SIR JACKIE STEWART'S crash at the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix was absurd. On the first lap, his Formula 1 BRM hit standing water at 170 mph. “My car had effectively become a missile,” he wrote in his 2007 autobiography, Winning Is Not Enough. “It proceeded to flatten both a woodcutter’s hut and a telegraph pole before careening over an eight-foot drop and finishing on the lower patio of a farmhouse.”
From the August 2019 issue of Road & Track
At the time, there were no safety marshals. Drivers Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant, who had also crashed, extricated Stewart from the wreck with tools borrowed from a spectator. The rescue took more than 20 minutes. Stewart was drenched in fuel from the crash and became disgusted to find the floor of the track’s medical center littered with cigarette butts. He eventually made it to a hospital. But first, the ambulance driver got lost.
Stewart escaped the crash with a few broken bones, but F1’s lax approach to safety was untenable. “By 1968, we lost four drivers in four months. One a month from April, May, June, and July,” he said. “And it just made no sense at all.”
Fed up, Stewart mounted a serious campaign to improve safety. He brought a doctor to races. He petitioned the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) to perform inspections of every circuit. He championed safety in every interview.
“I wasn’t popular because of it,” Stewart said. “I had death threats, particularly from people in Germany.”
He organized a boycott of the dangerous Nürburgring circuit in 1970. Reluctantly, the German Grand Prix was held at Hockenheim. But F1 returned to the Ring from 1971 to 1976, before a new, safer grand-prix circuit supplanted the old one.
Stewart retired after the 1973 season, then spent the next five years as president of the GPDA, where he championed further safety improvements.
With time, the cause gained support. In 1978, Bernie Ecclestone, head of the Formula One Constructors Association, appointed Dr. Sid Watkins, head of neurosurgery at the London Hospital, as F1’s traveling physician. The hire led to major advancements in safety, says Dr. Gary Hartstein, a former F1 medical delegate and medical-rescue coordinator.
“Sid really was the catalyst,” Hartstein said. “Bernie gave him the authority to get things done.”
“Professor Sid,” as most called him, introduced the medical car. The car tails the pack on the first lap of each grand prix, carrying personnel that can attend to crashes immediately. Watkins also mandated permanent medical facilities at every circuit and forced F1 designers to move each car’s front axle ahead of its pedal box, protecting drivers’ legs. From 1982 to 1994, there were no fatalities in F1 competition. But the sport had a long way to go.
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Italy’s Imola circuit proved it. Rookie Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a crash during qualifying after the front wing came off his car. On the seventh lap of the race, three-time world champion Ayrton Senna went off Imola’s high-speed Tamburello corner and hit a wall. He suffered severe head trauma in the crash. His death was announced a few hours after the race.
The reaction was immediate. FIA president Max Mosley created the Expert Advisory Safety Committee and named Watkins as chairman, giving the neurosurgeon broad authority to make safety improvements in the sport. The committee took a scientific approach to the problem of high-speed crashes.
“This whole thing, roughly speaking, is a question of energy management,” Hartstein said. “That means controlling the loss of kinetic energy so that the deceleration is survivable.”
Watkins’s committee commissioned tests to study forces in a crash. In 1996, F1 introduced new cockpit padding to protect drivers’ heads and enlarged the cockpit opening to ease driver extraction. The group studied high-risk corners at numerous circuits, added chicanes to reduce speed, and enlarged runoff areas. Tire barriers and their anchors were redesigned.
Hartstein, an anesthesiologist, joined F1 as Watkins’ assistant in 1997. He worked on improving medical-crew response and ran emergency drills at every track. The two doctors also studied concussions, developing field tests to determine if a driver involved in a crash was safe to return to the race. One of Watkins’s final accomplishments before his retirement in 2005 was enacting mandatory use of the HANS device, a restraint that prevents head and neck injury.
Safety is a work in progress. French driver Jules Bianchi was severely injured during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix; he died nine months later due to complications from those injuries. Bianchi’s death was the first in F1 since Senna’s 20 years earlier.
For Stewart, a half-century of improvement is a step in the right direction. “The cars are safer. The tracks are much safer. The medical facilities now are fantastic. The sport’s in great shape.”
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