How F1 Has Become Safer over the Years

How F1 Has Become Safer over the Years

Formula One is at the forefront of innovation when it comes to cars and engine designs. But are its developments safe enough? 

Roaring engines. Superfast cars. Burnt tires. The smell of gasoline. Formula One (F1) is hands-down one of the most exciting sports on the planet. But with ‌speed and thrill come life-threatening risks that make F1 one of the most dangerous sports on the planet, too. High speeds of more than 200 mph and close-quarter racing have resulted in driver casualties more times than anyone would like to admit—52 drivers. This is why safety—apart from developing competitive racing machines—has become a top priority for the sport. Here, we have listed innovations that have made F1 a safer sport.

The Safety Car

F1 has made significant strides in safety procedures over the years, one of which being the official introduction of the Safety Car (SC) in 1993. The SC—currently a Mercedes-AMG GT R or, occasionally, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage—is deployed during a race when “there is an immediate hazard, but the conditions do not require the race to be interrupted”.

During an SC period, all cars must follow it and cannot overtake each other. It is deployed right in front of the race leader, and a gap of no more than five car lengths is maintained between the cars. It slows the race during this period and significantly reduces the risk of accidents.

The SC is also occasionally used to test track conditions, especially during bad weather, to ensure that ‌conditions are safe enough for F1 cars to go flat out.

Barriers and run-off areas

Barriers are crucial elements on a racetrack for safety. What started with hay bales has evolved into advanced innovations, like tire barriers and TecPro barriers. Introduced in 2000 by Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA)—the governing body of motorsport—tire barriers have tires stacked on each other, bolted and tied together to prevent them from dispersing on impact. They were initially designed for maximum energy absorption, but their layout on track has been questioned in recent years. 

At the 2022 British Grand Prix (GP), Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo made contact with George Russell’s Mercedes in the first lap, causing him to topple over and hit the tire barrier. However, instead of absorbing the impact and getting the car to stop, the barrier caused Zhou’s car to topple over and get lodged between it and the fence. Zhou, fortunately, escaped serious injury as the other safety devices came into play.

Image courtesy of FKP UK

At the 2006 Italian GP, FIA introduced TecPro barriers. These barriers are made of polyethylene foam blocks connected by double nylon straps. They help minimize damage on impact while canceling out the boomerang effect. They are placed in areas with an increased risk of high-speed accidents but with a run-off area (room for drivers to go off course) between the track and the barrier. 

Along with the TecPro barriers, these run-off areas have made tracks safer by giving cars space to decelerate before making contact with the barriers. If only these barriers had existed in 1994 when Ayrton Senna—one of F1’s all-time greats—went off at Tamburello and crashed into an unprotected concrete wall, he might not have met an untimely death.

The HANS device

Image courtesy of F1

The neck muscles are the most crucial in F1. When you accelerate, your body is pushed back due to G-forces. And when you hit the break, these G-forces propel you forward. G-force is nothing but acceleration caused by the force of gravity. In an F1 car—that travels at speeds of over 200 mph—the G-forces experienced by drivers are enormous. They experience up to 5G of force, i.e., a force that is five times their body weight; all concentrated on their necks.

To protect drivers’ necks, the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device limits the head’s movement and the neck’s hyperextension while driving at high speeds and in the event of a crash. The device tethers the helmet to the carbon fiber headrest in the cockpit and has been found to reduce neck tension by 81% in an accident.

The Virtual Safety Car

Unlike the SC, a Virtual Safety Car (VSC), implemented in 2015, is not a real car. While an SC is deployed for immediate hazards and significant incidents, a VSC is used for relatively minor incidents that can be cleared relatively quickly. In a VSC period, each car must reduce its speed by 30-40% of that track’s average race pace. The VSC is similar to double-waved yellow flags that entail drivers reducing speed and not overtaking others.

The concept of VSCs was introduced in 2014 following the fatal crash of French racing car driver Jules Bianchi at the 2014 Japanese GP. Towards the end of the race, the wet conditions made driving difficult, causing Sauber’s Adrian Sutil to lose control and crash out of the race. Double yellow flags were being waved at the scene while a recovery tractor came to clear Sutil’s car from the run-off area. However, on the following lap, Bianchi failed to slow down and also lost control of his car, sliding off the track and colliding with the tractor. He suffered severe head injuries and underwent emergency surgery. He was placed in an induced coma and died nine months later in his comatose state. 

Had VSCs existed back then, drivers would have had to reduce their speed throughout the track and not just in the section where Sutil’s crash happened, thereby likely avoiding Bianchi’s accident altogether.

The Halo

Image courtesy of F1

When you think race cars, you think of sleek and attractive designs. However, the introduction of the Halo, in 2018 made the cars look anything but. The Halo, which is a safety device, is a titanium bar covered with carbon fiber that sits on top of a car’s cockpit and wraps around the driver’s head. In general terms, a halo is the circle of light shown around the head of an important person in a religious painting. F1 drivers are held in such high regard in the community that they are considered as important as religious figures and are provided with a halo around their heads in real life.

The purpose of the Halo is to protect drivers from pieces of flying debris from other cars, crashes into barriers or other cars and, in some cases, even an entire car. Made to withstand the weight of a London double-decker bus (i.e. 12 tons), this innovation’s effectiveness was seen during Lewis Hamilton’s incident with Max Verstappen at the 2021 Italian GP, in which Verstappen’s right rear tire skimmed Hamilton’s helmet. If not for the Halo, the F1 world would’ve lost yet another one of its greats.

The opening lap of the 2020 Bahrain GP saw one of the most horrifying racing incidents of recent times: Racing team Haas’s Romain Grosjean survived and walked out of a literal ball of fire. A slight contact between him and Alpha Tauri’s Daniil Kvyat caused Grosjean to go off and hit a metal crash barrier at 119 mph, with a force of 67G. The collision caused the car to split in half and explode, resulting in flames. However, Grosjean miraculously emerged from the burning car almost unscathed 27 seconds later.

The Halo and the HANS device protected Grosjean’s head and neck at all times, preventing severe injury. Once the car was ablaze, his fire-resistant overalls ensured he only had minor, second-degree burns. And after he emerged—without one racing boot—the marshals sprayed him with fire extinguishers, preventing the burns from exacerbating. 

F1 has come a long way in terms of safety, from advancements in car and track design to implementing strict safety procedures and developing high-quality driver equipment. The sport is at the forefront of innovation, and it remains committed to continuing research and development to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to motorsport safety.

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Header image courtesy of Unsplash 


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