A Thought Experiment on Racing Safety

Henri Louveau's Talbot-Lago T26 after crashing in the 1951 Swiss GP

I know that increasing safety at racing events was a long, hard road and a heroic fight by Jackie Stewart and others who were just plain sick of seeing all of their friends die. I also know that the transition from haybales and snow fencing to endless runoff areas and HANS was not as knee-jerk as it seems in hindsight.

I sometimes wonder, though, if we could go back and introduce later safety technologies earlier, if we might have avoided sanitizing the sport so much. If we could have given Graham Hill a HANS device, might we have avoided cutting all the hedges out of the run up to Nürburgring’s Antoniusbrücke? If we could give Ascari a modern puncture-resistant fuel cell, could we have avoided endless run-off areas that place spectators so far from the track?

Don’t get me wrong, this photo of Henri Louveau’s Talbot-Lago after overrunning a corner on the 30th lap of the 1951 Swiss Grand Prix doesn’t look pretty. It must have been terrifying… But it also shows that when fire wasn’t a factor, grand prix cars of the era weren’t so very fragile. If Henri also had a HANS, and a decent roll cage, and some crumple areas, maybe the sport would still be a more visceral experience today.

I know that there a lot of very differing opinions on the topic of racing safety. I know that even with the sport being as safe as it is that drivers and spectators still get killed in the modern era. I’m curious what your thoughts are on this. Have we taken too much excitement out of the sport in the name of safety? Have we not yet made the sport safe enough? Is there anything that can even be done about it?

14 responses to “A Thought Experiment on Racing Safety”

  1. Captain Ned says:

    The only thing that can be done about it is to take some of the speed out of the cars. Not only will the racing be safer, there will be more racing and less follow-the-leader.

    Eau Rouge or Tamburello at 140 MPH is gutsy enough. Taking either close to 200 MPH is another thing altogether.

    Truth be told, since it’s the “World Drivers Championship”, I’d put ’em all in new-build identical Lotus 49s and let the best driver win.

  2. Steve930 says:

    I think the limits of the cars now are so high, that any “off” is at a huge velocity and the consequences dire. Admittedly I am in my late 50’s, so my love is for the late 60’s F1 cars. I would get at least as much joy seeing a Lotus 49 competing against a Tyrell 006 Add the necessary crashworthiness to the cars, and moderate the track measures. Let us get closer to the action. Maintain the survivability and put more of the reason for success back onto the quality of the driving and less the cars.

  3. Mike Jacobsen says:

    I can’t say I agree entirely with either Capt. Ned or Steve 390 though they make good points. Everyone in identical cars sounds like NASCAR which I find mostly boring except when they are on a road course, and IROC never proved anything as I said in one of my columns here a few years back. And note that the safety level of NASCAR cars is now such that the drivers think nothing of deliberately causing crashes at 190 mph! Most forms of motor sports are now as safe as football, the dangers of which often only manifest themselves years after the player has retired. Steve’s suggestion that more of success ought to be in the hands of the driver rather than the car is spot on.

  4. Steve930 says:

    I didn’t say anything about identical cars. Just lower the limits – say reduce tire width or require harder compounds. Back to metal rotors or restrict pad size and material. Further restrict aero. The cars were far more diverse back in the 60’s and 70’s than they are now. The racing was at least as good. Keep the safety advances, but lower the speeds, lengthen the braking zones, reduce the cornering limits.

  5. Sandeep Banerjee says:

    As a result of the high safety standards, drivers take far too many chances, like Mike said. We have more concussions now then before, I would think, simply because of the increase in hard hits compared to the old days when drivers thought twice about making contact.

    All I can hope for is common sense prevails before the sport gets even more clinical and homogenous (yes, it’s possible!).

    • Steve930 says:

      I had initially typed in a similar idea to Sandeep’s, but removed it. I think the drivers are much more willing to make questionable moves because the physical penalty for conact has been virtually eliminated. But I certainly do not propose removing any of the safety features now present. So I think the recklessness would continue, only at lower speeds.
      It is all moot though, because the public and Bernie will never accept slowing the cars.

  6. Ryan says:

    Current endless run-off is necessary due to the extreme speeds that are common at nearly all tracks, and the massively increased cornering speeds. Lowering the outright (and cornering) speeds would definitely be better for racing in terms of a sport.

    This was one of the core aspects of my senior thesis project; I designed a hydrogen-electric open wheel race car with no wings. Some downforce was provided by the undertray, but ultimately the car relies mostly on mechanical grip. This reduces cornering speeds and increases braking zones. I was fortunate enough to have Ron Fellows as my thesis adviser and he was quite enthusiastic about the approach. The racing itself would be much, much better, and would place more focus on the drivers’ abilities and less on the cars/technologies themselves.

    Now, there’s the technology aspect to things, too. And you could make the argument that placing any kinds of limits on the speeds to reduce them from the current levels of performance would stunt any technological advancement which would be a detriment to various areas of the industry. On the other hand, it may be that it just focuses technological research and innovation into new areas like alternative power or all-out new thinking and new ways to approach old problems?

    • Harlo says:

      I agree, Ryan. Limiting speeds doesn’t necessarily stifle technological advancement. There are all sorts of areas for experimentation that don’t yield greater top speeds. Acceleration (not top speed) has far better applicability to street cars than top speed anyways. I would happily sacrifice speed to occasionally see some passing in F1.

  7. Captain Ned says:

    OK, a spec series is too much. I just love the 49. That said, a revised F1 with modern tracks and cigar cars with no aero would really focus on driving skill, not engineering skill.

  8. Mike Jacobsen says:

    Steve: note it was Capt Ned who proposed identical cars.

  9. Sandeep Banerjee says:

    Like Steve and Ryan, I agree that the emphasis needs to be brought back on mechanical grip. Reason I derive so much pleasure from watching old footage is that grip was all about getting the most from the tyres. No aero crutches to lean on and sterilize the spectacle in the process. Watching an E-type drift through St. Mary’s is 10 times more exciting than watching an R10 blast through Curva Grande at double or triple the speed.

    But for that, what is needed is a global paradigm shift because if only F1, for example, were to slow down the cars, the rest of the motorsport world will be much faster, even the support series and that won’t go down well.

    • Harlo says:

      That’s a great point, Sandeep. We saw something similar when Formula 2 briefly surpassed Formula 1 during a period of tight F1 restrictions.

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