Since its inception in the 1950s, Formula One has changed a lot in every way possible, from its engines to the way cars are designed. But the area in which arguably the most amount of changes were made is safety.
In the first few decades after F1 started, it was universally accepted that there was a real risk of severe injury or even death while racing because safety devices implemented back then weren’t nearly as effective as modern implementations. Even though safety was an essential part of racing back then, it took some time before people in and around the paddock understood that driver safety should be the number one priority.
A person who played a critical part in the push for safety during those early years was three-time World Champion Jakie Stewart. He had advocated for safety equipment like mandatory seat belts, full-face helmets, and better track barriers and proper medical teams.
In more recent years, the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994 and Jules Bianchi in 2014 kick-started big waves of safety innovations. These unfortunate moments in F1 history have served as a reminder for everyone that no one can become complacent in motorsports and that there is always room for more improvement in safety for everyone in and around the paddock.
Here are some of the most important F1 safety innovations:
Safety marshals are one of the most overlooked but also at the same time one of the most integral parts of safety in motorsports. They have been in F1 since the beginning, and without these unpaid volunteers, racing would be pretty impossible.
Since marshals are always the first to arrive on the scene of an accident, they are well trained in First Aid, fire safety and incident handling. They are also responsible for alerting drivers about the dangers on the track during the race.
Crash helmet still remains as one of the most important pieces of safety equipment in F1. When F1 began, drivers used to wear a cloth cap paired with goggles, which did little in terms of safety. Then in 1952, cork helmets became mandatory for every driver on the grid. Since then, helmets have gone through significant changes as the technology used to make helmets is constantly advancing.
Today, each helmet is specifically designed for each driver’s head to fit them perfectly. All helmets must also pass a safety test and get FIA approval before being sent to the track.
Fire-resistant race suits
When F1 started, drivers used to wear whatever they liked as comfort was given a higher priority instead of safety. Racing overalls were only made compulsory for drivers only in 1963. And only in 1975 did the FIA make it obligatory for racing overalls to meet fire-resistant standards. Drivers now are required to wear fireproof underwear, socks, balaclava, gloves, shoes along with the fireproof racing overalls.
The technology used to make fireproof overalls has continued to evolve since its introduction, and now racing overalls are made of lightweight, breathable materials with Nomex coating. These suits also have to undergo rigorous testing before being worn by any driver.
Also known as the survival cell, it is the central part of an F1 car where the driver is seated. First treated as an entity in 1981, the monocoque is one of the most vital parts of an F1 car as it is designed to withstand the most violent collisions and be the last line of defense between the driver and the track.
The monocoque is built out of extremely strong carbon fibre composite with a layer of Kevlar, which makes it penetration resistant and allows it to absorb vast amounts of energy during a crash. The structure is also fitted with a fire suppression system that sprays fire retardant foam around the monocoque, activated either by the driver or externally.
Like every other safety device, it also needs to go through extensive crash testing before being deemed safe for a race.
The Safety Car and trailing Medical Car
The safety car and the medical car have been an essential part of F1 since the late 1970s. Only in 1993 did F1 start using both of them permanently during races.
The safety car’s job is to keep the speed down and stop cars from overtaking while there are hazards on the track that could be unsafe for the cars. The job of the medical car is to be the fastest ambulance in the world. Even though they cannot keep up with F1 cars, their presence around the track is in itself a big deal as that can help them save precious seconds for reaching an accident and potentially saving lives.
The Accident Data Recorder
Since 1997, all cars contain an Accident Data Recorder, which captures information about any crashes that occur and how well the safety equipment worked during it. The data shown from this device is not only beneficial for the medical team to understand the severity of a crash but also helps assess the effectiveness of different safety features in and around the track. This information is later used to improve driver safety.
The Head and Neck Support system(HANS) is a horseshoe-shaped rigid collar that sits on drivers’ shoulders, under the seat belt and attaches to the back of the helmet. First introduced in 2003, the HANS system is designed to prevent stretching of the vertebrae and helps stabilize the drivers head. It also helps limit the movement of the head and neck of a driver in the car to prevent injury in case of a crash.
Like many other safety innovations, the HANS device wasn’t that popular when it was first introduced but now has become a staple piece of equipment all across motorsports.
Halo, introduced in 2018, is a cockpit protection device that consists of a curved structure supported by a single vertical pylon and is mounted to the car’s monocoque. It protects the drivers head by either stopping or deflecting large pieces of debris, such as wheels from another car or trackside barrier, from entering the cockpit.
Halo was quite controversial at the time of its introduction as many people thought it might cause visibility issues for the driver and that it might bring an end to the idea of open cockpit racing. The second problem was more centred around the aesthetics of the device rather than its safety.
But over time, both fans and drivers have been able to appreciate the life-saving values of this addition to the car, especially after certain accidents, like Romain Grosjean accident in Baharain, where without the Halo, the barrier would have certainly hit his head, and his chances of survival would have been really low.