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Safety Matters
Christopher Wheelahan

Chris first caught the F1 flu back in 2003 but lost track due to the snooze-fest that was the 2004 season. In 2010 Chris rediscovered the sport and has become enthralled since. He makes no claims to be a superb writer or journalist but only an obsessive follower of motorsport, particularly F1. Nowadays Chris spends his spare time experimenting with cocktails and wasting time with Musical Theatre types. He does not enjoy long walks on the beach… sorry.

Health and safety in Formula 1: Tragedy and action - Reviewing the progress motorsport has made so far


Health and safety in a dangerous sport like motor racing can at times be controversial and highly criticized. It seems whenever an accident such as the one Jules Bianchi had several weeks ago occurs people bring out their torches and pitchforks and march to the doors of the FIA. But when looked at in the context of history, the safety of Formula 1 is something the FIA medical commission – particularly during the 1990’s and early 2000’s – can be extremely proud of. Yes, the accident in Japan was tragic but if this accident had occurred 20 years ago, we would certainly be mourning the loss of a young and rising star in Formula 1 rather than wishing for his eventual return.

This article will hopefully give some context behind where the landscape of Formula 1 health and safety has come from and where it stands today. Thanks to Steven Roy for allowing me to take over his column for this article.

Before the F1 Circus – Formula 1 before 1978

Previous to mid-1970’s, Formula 1 could basically be described as a bunch of lunatic anoraks who traveled long distances to help someone drive as fast as possible while hoping not to be involved in a fatal crash. The spectators were lunatic anoraks who traveled slightly less-far distances to watch said spectacle.

Between 1963 and 1977 there were 12 fatal accidents in Formula 1. That equates to about one fatality every 15 or so races – the 1977 season saw 17 races. On average, one driver was being killed per season by this time. While some steps were being taken each year to improve safety, they were not enough. Often, drivers were being killed by burning or smoke inhalation rather than blunt force or penetrating trauma, as seen today. Niki Lauda is the most famous example of this, although he thankfully survived and to this day is a member of the Mercedes Formula 1 brain trust.

Lauda and the Mercedes Formula 1 brain trust
Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas

Medical centers, if they were present at all (Hockenheim did not have one, for example), were woefully inadequate; often just mobile trailers set up with some equipment. Rescue helicopters were non-existent. Some circuits had rescue vehicles driven by professional drivers and equipped with doctors or paramedics and some of the necessary rescue equipment, but these were the exception rather than the rule. Fire cars were comparatively common, but usually there were not enough of them. In short, no circuit had all of the facilities necessary to keep drivers safe. Often tracks had one element, but not another. Medical Centers but no medical cars. Track doctors, but no facilities or inadequate equipment.

Further, the cars were tremendously dangerous. The drivers’ legs usually extended ahead of the front axle of the car causing horrific, crushing leg-accidents often resulting in complications due to fat emboli (as in the case of Ronnie Peterson) or simply catastrophic blood loss. Danger also existed regarding the fuel cells. Poor safety in the fuel cells resulted in many of the aforementioned deaths due to fire, although the FIA did begin mandating fuel-cell safety measures as early as 1963.

The most important thing missing in this equation, however, was not the lack of facilities or danger of the tracks or cars. It was the complete lack of standardization and organization regarding safety. That all changed when Dr. Sid Watkins entered the Formula 1 circus in 1978.

Standardization and Organization: 1978-1994

Professor Sid Watkins is unquestionably the single most important person in the history of motor-racing safety. Bill Simpson is on this list as well but in a firm second-place, in my opinion. Nobody did more to identify and standardize safety measures in Formula 1. Beginning with his appointment as Grand Prix Surgeon in 1978, Health and Safety in Formula 1 began to take a dramatic turn for the better.

By the mid-1970’s, Formula 1 had become a media sensation. Races were being televised internationally, ordinary race fans began to develop their favorites and Formula 1’s soap opera rivalries became the stuff of water cooler conversation. This was good for business, obviously. However, Formula 1 often became not so much a family affair when the kids would tune in and parents wouldn’t know if they would see their favorite driver hero killed in an accident that day. Bernie Ecclestone, at the time owner of the Brabham F1 team and President of the Formula One Constructors Association, recognized this. He brought Sid Watkins, Professor of Neurosurgery at the old London Hospital, into the fold for the 1978 season.

In 1979 availability of a rescue helicopter for all practice sessions and the race became mandatory at Dr. Watkins' demand

Initially, Dr. Watkins stuck to assessment of facilities, issuing questionnaires to each circuit asking about medical facilities and equipment, number of trackside ambulances and vehicles with doctors, evacuation protocols and nearby hospitals. As time went on, however, he began to have more and more say in the safety aspects of each grand prix weekend. It was because of Dr. Watkins that, in 1979, a medical car began to follow the first lap of the race for fast response – a protocol which still exists to this day. Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA began to pressure circuits such as Brands Hatch, Sweden and Austria to build adequate medical facilities or risk losing their grand prix weekends. In 1979 availability of a rescue helicopter for all practice sessions and the race became mandatory at Dr. Watkins’ demand – sometimes resulting in a delayed practice session or two for lack of availability.

With the creation of the FISA Medical Commission, many works were taken up to improve facilities around the world. Between 1981 and 1995 such improvements were made that every single circuit had a modern, adequate and permanent medical center with easy track-access and proper equipment. Countless procedure updates were made to the FIA “yellow-book” and mandatory updates to car-design were made, such as the elimination of the ground-effects car in 1983. The ground-effects car has made a comeback and once again the most dangerous aspect of the car design is launching. You would think a lesson would have been learned.

As a direct result of these changes deaths over a 15 year period from 1978-1992 fell dramatically. While in 1977 Formula 1 experienced one death approximately every 15 races (averaged over the previous 15 years), in 1992 Formula 1 was looking at one every 78 races, and zero since the death of Riccardo Paletti in the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix.

Of course, all this safety was to come into question after a single fateful weekend in 1994.

The Advisory Expert Group: 1994 - Present

Most racing fans who are even remotely familiar with the history of the sport are familiar with the weekend of the 1994 San Mario Grand Prix at Imola. The 160 mph crash of Rubens Barrichello during Friday practice set the tone for the weekend in some ways, although the response from the medical team was near perfect and Barrichello was released from the hospital the next morning. During Saturday practice, Roland Ratzenberger went off and the heroic efforts at intravenous infusion, intubation, ventilation and CPR ultimately could not overcome the basal skull fracture which killed him. Finally, on the seventh lap of the race on Sunday, three-time world champion Ayrton Senna’s car left the race track at over 190 mph and contacted the concrete wall at approximately 135mph. While the exact cause of death is unclear, blunt force trauma from the right-front tire coming up and hitting his helmet and penetrative trauma from the right-front suspension assembly through his helmet are the likely culprits.

Senna in the Williams FW16-Renault, Imola, 1994
Credit: LAT Photographic/Williams F1

The death of a beloved, three-time world champion represented a watershed moment in Formula 1 safety. Recognizing the need to move swiftly and decisively, the FIA created the Advisory Expert Group, to be chaired by Dr. Sid Watkins. Up to this point, the efforts of the FIA safety and medical commissions had been more-or-less common sense. With the AEG, a rigorous structure for research and safety development was put in place. The AEG had a directive for research in four areas: the car, the circuits, the driver and his equipment and the organization of the track safety apparatus. In each of these four areas, the AEG began to apply the scientific method to safety research.

The FIA conducting tests on impact forces, making changes to tracks based on maximum G limits and mandating certain types of barriers have all come about as a result of the AEG research. Some of these changes have been controversial, but ultimately are done in the name of safety.

In 2004, FIA President Max Mosley consolidated all of the various committees and commissions and boards into a single entity – the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety. Sid Watkins was appointed its President. Including experts from all over racing such as Williams technical director Pat Symonds, FIA Technical Advisor Peter Wright, F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting and former F1 driver Gerhard Berger has resulted in enormous perspective and thus, enormous change. Collapsible steering columns, new standards for front, rear and side impacts, mandatory HANS device usage and numerous other safety measures can credit themselves to either the AEG or the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety.

Japan 2014

Let me start by saying that there are still a lot of questions yet unanswered regarding the accident involving Jules Bianchi’s Marussia several weeks ago. I think we can safely say that in hindsight, the race should have been red-flagged. I think we can also say that perhaps the young Frenchman could have exercised a bit more caution, though it is nearly impossible to control a Formula 1 car at such low speeds and in the extreme wet. Should the FIA now look into new methods of car retrieval or yellow-flag procedures or crash protection for on-track recovery vehicles? Probably. But let us not forget all the progress that has been made.

We, as fans, must be patient and see what research the FIA releases based on this accident

Formula 1 and any form of motor racing is inherently dangerous. I’ve even seen some pretty gruesome injuries, although none were even close to life-threatening, in karting. Racing is also extremely unpredictable and the unique circumstances of an accident often cannot be foreseen. Racing drivers know what they are getting into when they strap into the cockpit. They understand and accept these risks in exchange for the thrill of speed and for the entertainment of the fans. Only time will tell what improvements can be made. We, as fans, must be patient and see what research the FIA releases based on this accident rather than criticize without knowing the exact details of the crash.