Many of you have probably watched the most recent race in Imola, where Max Verstappen achieved his 11th career win. During the Grand Prix, two drivers crashed into each other at 300 kilometres per hour and caused the race to be red-flagged. Luckily, the drivers could get out of their cars with no scratches. Had this accident occurred 30 years earlier, however, we would have seen a completely different outcome.
The early days
Formula 1 is the highest class of international auto racing for single-seater formula racing cars. It is the pinnacle of autosport and has been running since 1950. In the early stages, the sport was extremely dangerous. Drivers had no seatbelts, no helmets, no racing suits and cars setting on fire was a very common thing back then. In the deadliest decade of the sport, the 60s, there was a 1 in a 7 chance that a driver would die in a race. The tracks were not suited to drivers’ safety as trees would be on the side of the tracks instead of guardrails or tires, amply stacked, on most of the circuits in the world. It was simply accepted that the sport had its risk and that some drivers may not see the finish line ever again.
It took some time before the culture of striving to protect lives started. When 3-time World Champion Jackie Stewart insisted that drivers’ safety should be a priority, changes in the sport became inevitable. He advocated mandatory seat belts and full-face helmets, as well as better barriers and proper medical teams. To put this into perspective, drivers wore cloth caps with goggles in the 50s, whereas now drivers wear state of the art helmets that must be able to withstand the severest of conditions. For example, as a test, each helmet is subjected to an 800 degrees flame for 45 seconds and its interior should not exceed 70 degrees celsius.
Alongside the helmets, the fire-resistant race suits emerged. In the 50s and 60s drivers wore nothing but a shirt or an overall, almost as if they were casually driving their car to work. Many fatal accidents occurred due to the fact that these cars were very prone to catching fire. Thus, the fire-resistant race suits were introduced in 1975. And with today’s standards, these suits must be able to withhold a fire of 600 to 800 degrees for 11 seconds without the driver becoming a burned steak. But one of the most important innovations in safety is the survival cell. This is the central part of the car in which the driver is seated. The survival cell is designed to be all but indestructible and has evolved over time to withstand even the most dramatic of collisions and to be the last line of defence between the driver and track.
All these safety measures were one of the reasons why Romain Grosjean could survive the horrific crash of the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2020. The Frenchman crashed into the barriers of the track at a speed of 192 kilometres per hour withstanding a massive 67 G’s. The car was caught on fire like a fireball, but luckily Grosjean could get out of his car due to the strict safety measures.
Innovations used today
Now you might wonder how all of this is crucial for our safety. Well, technological innovations are everywhere, but F1 is considered to be the fastest R&D lab in the world. Because of this, the notion is that motor racing technology would sooner or later trickle down to car technology. Active suspension, sequential gearboxes and Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) form just a small part of F1 technologies that are being used every day. The technology used here is at the forefront of consumer electronics, medical technology and smart cities. For example, during the corona crisis, F1 teams combined their knowledge to build ventilators for patients in hospitals. Next to that, our road cars have become much safer due to innovations developed by F1 engineers. Withal, it is not only our safety that has been improved significantly, the engines used in F1 today are one of the most efficient power units in the world. This means that less energy is wasted, which makes them more eco-friendly. Many road car engines are largely derived from these engines.
There are many things that I have not mentioned in this article, like how the data from the car is transmitted through 5G, wireless data technology that will be used in self-driving cars, sensors in cars, machine learning used in simulations and many other innovative ideas. Formula 1 will continue to improve on the safety measures taken on and off-track to ultimately make your drive from A to B the safest it can possibly be.
This article is written by Sam Ansari