This is a seemingly never ending debate resurrected only when a driver’s safety is questioned. One can get oddly complacent as round by round the drivers nonchalantly exit their car with only sweat to tell the tale. For the most part anyway. Recently Formula 1 has seen some horrendous crashes – Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa needed time to recover from their incidents.
Granted, the sport is much safer than before. Gone are the days of racing without barriers and through a forest of trees before the car would lose control forcing the driver to unfortunately perish. Indeed it was a lack of safety in the early years that caused Sir Jackie Stewart’s premature retirement. 99 Grands Prix was all the Brit could muster until the death of his friend François Cevert changed his attitude. Suddenly a century of races was no longer the priority.
We must thank Sir Jackie for his brave fight for justice, all those drivers who lost their lives racing and through no fault of their own still live on through the safety innovations that began in their honour. For the first time barriers were put in place to decrease the potential implications of a crash, the tracks were made wider to reduce collisions and slip streams were added to the circuit in an attempt to prevent any comings together entirely. Incidentally, as a response to Cevert’s accident, a chicane was added in 1975 in order to slow the cars through the “Esses”. Whilst no longer used, this dramatic change was a immediate response for a change in safety.
But has it gone too far?
In order to answer this question, one needs to consider how integral minor collisions are to a race. For example, would the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2012 have been the same without a tight first corner? The answer is no as Sebastian Vettel’s championship victory would have appeared seamless and never in doubt. Ultimately it is important to consider the most dangerous factor of racing – the speed. I can tell you now, Formula 1 would not be Formula 1 if the drivers were forced to conform to a speed limit, similar to those seen on the roads. Removing the very element that transforms the sport into racing would be treason. What would we fans and those poor drivers do?
Recent changes have seen the cars cope phenomenally well despite the dangerous nature of the sport. Now the cars can disintegrate around the driver. Just cast your mind back to Mark Webber’s Olympic medal worthy somersault in Valencia and Michael Schumacher’s coming together with Vitaly Petrov in Korea. Michael’s legs should have been crushed as the Russian drove into his open cock pit. Alas, the safety improvements of the sport.
Here’s a quick summary of some more recent FIA designed safety measures introduced in 2011. Some may not be in use but can be used to express the serious concern felt by the governing body over this matter.
- Double diffuser and F-Duct prohibited to reduce speed and aid drivers when overtaking
- Rear mirror position on cockpit strictly stated to improve vision
- Zylon strip introduced to reinforce the top of the helmet visor
- Wheels tethered to uprights to prevent stray tyres in the wake of accidents
Though I don’t suggest you just take my word for it, you ask Paul Di Resta. Indeed people have. Speaking after the deaths of Dan Wheldon (the crash pictured below) and Marco Simoncelli, the Brit expressed no immediate concern for his safety. “I don’t feel any danger in the car”!
So is that it then? A few decades, safety measures and a driver’s positive reaction to the changes? Not according to some fans. The last death in Formula 1 was in 1994. Ayrton Senna’s memory is greater in death than it was in life. However there is always a lingering feeling of dread, a question over the talent that we missed, a wish that Senna’s glittering career had continued. Three championships isn’t enough. All drivers, including Senna, and I suppose us racing fans to a certain extent, accept the danger. When a driver gets in their carbon fibre made car and begin to drive at 200mph there is no guarantee that the driver will ever walk in the paddock again. Sad but fundamentally true.
I was not watching Formula 1 then but I can vividly remember the first time I saw Alex Zanardi’s crash. There is no adjective that describes the gut wrenching feeling felt as a driver’s life hangs in the balance. I have posted a video link below. It does not make pleasant viewing but does show the enormous risks drivers take and the repercussions they potentially face.
We’ve heard Paul Di Resta’s viewpoint on the matter but his former team mate Adrian Sutil vehemently disagrees. According to Sutil, any more safety measures would cause the sport to lose its roots. Formula 1 was not designed to be fully regulated and safety aware. The German questions whether now, these changes are appropriate. What I feel is important to note when assessing the importance of increased safety in Formula 1 is the position of other motor sports. Robert Kubica is currently unable to race in Formula 1 but not because of a Grand Prix, no it was rallying that caused his serious injuries. Don’t forget also the death of Dan Wheldon. Maybe encouraging drivers to fight from the very back on a overcrowded track is asking for trouble?
Oh and does anyone actually remember Valencia in 2011? No nor me! What a dull race that was, and I say that as a huge F1 nerd. In that race, unbelievably, all 24 cars finished the Grand Prix! 2012’s European Grand Prix was stunning, Alonso fought from 11th right to the front. So maybe it was too safe after all?
Ultimately we have to ask ourselves whether a championship is enough to warrant such a high risk? Any driver would say unquestionably. Therefore it is difficult to make any major changes. If there are people (and there most definitely is) who are willing to take the risk, then I hold no power to stop them. And quite frankly I wouldn’t want to. My life wouldn’t be the same without Formula 1 and the drivers who participate in it.
I am fortunate enough to sit here debating whether safety is going too far. If this was 20 years ago I would be constantly reporting on yet another fatal crash. I’m grateful that drivers continually feel safer in the car just please Formula 1, don’t give me a repeat of Valenica!
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