In the 1960s and 70s, it was widely accepted that racing came with a real risk of severe injury or death and it took some time before the culture of striving to protect lives set in.
Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart played an important part in the push for safety during some of F1’s most dangerous years, advocating mandatory seatbelts and full-face helmets, as well as for better barriers and proper medical teams.
In more recent years, two big waves of safety innovations have been kick-started by the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994, and Jules Bianchi’s ultimately fatal crash in 2014.
These key moments in F1 history have served as reminders that motorsport cannot become complacent and that there is always more that can be improved upon when it comes to safety.
Marshals – used since 1950
Marshals are an often overlooked but integral part of safety in motorsport.
They have been around since the beginning of F1’s history and these unpaid volunteers make racing possible.
Marshals are first on the scene of an accident and as such they are well trained in First Aid, as well fire safety and incident handling.
Marshals are also responsible for alerting drivers to dangers on track, such as waving the yellow flag to warn them to slow down for a hazard ahead or the blue flag to indicate that you are about to be lapped and must let the faster car through.
Marshals give up a huge amount of their time to allow racing to go ahead safely, training to be prepared for all eventualities.
Helmets – became mandatory in 1952
A driver’s helmet remains one of the most important pieces of safety equipment in F1.
Helmet technology is continually advancing, with tougher outer shells and more impact absorbent insides with each generation.
Back at the dawn of the championship in 1950, drivers wore cloth caps paired with goggles, which did little other than protect them from dirt and insects before cork helmets became mandatory in 1952.
Over the decades, with the invention of Nomex, the addition of visors and eventually the embracing of full-face helmets increased the protection of the drivers.
In 2001 carbon fibre helmets were introduced and today’s helmets are stringently tested to withstand impacts and prove themselves to be exceedingly fire resistant.
Fire-resistant race suits – obligatory from 1975
Drivers’ clothing today is a far cry from that of the 1950s where they effectively wore whatever they liked.
Ease of movement was the priority with short sleeved shirts a favourite for keeping drivers cool while racing.
By 1963, the FIA made the wearing of overalls obligatory and in 1975 the overalls had to meet a fire-resistant standard.
The technology has continued to evolve over the decades and now race suits are made of lightweight and breathable material with Nomex coating.
They are tested to make sure than they can withstand being heated to 600 to 800 degrees for more than 11 seconds and this rigorous testing applies to everything from zips to socks to ensure that drivers are adequately protected from fire should one break out.
The survival cell – treated as an entity since 1981
The survival cell, or monocoque, is the central part of the F1 car, in which the driver is seated.
It is built out of 6mm of exceedingly strong carbon fibre composite with a layer of Kevlar, which is penetration resistant and crash-protection structures can absorb huge amounts of energy during a crash.
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.
It must undergo extensive crash testing before it can be deemed safe to race in.
It is also fitted with a fire suppression system that can be activated by the driver or externally that sprays fire retardant foam around the monocoque and engine.
The safety car – permanently used since 1993
The safety car is an important part of F1, keeping speeds down and stopping overtaking while there are hazards on track that mean it would be unsafe for the cars to be going full speed, such as stationery cars, debris or bad weather.
The safety car has been used permanently since 1993, although it first made its debut at the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix, where the safety car driver misidentified the leader in the confusion of pit stops and it took three hours after the race to discover the true winner.
The safety car now has professional racing driver Bernd Maylander at the wheel who has occupied the role for 21 years.
The current safety car, a Mercedes AMG GT R has a top speed of 315km/h and has been used since 2018.
The pitlane speed limit – introduced in 1994
The pitlane speed limit was introduced after the events at Imola in 1994 in order to protect both the drivers and those working in the pitlane.
The speed limit is currently 80km/h, although the race director has it in their power to amend it if necessary, in consultation with the FIA F1 safety delegate.
Teams are fined €100 for every km/h they go over the limit up to €1000, although additional penalties may be inflicted if the stewards suspect a driver of attempting to gain an advantage.
Barriers and run-off areas – reworked starting 1994
In 2000, the FIA introduced a standard tyre barrier insert for maximum energy absorption which has been improved ever since in reaction to incidents such as Carlos Sainz’s crash at Sochi in 2015 where the car came to rest underneath the top layer of the barrier.
The current TechPro barriers are much more highly sophisticated than the use of hay bales, which was a common sight until they were banned in 1967.
Alongside barriers, after that fateful weekend at Imola in 1994 existing tracks started to be adapted to attempt to neutralise the most dangerous corners.
New tracks mostly had large asphalt run-off areas built which is often cited as being twice as good at slowing down a car than gravel or grass during an accident, but brought about a whole new debate regarding track limits as drivers were no longer naturally penalised for leaving the track during racing.
This plethora of new circuits have gained a reputation of being a bit repetitive and lacking in distinctive features and as not regularly being the scene of exciting racing.
Many of these Hermann Tilke designed tracks have fallen by the wayside in recent years, such as Sepang, Buddh and Istanbul, in favour of historic tracks that have played an important part in F1’s past.
Zandvoort was scheduled to make its return to the calendar in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic and the adjustments to the circuit included the installation of new gravel run-off areas.
Many in the F1 paddock have been outspoken as to the limitations of embracing the wide asphalt run-off areas, suggesting that while it is needed on the entry of high-speed corners where gravel would be dangerous, grass or gravel would be safe to use on corner exits or slower bends and help to solve the track limits issue.
The headrest – introduced in 1996
Modern headrest padding was introduced in F1 in 1996 and help to take the huge strain that drivers’ heads and necks are under when inflicted to so much g-force.
F1 drivers can experience lateral g-force of up to 6G when cornering, meaning that even with headrests they need to develop massive neck muscles to cope with the strain.
The headrests are made out of a material designed to help with impact absorption during a crash and to prevent whiplash, and the late Professor Sid Watkins felt that it probably saved Jos Verstappen’s life during an accident in the first year that F1 cars ran with the device.
The Accident Data Recorder – introduced in 1997
Since 1997 all F1 cars have contained an Accident Data Recorder, which captures information about crashes and how well the safety equipment has worked during it.
This data is not only useful for the medical team to know the severity of an impact at the scene of the accident, but is a vital tool for improving the safety of F1 by providing a means of assessing the effectiveness of circuit safety features such as barriers and run-off areas.
This information, combined with that of all FIA-affiliated series that use the Accident Data Recorder, is then used to improve driver safety.
Wheel tethers – introduced 1999
Wheel tethers were introduced in 1999 to prevent wheels from flying off during accidents and endangering all those on track.
It was prompted by the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix where a crash involving much of the grid resulted in several wheels becoming detached.
Loose wheels travelling at a high speed has been the cause of death for multiple drivers and marshals in motorsport so effective tethers connecting the wheel hub to the car are vital.
In 2011 the FIA doubled the number of tethers on each car after a spate of accidents resulted in wheels coming free and there has been an increase in tethers all across the car to reduce the chance of it splitting into multiple large parts after a crash.
HANS device – introduced 2003
The Head and Neck Support (HANS) device, which has been compulsory since 2003, limits the movement of the head and neck in the car in order to prevent injury in the case of a crash.
The device tethers to the driver’s helmet and anchors it onto the collar of carbon fibre that prevents the head from moving and the neck from hyperextending – a leading cause of death in racing when it results in a basal skull fracture.
Like many safety innovations, although the HANS device was not overwhelming popular when it was first introduced, it has become a staple piece of equipment all across motorsport.
It is thought to reduce neck tension in an accident by 72% and it is credited with saving the lives of countless drivers since it has been in use.
The refuelling ban – reintroduced in 2010
For the 2010 season F1 once again banned refuelling and it remains outlawed today, despite some attempts to get it reintroduced in the 2017 regulations changes.
It had previously been banned between 1984 and 1994 on safety grounds but come 2010 it was predominantly financial reasons that pushed the decision makers into moving away from refuelling once again.
But there is plenty of evidence that that without refuelling F1 is a safer place. Jos Verstappen’s 1994 fiery incident at Hockenheim is the most well-known refuelling accident during its brief reappearance, where an errant fuel hose sprayed its contents on both the mechanics and the car with Verstappen suffering mild burns in the dramatic blaze.
Both Felipe Massa and Heikki Kovalainen dragged attached fuel hoses down the pit lane, with Kovalainen’s hose going on to douse Kimi Raikkonen in fuel and engulfing him in flames in Brazil in 2009.
These incidents highlight the risks that are now avoided by no longer having mechanics put fuel into cars under such intense pressure. Pit stops are now quicker, simpler and safer.
Accelerometer – introduced 2014
F1 drivers have accelerometers in their ear pieces so that accurate data can be gathered on the forces acting on the driver, which is particularly important after a crash.
Introduced in 2014, the ear was chosen as a non-invasive spot to put the instrument and it also shows the exact movements of the head during an impact.
Driver facing camera – introduced 2016
From 2016 F1 cars have been fitted with a camera facing the driver in order to see exactly what happens inside the cockpit during a crash.
The camera films drivers at up to 400 frames a second, meaning that tiny previously missed moments can now be fully evaluated.
Working in conjunction with the Accident Data Recorder and accelerometer, the camera gives experts extra data in the push to identify and minimise dangers to the driver.
It also gives a close up view of the HANS device, headrest and seatbelt in action, helping to evaluate any weaknesses.
The camera is fully integrated into cockpit so that it does not interfere with the driver in any way.
Super licence – revised for 2016
In order to compete in F1 drivers must have a super licence, which proves they are experienced enough to be able to safely drive to a high standard.
Drivers must collect 40 super licence points in order to qualify for a super licence, which can be accrued from participation in other series such as Formula 2 and Formula 3, the W Series and other junior formulas, as well as IndyCar and the World Endurance Championship.
The points must be gathered within a three-year period and a driver must have two years of single-seater experience. From 2020 onwards drivers can also gain points by participating in F1 practice sessions.
The current system was introduced for 2016, notably the year after Max Verstappen made his debut as the youngest ever F1 driver, in order to discourage teams from fielding immature talents that have not yet gained the racecraft experience needed to safely compete.
Drivers must also be over 18 and hold a valid driving licence to qualify.
The halo – introduced in 2018
Although it is now an accepted part of an F1 car, the halo, a cockpit protection device to protect the driver’s head, was initially quite controversial at the time of its introduction in 2018.
Many purists argued that it ‘went against the DNA of single-seater racing’ to move towards enclosing the cockpit and there was widespread concern that it could cause visibility issues for drivers.
As fans and drivers alike got used to the idea of some kind of cockpit protection the furore died down and its been possible to appreciate the life-saving value of this addition the car.
Cockpit protection was thrust back into the spotlight after Jules Bianchi’s 2014 crash and his subsequent death in July of the following year.
Henry Surtees’ death during an F2 race and Felipe Massa’s injury after being struck on the head by a spring that had come off another car also provided compelling evidence that some kind of cockpit protection was necessary.
The halo was deemed the most viable of the cockpit protection ideas, beating the aeroscreen and the shield to become a mandatory part of F1.
The halo protects the drivers head from large pieces of flying debris as well as if cars launch on top of one another, or a car takes a direct hit into a safety vehicle, as happened in the case of Bianchi.
Biometric gloves – introduced in 2018
While arriving with much less fanfare than the Halo, 2018’s other safety innovation has been revolutionary for monitoring a driver’s condition after a crash.
3mm thick biometric sensors in the drivers’ gloves were introduced, transmitting the driver’s pulse and blood oxygen levels to race control.
This gives the medical team more information when deciding how quickly a driver needs to be extracted from the car after an accident and lets them know if there is time to perform the extraction in a slower, more careful manner.
Gloves with increased fire protection – trialled in 2021
Following Romain Grosjean’s fiery crash in the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, gloves with an extra 1.5 seconds of fire resistance were trialled at the 2021 Turkish Grand Prix. Grosjean was able to escape his crash largely unscathed thanks to the safety devices above, however his hands were severely burned during the incident. As part of F1 and the FIA’s continued efforts to improve safety, they began working on gloves that would offer drivers more fire protection in similar incidents.