The Ben Evans Column: Taking safety seriously

Posted on

| Written by

I recently picked up a copy of Nigel Roebuck’s Inside Formula 1, a collection of his columns from the 1980s.

He sticks to his usual themes: Villeneuve, Smoking, Villeneuve, evil left-wing politicians and Villeneuve. But as ever it’s worth keeping with it for the nuggets of pure gold.

In particular I was drawn to his interview with Jackie Stewart discussion the cornering speeds and dangers of the 1982 ‘ground effect’ era-cars. Stewart’s comments around the consequences of ‘a serious accident’ some 25 years later still seem remarkably relevant.

This is largely because current F1 cars are similar in a number of ways to the ‘ground effect’ cars – the corner like they are on rails, rarely look out of shape, they to a large extent mask the skill of the drivers and the physical exertion to drive one at the limit is immense.

So when things go wrong, they go wrong big time.

But for the grace of God, and some moments of extreme fortune, F1 has never had the ‘serious accident’ Stewart envisioned, but sometimes this seems more the consequences of chance more than anything else.

Both Robert Kubica’s (F1) and Ernesto Viso’s (GP2) accidents were rightly heralded as miracle escapes for both drivers, which they were.

Arguably they were perhaps even bigger escapes for the trackside workers and spectators. If either Kubica or Viso had crashed in the same manner at different corners, then it must have been odds-on that at least one of them would have ended up in a spectator area.

Scaremongering? Perhaps, especially as most circuits are encased in wire mesh fences to keep the cars away from the public in such accidents.

But every system is fallible – for example a World Supersport bike finished its shunt in a grandstand at Misano earlier this year – fortunately this was on a test day. The consequences on race day would be unthinkable.

Personally my greatest concern with F1 safety at the moment is the cornering speed. The energy involved in any accident is absolutely enormous, which is what you would expect at 170mph and in excess of 3g of downforce.

Thankfully most circuits now take this into account with acres of run-off adjacent to every corner. Indeed that will contain 90% of accidents, and with the concrete run-off most drivers can even recover to rejoin the race.

The problem is the other 9% of accidents – by that I mean Narain Karthikeyan in Shanghai in 2005 – when a car goes flying off the road in an area it’s not supposed to. These accidents are usually caused by something breaking on the car, or a freak mistake, they are not what you would term ‘a common racing accident’. However the build quality of modern F1 cars ensures that most drivers walk away from these incidents.

No, for me the concern is the 1% of accidents, that are just that – accidents. Freak moments, usually caused by a slight collision or mechanical failure, that can have catastrophic consequences. Kubica was an example, so was Viso. No amount of circuit safety can legislate for that kind of incident. It is amazing these two accidents were separated by just under a fortnight.

Luckily neither accident caused must more damage that a collective rise of blood pressure and substantial damage bills. But, equally, both could have fallen into Stewart’s category of a ‘serious accident’.

How would F1 react? Well there would doubtless be a huge amount of tabloid response – anyone who can remember the papers on May 2nd 1994 will know what I mean.

Would F1 be hit financially, as was Stewart’s great concern? It is hard to say, however my instinct says not. Stewart’s comments were in 1982, when there was a big accident almost every weekend, and to an extent a massive incident was almost expected.

Subsequent safety developments – circuit and car – have ensured that large accidents with serious consequences are regarded as ‘freaks’. Yes they still happen but are rare indeed.

Today motor racing is exceptionally safe. I just hope it never gets taken for granted.

Photo: Ford Media

Related links

Author information

Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

3 comments on “The Ben Evans Column: Taking safety seriously”

  1. Another good example is the DC-Wurz incident in Melbourne. It ended up as a harmless flight for DC, but it could’ve been MUCH, MUCH worse.

  2. Yes, fate or God or luck, or whatever you want to call it, was on Wurz’s and DC’s side that day. If DC’s car had been afew centimetres closer, the horrible consequences would have been captured live on TV around the world…

    And I don’t think the revised cockpit sides will make things much safer anyway.

    And massive credit to the safety in F1 today, but no amount of safety can prevent the freak accidents occuring, you just need to hope that the drivers get away scott-free.

  3. When I saw Kubica’s accident, one of my first thoughts, aside from Kubica, is that some of the debris must’ve flown into the spectators stand, but there were no reports of this.

    I don’t know which laws stand nowadays, but I believe that Enzo Ferrari got charged with manslaughter when one of his cars, back in the day, had an accident then ploughed into spectators killing the driver and some of the crowd.

    Regardless of laws, as there is no price on life, it’s in everyone’s interest to keep the drivers, the marshalls, crowd – everyone – safe.

    As already pointed out, the 1% of the unthinkable happens, but everyone tries to make sure that 1% is minimalised.

    You can’t think of everything that will go wrong until it actually happens – and we’d have no accidents by now if we did know everything because we’d have eliminated the problems.

    However, it’s certainly testimonial to past drivers fatalities (RIP) that nowadays we can grant a much higher level of safety. Not that it changes the past, but at least we have learnt from their accidents.

Comments are closed.