so seeing him back on the Formula 3 grid makes me extremely happy. It’s incredible to see how he got this far and to be able to race on, with Anthoine in his heart and thoughts forever.
The crash from Anthoine Hubert was investigated by the FIA. In December 2019, the results of the accident report were submitted to the World Motor Sport Council, along with recommendations for action.
The FIA Safety Department released the following safety regulations in May 2020, which will be introduced in future single-seat car generations (including F1, F2, F3, F4 and Formula E cars)
- Debris Containment – Using “tethering” to keep large pieces of the car from falling off (currently used to keep wheels attached to the chassis in the case of an accident), the use of “tethers” may now be expanded to front and rear wings, as well as other large components on the car.
- Increasing the cockpit’s frontal and side strength (also known as the “safety cell”).
- Formula 2 cars’ narrow nose sections can penetrate the side protection of another car.
- The current side protection will be redesigned, consisting of two Side Impact Protection Structures (SIPS) and a Side Anti Intrusion Panel.
- Front wing redesign to increase the robustness of the front wing by introducing “controlled failure” points, which should reduce the chance that the entire front wing is destroyed in case of minor contact with another car. The loss of the entire front wing caused Correa to lose control of his car, which caused him to crash into the barriers.
- Headrest redesign (also known as cockpit surround padding) to ensure that the headrest, or at least a portion of it, remains in place in the event of a severe crash.
- Tyre Pressure Monitoring System Deployment – The crash sequence started with Alesi losing control due to a tyre puncture that he was unaware of prior to losing control.
- It was announced in October 2020 that the Raidillon corner would be modified by expanding the run-off area and reintroducing gravel traps.
Romain Grosjean’s miraculous escape from the massive accident at the Bahrain Grand Prix last year has been praised as proof of Formula One’s strong commitment to safety in recent days. The Frenchman’s Haas car had split in two after a 53G impact, and he was swept in a fireball before climbing out of the wreckage with only minor injuries. Grosjean’s life may be owed to decades of ongoing safety improvements and new technologies introduced into the sport.
On the first lap of the race, Haas driver Romain Grosjean drifted across the straight that runs between turns 3 and 4. He collided with Daniil Kvyat’s oncoming car, sending him off the track and into the barriers. What happened next was possibly the most shocking scene in recent Formula One history. The Haas vehicle collided with the barrier at a sharp angle while traveling at 221km/h).
As a result, the barrier was lit open, with the front of the car becoming wedged within it. While the exact cause of this failure has yet to be determined, it is extremely concerning, putting not only the driver but also trackside workers in grave danger.
The rear of the car broke off and was thrown clear while the monocoque – the carbon fiber shell around the driver – was trapped within the barrier. The front and rear segments of a Formula One car are designed to separate if necessary to protect the driver’s safety cell.
It took 28 seconds for Romain Grosjean to emerge from the flaming wreckage of his Haas. He suffered only second-degree burns to his hands and ankles, and was taken to the hospital for treatment. Grosjean was wearing flame-resistant Nomex clothing, which allowed him to spend these long seconds in the flames.
His car had pierced the metal barriers, which are intended to prevent this, but his head was protected by the Halo cockpit protection device, which the FIA made mandatory in 2018.
To be fair, I wasn’t a fan of the halo myself because it wasn’t particularly attractive. It closely resembles a flip-flop and I assumed it would make the on-board camera footage useless. Many drivers were no fans of the halo either and thought the same thing, but I have seen its success and benefit in a few bad crashes since the halo’s introduction and now I can’t imagine Formula One without it. Grosjean was one of the critics of the Halo, but eventually expressed his love for the Halo device in an Instagram post from his hospital bed.
“Hello everyone, I just wanted to say I am OK – well, sort of OK,” he said. “I wasn’t for the halo some years ago, but I think it’s the greatest thing that we’ve brought to Formula One, and without it I wouldn’t be able to speak with you today.”
Grosjean’s survival was also made possible by a number of other factors, including his fireproof suit. Also, the HANS device, which prevents the type of incidents in which drivers suffered horrific back and neck injuries. Without it, Romain’s life would have been jeopardized by the initial impact and he would also have been unable to escape the subsequent fire. Last but not least, the quick response of FIA personnel in the medical car and track marshals. The FIA’s president, Jean Todt, praised Dr. Ian Roberts and the Medical car driver, Alan van der Merwe, who arrived almost immediately after the crash.
Here’s an overview of the most major safety developments in F1 history:
- Marshals (1950)
- Helmets (1952)
- Fire-resistant race suits (required since 1975)
- Between the track and pit lane, a separation wall has become mandatory to keep the fans at least three meters from the track (1970)
- Increasing of the cockpit opening, so drivers could leave their cars easily in emergencies (1979)
- Survival Cell (1981)
- Safety Car (1993)
- Pitlane speed limit (1994)
- Barriers and run-off areas (revamped in 1994)
- Headrest (1996)
- Accident Data Recorder (1997)
- Wheel tethers (1999)
- The head-and-neck support system (HANS) (2003)
- The refuelling ban (reintroduced in 2010)
- Accelerometer (2014)
- Virtual Safety Car (2016)
- Driver facing camera (2016)
- Super Licence (revised in 2016)
- Halo (2018)
- Biometric gloves (2018)
It’s safe to say (pun intended) that Formula One and the FIA have worked tirelessly to create and maintain a safe sport. The survival cell, the HANS system, and the halo have all proven to be lifesaving.
In recent years, there has been no shortage of crashes in Formula One or support categories, and each one is a testament to the level of safety built into the cars. This is due to a never-ending campaign to make Formula One safer. There are pages and pages of safety regulations, and the cars are tested thoroughly to ensure the safety of the drivers.
Last but not least, I’d like to express my gratitude to the Marshalls, Officials, Medical Personnel, and everyone else who is present at the track every race weekend and ready to serve in the event of an emergency. They put in a lot of effort to manage some terrible situations on the track in such a professional manner. Their qualified way of acting makes a significant difference.