The tragic events of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix were the first significant time that the hidden horror of Formula One played its course in front of the TV cameras. Although F1 had always attracted the attention of the media, the battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late ’80s and early ’90s acted as a catalyst to increasing the number of casual viewers as the home entertainment idea came into its own. This meant that millions of people across the world had a clear view of Roland Ratzenberger’s horrific crash, including the abortive efforts to resuscitate the Austrian as he lay beside his stricken Simtek. Similarly, and undoubtedly more poignantly, viewers were given close up shots of the equally futile attempts to save Ayrton Senna as he too lay beside his Williams following his fatal crash.
The radical changes brought in across Formula One following this fateful weekend would understandably lead one to think that a driver had never lost his life in the seat of an F1 car before. The sad fact is that many had. The brilliant Jim Clark, for example, was killed during a F2 race when he hit a tree in Hockenheim. Wolfgang von Trips and fourteen spectators died when the German’s Ferrari hit a barrier after getting airborne, throwing Trips from the car. Francois Cevert was killed instantly when he crashed at Watkins Glen in 1973, after his car went under and uprooted the trackside barrier. Roger Williamson was killed earlier that season when his car caught fire following a flip, and left him trapped upside down as he screamed for help. His cries were heard only by fellow racer David Purley who tried in vain to save his colleague, who was finally pulled from his cockpit by paramedics, several minutes after he had choked to death on the fumes. These four crashes, as horrible as each one was, did not prompt any safety reform. On the contrary, Jackie Stewart was ridiculed for his attempts to stop the slaughter of drivers in his era. One joke of the time was ‘How do you get to Jackie Stewart’s house? Simple: follow the Armco barrier’. The attitude to safety of the time would have been laughable, if not so serious.
This nonchalant disregard for safety was part of the contemporary view of a racing driver, with nerves of steel. In fact, quite the opposite was true as the aforementioned Purley admitted to resorting to his paratrooper training and screaming in his helmet to give him the mental ability to keep the accelerator down at times. This view of the driver was surely part of the reason for the simple shrug and carry on approach to fatalities in the early F1: death was almost as common as a Mercedes victory in contemporary Formula One.
However, whatever the view of the racing driver was in 1994, change was coming for safety. Rather crudely, Max Mosley’s motive for pushing the wheels into motion was the potential fallout of a fatality on the screens – whereas formerly a driver would die and would only be spoken about by small numbers of people, a driver death would now be written about and broadcast in nearly every country across the world. This fear was further heightened following the harrowing crashes of Karl Wendlinger, Andrea Montermini and Pedro Lamy in the few months that followed: three crashes which could very easily have been fatal, and which left Wendlinger in a coma for several weeks after his shunt at the chicane in Monaco. Subsequently, Mosley approached Dr. Sid Watkins and gave him the permission to do what he had been earnestly trying to do since taking up his position in the sport – make F1 safer. His campaign to that date has been as slow and laborious as that of Stewart’s before him.
One of the most important developments to safety came with the application of science. Things are no longer done randomly. Hypothesis are being created and then tested objectively, which generates data that either verifies the hypothesis and leads it to being refined, or disproves the hypothesis which leads to it being thrown out. An example of science at play would be a corner where they know that the speed will be, say, 180kph. They know that from the sharpness of the corner and the speeds at which it will be taken, they will need, say, five rows of tyres (or TecPro barriers, more on these later) to be put at a corner. The tyre barriers dissipate energy and means that a driver no longer hits a concrete wall, a development which would have saved Roland Ratzenberger’s life.
Also used to take energy out of a crash are the TecPro barriers which I mentioned earlier. These fantastic creations are best noted at Monaco where they have played an important part in four crashes over the last three years. In 2011, Sergio Perez famously crashed at the Nouvelle chicane and was knocked unconscious. In that case, he sustained a fully lateral impact from the barriers, which are designed to crumple around the driver. Although he was still concussed and admitted to feeling the after effects of the shunt for several races, his consciousness that evening proved that the TecPro barriers did their job – when Wendlinger hit water filled butts (which were supposed to act as energy absorbing devices) at the same spot in ’94, he was in a coma for several weeks. In 2013, TecPro twice absorbed the energy of Felipe Massa’s Ferrari at turn 1, as well as Pastor Maldonado’s shunt at the alarmingly fast Tabac section.
Of course, TecPro barriers are not the only thing to have risen from the ashes after Imola: features such as the Zylon strip above the helmet visor almost certainly saved Felipe Massa’s life when he was struck by a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn at the Hungaroring in 2009. Fernando Alonso was similarly probably saved by the raising of the walls of the cockpits: although it initially angered fans who could no longer peer into a cockpit, it provided essential protection against Romain Grosjean’s flying Lotus during the first corner crash at the ’12 Belgian GP. All-round stricter crash testing meant that the shell of Mark Webber’s car did not crumple like a page when he landed upside down in Valencia, flipped over and hurled into the barriers. The introduction of an extra tether to keep the wheel attached to the cars saved Kimi Raikkonen from taking the full force of a Michelin to the face, at the Nurburgring in 2005 after his suspension failed.
Obviously, Formula One will never be completely safe. Dr. Gary Hartstein, the former F1 doctor, believes that preventing cars from getting airborne is the last big nut to crack in terms of safety, and a mutual belief by the FIA institute led to the introduction of the new lower nose cones. Gary also sarcastically points out that there is currently nothing to protect a driver from a meteor falling from space.
All-in-all, however, the fact that today brings the twenty-first year with no driver fatality is due to the horrific events in Imola and the subsequent scramble to ensure that nothing like that would ever happen again. As I’ve said, Formula One can never be safe – for most of the competitors an absolute safety would take away some of the adrenaline – but the overall standard of safety is so high that the work of the late Sid Watkins and his team means that we will hopefully soon be celebrating fourty years without a fatality.