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The Recurrent Matter of Safety In Formula 1

Written by: Sofia Costa Miranda

Edited by: Sarah Wingo

Every lap is a danger… So what safety adjustments does the industry need to look at in the near future? It’s common knowledge that motorsports are dangerous, but how far does this danger go? How far should athletes risk their lives for the sake of adrenaline, entertainment, and their love of the sport?

Safety from the beginning to now

Formula 1 has been around since 1950 and many things have been improved, replaced, turned mandatory, and even discarded as a way to look out for the drivers and their safety. This includes allowing drivers to wear their own racing apparel and helmets or drive their personal vehicles. The first ever change in the sport happened during its beginning years, in 1952, when helmets were made obligatory for all drivers. Eight years later, the first-ever safety measures were introduced. Regardless of these changes, pilots still got into their cars every race with the mentality that it could be their last.

During the 60s and 70s, many changes were made within the sport. In 1963, was the year the FIA, International Automobile Federation, assumed control over safety matters in F1 races. Many things were introduced and implemented such as roll-over bars, flag signals, fireproof suits, restructuration of cockpits, crash tests, six-point safety harnesses, and headrests.

A photo of Ayrton Senna
Photo by Pascal Rondeau

In 1994, we experienced one of the saddest moments in Formula 1, the death of Brazilian driver, Ayrton Senna, who was considered to be one of the greatest drivers of all time. After this unfortunate event, the league instilled additional safety measures including new security testing in the form of lateral crash tests and increased driver head protection.

Most modifications in the sport started at the beginning of the 21st Century. Cockpits started being built higher to increase driver safety, helmets became mandatory for all of the crew, the Virtual Safety Car was added to F1 safety protocols, and in 2018, we were introduced to the halo.

Suzuca 2022: tractors and rain during Grand Prix

During the Suzuca Grand Prix in 2017, former Marussia F1 driver, Jules Bianchi, experienced torrential rain and low visibility which resulted in a violent collision with an on-track tractor. After Ferrari team driver, Carlos Sainz crashed in his first lap, a tractor was put into the circuit to move another vehicle. Because the red flag was not yet in use and heavy rain continued to impair drivers’ visibility, many were not aware of the situation. The AlphaTauri pilot at the time, Pierre Gasly, who had pitted and was behind in the race, was the first to come into view with the engine. The accident caused multiple injuries and eventually lead to Bianchi’s passing nine months later.

Halo: complaints, regrets, and realizations

The halo was taken into account by the FIA after Bianchi’s accident. This equipment is known to handle around 12,000kg, which is equivalent to a London doubledecker bus. Fans and drivers alike were not in agreement with the implementation of Halo. According to Insider, many were concerned with how the car would look, the added weight, and if it would affect the driver’s visibility.

Zhou Guanyu Accident in the British Grand Prix in 2022
Photo by Mark Thompson

After its implementation and proof that it increased the chance of survival in case of accidents by 17%, the opinion of many people changed. During the halo’s last four years of application, fans watched the safety device protect and prevent grave and possibly fatal incidents amongst multiple drivers on multiple different occasions. This includes Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc, Zhou Guanyu, and numerous others in motorsports. If the device had been implemented earlier, certain situations in the sport could’ve had different outcomes.

A photo of Jules Bianchi
Photo by Mark Thompson

All of this brought up concerns for the FIA on how safety tools such as marshals, fire safety, and accident protocol were prepared to be used when needed, as the use of a tractor on the track without previous warning to the drivers or the crew is a dangerous situation for all parties.

Another matter brought to light was the use of wet tires and the continuation of races during heavy rain. A possible way to prevent putting drivers in additional danger would be to delay the formation lap until the weather improved and if the race is set to continue in dangerous weather conditions, the use of wet tires is mandatory. The incident involving Suzuca is still under investigation, but we truly hope that a situation like it never happens again.

Although Formula 1 is known to be a very dangerous sport, we continue to see consistent changes and improvements that represent a positive evolution in the matter of driver safety. We’re very grateful for the entertainment that Formula 1 provides, but it is important to keep in mind that the drivers’ security should always be the number one priority.

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