As Jackie Stewart famously said, ‘A race-car crash isn’t a car accident, it’s an aircraft accident that happens to be in a car.’ This rings true when you look at the massive forces inflicted upon a driver in any collision. An occupant in an average road-car accident will experience around 30 G of force in sudden deceleration. It is this abrupt reduction in speed that acts upon your internal organs – much like blunt- force trauma.
Now, can you imagine experiencing three times that in a motor-racing collision – upwards of 100 G! And yet, 99 times out of 100, everyone walks away safe. How is this possible, when half of all fatal road accidents occur at speeds less than 50 km/h? Back in the 1960s (and early ’70s),
if you were an F1 racing driver, you had a one in seven chance of surviving a season. It was a blood sport. We recount some of the most significant accidents, and the advances in safety they facilitated.
1. 1955 – Pierre Levegh at 24 Hours of Le Mans
In Europe during the post-war years, motor sport was undoubtedly at its most dangerous. It was a different time and for spectators and drivers alike, familiar with the perils and ravages of war, the dangers of motor racing must have seemed quite inconsequential. Drivers had no helmets or safety gear of any description – preferring to be thrown clear of the car rather than be trapped in the event of fire. Races were held on public roads that sped through forests and towns with nothing that even resembled crash barriers for drivers or spectators. Racers were the new fighter pilots, risking life and limb for glory, and to thrill adoring fans. Up until the daring mystique came (quite literally) crashing down in a horrifying accident in 1955 at 24 Hours of Le Mans, when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz crashed, left the circuit and broke up into the crowd, killing 83 and injuring another 180 spectators. The fall-out was far reaching. Races were cancelled all over the world over safety concerns. Mercedes-Benz abandoned all motor-sport activity, only to return in 1989. There was a major overhaul of race cars, circuits, spectator safety and fire suppression, and trackside medical teams became standard.
2. 1994 – Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola
At velocities exceeding those of an aircraft at takeoff, an F1 car will stay stuck to the tarmac through its incredible amalgam of mechanical grip and aerodynamic downforce created by its wings, flat floor and rear diffuser. The closer the car is to the ground, the more accelerated the airflow underneath the car, and the greater the downforce. In the era of the ground effect – sliding skirts that dragged along the tarmac from wide side pods, ensuring air flow remained attached underneath the car – the downforce was so much that Nelson Piquet famously collapsed on the podium at Brazil in 1982 because of the sheer physical exertion placed on drivers in a ground-effects car. But what happens when that tremendous downforce abruptly lets go? You’re left with tragedy…
Before Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna’s deaths at Imola in 1994, there’d been no fatality in Formula 1 for twelve years. An entire generation of top-class drivers had graduated through the schooling formulas, never conceiving of death behind the wheel. It is believed that a steering failure, combined with a loss of tyre pressure (from being behind the safety car for several laps) made Senna’s Williams bottom out, momentarily losing downforce and traction in the flat-out Tamburello bend, and this caused the accident. But whatever the true cause, after 1 May 1994, sweeping safety regulations were introduced to make F1 cars and race tracks much safer. In the aftermath, mandatory ride heights were raised, front and rear wing sizes were decreased to limit downforce, driver head supports were built up, tethers were added to stop wheels flying off, and chicanes were put in place at circuits all over the world to slow cars down.
3. 2001 – Alex Zanardi at Lausitzring
It wasn’t until the ’80s, and the use of accelerometers in passenger-car crash testing, that engineers were able to fully comprehend the anatomy of an accident. Unlike the usual technical trickle down from racing to road cars, this time it was race cars benefitting from road-car technology, in turn becoming a sort of heightened crash laboratory. Their findings were that a large number of avoidable injuries were occurring to the driver’s feet and ankles. A head-on impact at 70 km/h was the equivalent of jumping off a seven-story building directly onto your feet. These new findings lead to mandated reinforcement of all nose cones to withstand 40 tons of force. Unfortunately, in reinforcing the nose structure, race cars effectively became dangerous high-speed arrows that were able to punch their way through anything in a car-to-car impact. This was proven with devastating effect in an Indy Car race in 2001, when former F1 driver Alex Zanardi lost control of his car while re-entering the track from the pits. He spun back onto the circuit sideways and suffered a broadside hit by Alex Tagliani travelling at full speed. Zanardi lost both his legs instantly in the impact and it was only through quick-acting medical response that Zanardi didn’t lose his life altogether. What this impact did highlight, was the need for even greater reinforcement to the side-impact safety cells, and that nose cones be re-engineered to rather dissipate energy. Zanardi was racing hand-controlled motor vehicles within six months of the accident and is now a celebrated, gold-medal-winning Paralympian.
4. 2001 – Dale Earnhardt at Indianapolis
Head injuries are the number one cause of fatalities in motor sport. Despite all the measures taken to build-up crash structures, the head and neck are still subjected to high centrifugal forces in an impact. The head and neck effectively sit loose when compared to the torso and shoulders, which are restrained in the car, and this difference in restraining forces, exerted in mere milliseconds, can lead to the driver breaking his or her neck or breaking a bone at the base of the skull, pulling the brain stem loose – known otherwise as a basilar skull fracture. Biomechanics Dr Bob Hubbard and Jim Downing invented the Head and Neck Safety system, or HANS device to reduce the risk of this. The basic premise is to restrain the head so it resists forward loads via a simple tether to the collar, which in turn is supported by the driver’s shoulder harness.
Nascar champion, Dale Earnhardt, was a ring leader against the HANS, calling it ‘that damned noose’ and refused to wear it in competition. But in a cruel twist of fate, his cavalier attitude caught up with him at the Daytona 500, when in the final lap of the 2001 race, in treacherous turn four, Earnhardt lost control after being hit by another car, and was speared into the concrete wall at an angle Nascar drivers refer to as a ‘one o’clock hit’, stopping the car instantly, dispersing all crash forces onto the driver. Earnhardt was not wearing a HANS device, suffered a basilar skull fracture and died instantly. Six months later, the HANS Device was made compulsory in Nascar.
As if to fully prove the worth of the HANS device, and all other crash safety advances, there’s the harrowing impact involving Indy Car racer Ritchie Hearn, who miraculously survived after he hit a race wall at over 300 km/h due to an unavoidable car failure. His only injury was a broken foot in a collision that recorded the highest impact force ever measured by an accelerometer – 139 G.
It’s moments like these that count as a remarkable triumph for the team that have dedicated their lives to improving safety in motor sport.