Formula 1 cars are extremely fast. But when it comes to driving a car on the edge of its performance, there will always be a huge amount of risk involved. This can leave new and old fans alike wondering just how dangerous F1 really is.
Formula 1 is dangerous, and has seen hundreds of drivers injured and even killed throughout its 70+ year history. However, in recent years the sport has taken massive strides towards becoming safer with the implementation of the halo, HANS devices and driver survival cell, among other things.
F1 used to be the sport with one of the highest fatality rates in its early years, with several drivers being killed each year. However, since then, the safety of the drivers, crew and fans has top priority, and below we’ll discuss all of the key safety implementations that have made F1 safer.
Is F1 Safe?
F1 is safer than many other motorsports. F1 has had a reputation for being the most dangerous sport since the world championship was born in 1950. However, F1 is actually one of the safest, given the vast investment in improving safety over the years through various innovations.
The sport was notorious for seeing multiple drivers being killed in crashes throughout every season. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the sport really began to step up their safety standards and the fatality rate began to drop.
However, even throughout the 80s and 90s we still saw some serious injuries and deaths in Formula 1. Most famously, Ayrton Senna, regarded by many as the best Formula 1 driver in the history of sport, was killed in a crash at Imola in 1994.
The world was shocked by Senna’s death, and since then major rule changes were implemented in order to further the safety of the cars to protect the drivers from serious injury and death. It worked, to an extent, as Formula 1 saw no deaths and very little injuries in drivers for the next two decades.
However, at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix Jules Bianchi was involved in a freak accident that left him in a coma for nine months. He eventually passed away in July of 2015 as a result of the injuries he sustained in the crash.
The world of Formula 1 was again put under the spotlight. After 20 successful years of having a safe sport with no fatalities, the sport once again came under severe scrutiny for being too dangerous.
Following this event, Formula 1 took even more precautions to protect the drivers. They learnt their lesson from the incident in Japan and began to develop what is known as the Halo, and implemented further rules when it comes to marshals and vehicles on track.
In the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix Romain Grosjean was involved in a serious crash on the first lap. Grosjean’s car crashed into the barriers at 120 miles per hour with a force of 67 G being recorded. The impact split the car in half, and the engine fuel supply connection was torn from the fuel tank.
With fuel gushing out, the car burst into flames and the race was red flagged just 5.5 seconds after the impact. The medical car arrived to assist Grosjean within just 11 seconds. Within 27 seconds Grosjean had managed to get himself out of the car and the fire, after initially being stuck inside the car. Grosjean managed to escape the fire with only some burns to his hands.
The quick reactions of everyone on the day saved Grosjean’s life. Unlike with Niki Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring in 1976, Grosjean was able to free himself from the wreckage just in time without the need of others to assist him. This is due to the safety improvements in the sport, and Grosjean himself said that if it wasn’t for constant safety development in F1 he would have died that day.
Modern F1 Safety
Ever since these incidents, Formula 1 has become much safer. There are several rules and regulations that have been implemented since then to keep the drivers, fans and crew safer during the course of a Grand Prix weekend.
Grosjean’s fiery crash in Bahrain proved that the sport has become much safer than it was years ago. If the same crash had happened in the 2000s, there is no way a driver would have survived. Another example of how safe the sport has become is Lando Norris’ crash at Eau Rouge in Spa in 2021. A similar impact would most likely have killed a driver in the 90s or 2000s.
The cars have extremely high standards that they must comply with before they can even enter into a Formula 1 season. These strict rules are put in place to ensure that each car is safe and won’t put a driver’s life at risk. We’ll talk more about these specific safety features soon, but for now let’s discuss the inherent dangers of F1.
Why F1 Is Dangerous
Formula 1 has always been a dangerous sport. Anything involving cars that have 1000 horsepower and can go over 200 mph will be dangerous. There’s always the risk of a crash happening during a race, either through driver error, difficult conditions, or car failures.
Not only can cars crash into each other, but they can also crash into barriers. Although barriers are made to soften impacts in a sense and make them safer, they can make the sport more dangerous. If a car hits a barrier at the wrong angle it could have severe consequences, as we have seen with Senna and Grosjean.
Cars crashing into each other is common in Formula 1 too, and the sport has tried to make these impacts as safe as possible in terms of how the cars are designed. However, some angles can still cause severe injury or even death. This is specifically true with side impacts, which the cars are not strengthened for. But it’s not just on the track where incidents can occur in F1.
A Formula 1 pitlane is a busy place. There are cars driving down the pitlane with crew members rushing around as fast as possible to get their jobs done. This is almost a recipe for disaster, and in the past we have seen several incidents.
The average Formula 1 pitstop takes just 2.3 seconds. The fastest we have ever seen was under 1.9 seconds. With mechanics rushing around and adrenaline flowing, mistakes are bound to happen during pitstops.
In the past we have seen mechanics being knocked over by cars, and in some more severe cases we have seen mechanics with broken legs after being hit by Formula 1 cars during a pit stop. There have also been issues of fires in the pitlane, which led to the banning of refueling for the 2010 season. This of course means that the mechanics in the pitlane are at serious risk, not just the drivers.
Marshals On Track
F1 cars and tires are very fragile, so whenever there is debris on track it needs to be removed. Debris can come from several sources, but in the majority of cases it comes off of cars. However, we often see oil spills, dirt and other objects on the track that pose a danger to the cars as well.
Marshals have to go on track to remove the debris while the race is under yellow flag or safety car conditions. While the race might be neutralized, we have seen some close calls in the past with Formula 1 cars and marshals.
The 2011 Canadian Grand Prix is an example of this, when a marshal fell over in the middle of the track with an oncoming Formula 1 car while trying to recover a piece of debris. The cause of Jules Bianchi’s fatal accident was due to a tractor being on the side of the track recovering a car, which shows that this also puts the drivers in danger.
Formula 1 cars also generate a lot of heat. From the engine to the brakes, there are parts that can reach up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. The cars also use various flammable lubricants and fuel, and of course with these two combined there is always a fire risk.
In the past, we have seen a lot of flash fires because of refueling being allowed during pit stops. However, since then refueling has been banned with it being deemed too dangerous for the crew and drivers.
Despite that, there are still many flammable liquids and chemicals that are used in a Formula 1 pitlane, and if someone is not paying attention something can quickly go wrong. Niki Lauda and Romain Grosjean’s crashes showed that there is also the risk of cars bursting into flames in some rare cases during a heavy crash.
Is F1 The Most Dangerous Sport?
F1 is not the most dangerous sport in the world, despite the many dangers and things that could go wrong. There have been fatalities and injuries in Formula 1, but there are some sports that are far more dangerous.
The most dangerous sport in the world is base jumping. Base jumping is the sport with the highest fatality rate by a long way. This is because there are so many things that could go wrong, and if something does go wrong there is no way to prevent the athlete from fatality.
How Many F1 Drivers Have Died?
A total of 52 drivers have lost their lives in Formula 1. There has been a total of 770 drivers, which means that 6% of all Formula 1 drivers have died in the sport. While this is still a large percentage, all but 1 of those deaths occurred in the previous century.
32 deaths occurred at official Formula 1 races, 7 deaths occurred during test sessions and 13 deaths have occurred outside of official Formula 1 events (not a race weekend or test session). Unofficial events include events such as road shows, the Goodwood Festival of Speed etc.
The Killer Years
The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were known as the “killer years.” These three decades saw the highest number of deaths in Formula 1. A total of 15 drivers were killed in the 50s, and 14 were killed in the 60s. 12 drivers were killed in the 70s.
In the 1980s the number of fatalities saw a dramatic drop as the FIA and the teams began to focus more on driver safety. The 80s saw just 4 drivers killed, and the 90s saw just 2 deaths. Since then, there has been just one death during an official Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Which F1 Track Is The Most Dangerous?
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the most dangerous track to have held an F1 race. There are a lot of racetracks that have a reputation for being too dangerous for Formula 1. The most notable of these is the Nordschleife, which is also known as the “Green Hell.”
This is the same track where Niki Lauda’s infamous crash took place. The Nordschleife saw a total of 5 deaths in Formula 1 history, with the first taking place in 1954 and the last taking place in 1969.
However, according to statistics, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the deadliest Formula 1 track in history, with a total of 7 deaths. All of these deaths occurred during the killer years, with the first one being in 1953 and the last occurring in 1959. These deaths also took place over a shorter space of time (6 years) compared to those at the Nürburgring (15 years).
On the modern Formula 1 calendar all circuits need to pass a standardized FIA test in order for it to be deemed safe. However, the most dangerous current circuit on the F1 calendar in terms of the number of deaths at F1 events is Monza, having seen two deaths during races and one during qualifying.
Modern Formula 1 takes safety extremely seriously because of the dangerous history of the sport. The incidents that took place throughout the years have shaped Formula 1 into the sport that it is today. It has become much safer than before thanks to the efforts of the engineers and mechanics who have poured years of hard work into building the safest cars on the planet.
The 6 Most Important Safety Measures In F1
1. Survival Cell
Modern Formula 1 cars are built with the driver’s life as the top priority. Drivers are encased in a carbon fiber ‘nest’ known as a survival cell. Even if the entire car is destroyed, the survival cell that the driver sits in is designed to remain intact.
The survival cell is built from 6mm of strong carbon fiber with a layer of Kevlar, which is penetration resistant, allowing it to absorb huge amounts of energy, protecting the driver in a crash. The survival cell has protected drivers in several massive accidents.
2. Crumple Zones
One change that made a big difference since the killer years in F1 was the introduction of bigger crumple zones. Crumple zones, just like those in road cars, put more metal, or in Formula 1’s case more carbon fiber, between the driver and the other car or barrier it is about to hit. As F1 cars have gotten bigger, so have their crumple zones.
The front and rear crumple zones are built to be extremely strong. However, the sides are not as strong since there is not enough space to build thicker crumple zones. Side impacts are rare in Formula 1, which is why it’s treated seriously when they do happen.
Crumple zones have been improved significantly over the years. There are a lot of examples where a driver’s legs would be left exposed after an impact, with the most recent one being Robert Kubica’s crash at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. Properly designed crumple zones ensure the driver doesn’t suffer the brunt of the impact, but also remains entirely enclosed within the car.
3. Crash Testing
Before the Formula 1 season even starts all teams need to pass crash testing with their newly built cars. Crash testing is done from various different angles and with different amounts of force to ensure the car is strong enough to handle impacts safely.
The force of a crash can go up to 60+ G, which is around the same as Max Verstappen experienced in his massive 2021 Silverstone crash. The chassis must remain intact during heavy impacts, and the survival cell must not be penetrated.
If a team fails their crash testing, they must redesign their car and redo the crash tests until the car passes the tests. The FIA is extremely strict on this to ensure that drivers are always safe in the event of a crash.
4. The Halo
The halo was designed shortly after Jules Bianchi’s crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014. Being introduced in 2018, the halo received a lot of criticism from fans and drivers alike due to the aesthetic of the device.
However, the criticisms quickly vanished after it arguably saved the lives of several drivers. Romain Grosjean is the most recent example, as the halo undoubtedly prevented him receiving major head injuries in his 2020 crash. Lewis Hamilton was also saved from serious injury in the 2021 Italian Grand Prix at Monza during his collision with Max Verstappen.
The halo is here to stay whether it is liked or not. It has proven to be a lifesaving element in Formula 1, and with the spotlight being on improving the safety of Formula 1 drivers and protecting their lives, it’s a good thing that halo was implemented. It also minimally impacts driver vision, and has made its way into the junior formulas too and IndyCar in the form of the aeroscreen.
5. Fire Resistant Gear
Fire resistant gear is not only a requirement for Formula 1, but all other forms of motorsport as well. Formula 1 drivers have been wearing fireproof clothing for a long time, but it has been developed and improved dramatically over recent years.
The drivers’ overalls are made of three layers of Nomex, allowing them to withstand direct exposure to flames for up to 15 seconds. On top of that, the drivers also wear Nomex clothing underneath their suit for added fire protection, with regulations requiring at least 12 seconds of direct fire protection for all of the drivers.
These fireproof suits have proven themselves over the years, most recently with Romain Grosjean’s crash at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. Despite being engulfed in flames for almost 30 seconds he emerged from the car with burns only on his hands.
6. State Of The Art Crash Helmets
Formula 1 helmets have come a long way since the open face helmets of the early days. Modern Formula 1 helmets are equipped with technology such as radios and drinks systems that keep the drivers in contact with their teams and hydrated during the race.
The helmets have also become incredibly strong, undergoing military ballistics testing. F1 helmets can withstand a 225g projectile striking a driver at 155km/h. The helmets were strengthened after Filipe Massa’s incident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
During qualifying, Massa was struck on the head by a spring that became dislodged from the Brawn GP car ahead of him. Massa’s Ferrari was travelling at around 150 miles per hour when the spring struck his visor, knocking him unconscious in the car and sending him headfirst into the barriers. New, stronger helmets aim to prevent this happening again.
Is Danger A Key Part Of F1?
Danger is a key part of Formula 1 because of the speed at which the cars race. To many fans and drivers, it is one of the elements that make the sport so exciting. However, no one wants to see these athletes putting their lives at risk for the sport that they love, so safety is also a priority.
While Formula 1 will always have an element of danger to it, it needs to be safe enough to prevent drivers from being injured or killed. The only way to do this is to react to past incidents as quickly as possible and put systems in place that will prevent incidents from happening again in the future.
Formula 1 is an extremely dangerous sport with a total of 52 drivers being killed in the sport’s history. However, several steps have been taken in order to make the sport safer and to protect drivers, crew members and fans alike, and the sport gets safer with every passing year.