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Formula One Cars: Safety

By: Kevin Watson MSc - Updated: 9 Dec 2011 | comments*Discuss
Formula One Safety Standards Rules Fia

At some stage during every Formula One season, the issue of safety comes to the fore. But it may come as a surprise to know that a driver hasn't died at the wheel of a Formula One car since 1994.

Prior to this, 45 drivers suffered fatal injuries. The worst period was in the 1950s when 17 drivers met their deaths. After this, 14 drivers died in the 1960s, 8 in the 1970s and 4 during the 1980s. Two drivers, Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna had fatal accidents at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

Formula One safety has improved unquestionably, but current standards took more than 40 years to achieve.

Early Races

Silverstone, England hosted the first Formula One race in 1950. Speed was all that mattered. There were no medical teams on hand to provide help in the event of an accident.

During the decade following this first meeting, the quest for the fastest possible track time remained the priority. Only in 1960 did the Formula One authorities introduce the first basic safety measures.

The 1960s

As the 60s progressed, drivers began lobbying for safety. Slowly, rules changed in favour of reduced risk.

Although roll bars appeared on Formula One cars in 1961, it wasn't until 1963 that a series of safety improvements made a significant difference. Drivers had to wear unbreakable, full-visor helmets and fireproof suits. And the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) became responsible for safety checks.

In the same year, engineers redesigned cockpits so drivers could leave the cars more quickly. They also improved fuel tanks to help prevent fires, and installed double brake circuits.

In 1968, the car makers put interrupters into the electronic systems. These reduced the risk of fire in the event of a fuel leak. New safety recommendations included better use of fireproof clothing for drivers.

The following year, the danger of fire was still on the minds of racing authorities. This danger prompted the introduction of a more effective system for putting out flames.

The 1970s and 1980s

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed new safety measures appearing almost every season.

The 1970s began with FIA circuit inspections. These checked for suitable crash barriers, safety gaps between spectators and barriers, and walls that separated tracks from pit lanes.

During this 20-year period, drivers saw a number of compulsory safety changes made to the cars. Among these were headrests, red rear lights, six-point seat belts and larger cockpit openings.

Various alterations also occurred to the fuel tank, the most volatile part of the cars. In 1972, engineers put security foam into the tanks. The following year, they built the tanks into the vehicles' crash resistant areas. And in 1984, they placed the tanks between the driver and the engine.

The FIA also began to fully appreciate the need for healthy drivers. It introduced medical tests in 1973. And in 1980, to ensure drivers received prompt attention when accidents occurred, the FIA built medical centres at all circuits.

Six years later, helicopters appeared at every race. They were on standby to take injured drivers to hospital.

The 1990s

Such measures had a positive effect. The number of fatal accidents fell. But the authorities continued to put new safety rules in place.

In 1990, detachable steering wheels became compulsory. 1991 saw the first tests for seat belts and roll bars. And in 1992, the safety car appeared on racetracks.

The purpose of the safety car is simple. It regulates the speed of the Formula One vehicles when there's a hazard on the track or the racing conditions are dangerous. A hazard may be an accident - and dangerous conditions include heavy rain or a waterlogged racing surface.

New Technology

In 1994, the FIA began to use new technology to increase safety. Thanks to computer analysis, it identified 27 dangerous corners on racing tracks. Track owners subsequently modified these corners.

Three years after this, the FIA put accident data recorders in all Formula One cars. These give valuable information when an accident occurs.

The 90s ended with yet further changes to the cars. The two-metre width became 1.8 metres. Cockpits became bigger. Rear-view mirrors had a minimum size of 50mm by 120mm. And rescuers could remove the Formula One car seat with the driver in it.

2000 onwards

Despite these improvements, the FIA has not become complacent. It regularly introduces new safety regulations. These affect every aspect of racing, from the quality of the visors on drivers' helmets to specific track improvements. And drivers now face a range of time penalties if they infringe safety rules.

Accidents at Formula One race meetings have not stopped. But the days when drivers had virtually no safety measures to protect them are long gone.

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