Is Safety Killing F1?

By Stephen Williams

Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article and please don't forget to comment.

Formula 1 has always been about speed, skill and danger. Yet it seems the latter is fading away from the sport. Of course, Formula one is not entirely free from danger as drivers still get injured and it was less than two years ago that Jules Bianchi suffered fatal injuries after his crash during the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014.

It seems that since that race, Formula One has been trying to eradicate as many potential dangers as possible when the track is wet.  In qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix, the marshals spent an age drying a puddle under a bridge when the rest of the track was dry.  This had all been because Pascal Wehrlein had lost control of his Manor on the damp patch and crashed in to the barrier.  This drying of the track denied the fans the chance of seeing the drivers using their skill in this section of the track.   Would they keep the drs open over the bump and damp patch, would they lift off or would they go flat out in fear of losing time?  We as fans were robbed.

Safety car starts in wet conditions seem to have become common as well.  In Monaco, I completely agree with the decision to start the race behind the safety car. Twenty two cars piling into the tight turn one at Saint Devote had the potential for disaster.

The first race I remember watching was the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix.  Torrential rain, no safety car starts and almost immediately after the start I saw one of the worst first lap collisions in the history of the sport. When my hero at the time, Damon Hill went on to win the race following a great drive, with tremendous skill and bravery shown by all the drivers, I became hooked to Formula One.

Compared to Monaco, the race in Britain was a slightly different story. A downpour moments before the race started gave the stewards and the FIA a headache.  A decision regarding the start procedure had to be made six minutes before the race was scheduled to begin. At that time the track was saturated, it was still raining but only slightly.  By the time the race was about to start, the rain had stopped and there was blue sky.  Having stated that the race was to start behind the safety car, the decision could not be changed.  When the race began, there was a large amount of spray and the drivers complained of aquaplaning so it was the right decision to start behind the safety car, as otherwise cars would have most likely been flying of the track.  Perhaps the safety car could have come in earlier than it did. Like in Monaco, there was little running on the full wet tyres as drivers jumped straight to the intermediates.

Halo device

In a bid to prevent drivers from sustaining severe head injuries, the FIA is investigating the use of the Halo device which is expected to be used from the 2017 season.

Unlike a windscreen, the halo does not protect all of the driver. The helmet is still largely open so surely smaller objects or pieces of debris could still strike the drivers head. Would the Halo device have protected Felipe Massa more when he was stuck by a spring from Rubens Barrichello's Brawn in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009?

Just a week before that Grand Prix, I had been at Brands Hatch when Henry Surtees was struck on the head by a loose wheel and killed. In situations like this, the Halo device may have saved his life.

Drivers have complained that the device is not aesthetically pleasing and resembles a flip flop. Shouldn't a Formula One car be a thing of beauty?

Red Bull have been testing the aero screen.  This is effectively a wind shield stuck in front of the driver which should deflect any pieces of debris heading for a driver's head.  It can be argued that the aero screen is nicer looking than the halo but it still races similar questions, especially regarding visibility and the effect they would both have.

Daniel Ricciardo was quoted as saying that even if it saves one driver's life then it is worth it. It is hard to find an argument against that.  Surely there needs to be a balance between what looks good on the cars and what is most beneficial to the drivers.  Since it began, Formula One has been an open cockpit sport. But is it right for F1 to change that now?

Conclusion

If we are going to eradicate every single risk in Formula One, we may as well never go racing again. It will always rain, cars are travelling at two hundred miles an hour, cars are going to crash, drivers are going to make mistakes, and there will be mechanical failures. Yes, safety can always be improved and should be, but the drivers still want the element of risk. A driver's favourite corner is not a slow chicane, or a corner with lots of run off. It's Eau Rouge, Copse, 130R, the corners that provide the greatest challenge and the biggest consequence if a driver makes a mistake. Let's not take that away from these supreme drivers.

Make sure you read the second part of "Is Formula One losing its soul?"