Reading obituaries of Professor Sid Watkins, who died earlier this month, serves to remind one of how dangerous Formula 1 used to be.  Always a dangerous sport it reached an epiphany of carnage in the late sixties and early seventies, as detailed in the excellent documentary “Grand Prix, the killer years” (Bigger Picture Films).  Tireless work by Jackie Stewart and others started a gradual improvement in safety that was accelerated by the work of The Prof once he became fully involved with F1 in 1978. Unsafe courses such as the Nurburgring and Spa were significantly shortened and altered and medical facilities were improved tremendously. In addition new FIA technical requirements led to the design of safer racing cars. Newer circuits also benefited from much larger run off areas and better barriers. Fatalities continued at a lower level but it is astonishing to note that we have thankfully not lost a F1 driver since Senna’s death at Imola in 1994.

JYS – brought safety to F1

I say it is astonishing as people would automatically assume that F1 driving is a more dangerous sport than club level amateur racing. Yet in the eleven years I have been racing I have been at events where three drivers have been killed and four very seriously injured.  This is a sobering statistic. Are sprints and hill climbs more dangerous than F1?  One argument is that the statistics can be misleading. Two of the fatalities mentioned above were motor cyclists or side car passengers (including the fatality at Brighton a few weeks ago). One only has to see the tally of injuries and death at the TT each year to appreciate that riding motorcycles at speed is inherently dangerous. Or is it? The number of fatalities and injuries in Superbike racing is higher than in F1 but nowhere near the number suffered in the TT. So it’s not bikes per se that are dangerous but something else.

The common denominators of all the serious accidents I have seen are firstly very fast vehicles and secondly limited run off. All the fatalities and half the injuries resulted from collisions with walls after loss of control. The remaining injuries were the result of collisions with trees after loss of control.  Hill climb courses, sprint courses and old circuits lack the run off areas of modern racing tracks and a mistake or mechanical failure can have terrible consequences. With modern cars and bikes now capable of speeds well in excess of 100 mph the margin of error is very small indeed. All the serious accidents I have seen have been to modern cars and bikes rather than their older classic forebears.

The twin pinnacles of the dangerous combination of super fast vehicles and limited run off are the French hill climb championship and the Manx TT races. The death toll in both is staggering but this is hardly surprising with cars and bikes travelling at great speed on narrow roads, often with kerbs and usually surrounded by trees and often precipitous drops.

So if these types of event are so inherently dangerous what should be done? Already most events will have first class medical support. Drivers kit and their cars and bikes are checked thoroughly by the scrutineers. What else could be done? Often there is no possibility of making the courses safer. Should racing on the unsafe courses cease? At least for the faster cars and bikes? I would say no.  No one goes to a motor race hoping to see a crash but the spectator experience is undoubtedly enhanced if there is an element of danger. Then you are able to admire not only the skill of the drivers but also their bravery. And as a driver the thrill of going fast and getting your lines right is all the more satisfying if there is an under current of danger. You test yourself more fully than you would in a completely safe environment.

Lotus F1 Helmets

F1 is now safer than its ever been. It’s still some spectacle but I suspect I am not the only one who feels something altogether different when I watch CanAm cars thundering down the Lavant Straight at Goodwood wheel to wheel, or Guy Martin flying through Keppel Gate on the TT. And as a driver I would not want to race on only sterile circuits with little history and no danger. If I wanted a fully safe driving experience I would buy a Playstation.

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