KNUTSON: Weighing Driver Safety Versus Pretty Cars

Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Racing is dangerous. It always has been and always will be.

Still, it is a lot safer than it used to be. The 1970s were lethal with 10 Formula One world championship drivers dying in Formula One accidents.

But since Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed on that San Marino GP weekend in 1994, the only other F-1 driver to lose his life in an accident was Jules Bianchi, who passed away in 2015 after finally succumbing to injuries he suffered when he crashed during the 2014 Japanese GP.

Jackie Stewart was at the forefront of the campaign to improve safety and specifically that of F-1. He encountered fierce resistance during the late 1960s and early 1970s from circuit owners, fans, journalists and even fellow drivers such as Jacky Ickx, who refused to support him. Yet, we take for granted things Stewart lobbied for such as guardrails and track runoff areas.

I often wonder if the general indifference to a few drivers dying was related to the times after the two world wars, during which thousands of people were killed and wounded every day. Compared to that, losing a driver here and there seemed like nothing.
There was another factor. David Hobbs, who raced all sorts of cars — including a Ford GT40 on the high banking at Monza — tells me that in the 1960s the drivers just didn’t think about the dangers. They were not being brave or foolish or even indifferent. They just got in the cars and drove.

Times have changed! There is now a relentless quest for safety.

Many of the improvements over the years can’t really be seen. Things such as seat belts, fuel cells, impact and penetration protection around the cockpit, roll hoops that really work, the HANS device and so on did not change the essence of a Formula One car.

Looking at it from one angle, F-1 has constantly evolved, and if things did not change, the cars would still have engines in the front, wire wheels, skinny tires and be the drivers would wear canvas helmets and short sleeves.

Still, since the 1960s, all  F-1 cars have had engines in the rear and open cockpits. But that is going to change now that the FIA has mandated the 2018 cars include the halo driver head protection device. It is ugly and can’t be blended into the bodywork.

Some people say if the drivers can’t accept the risks of F-1 and open cockpits they should stay home. But those people aren’t the ones literally putting their lives on the line. All the drivers do indeed understand the risks they face, but they are divided on the halo.

“It takes away some of the passion that F-1 is all about,” Kevin Magnussen said. “When you look at the car it’s ugly. F-1 cars aren’t ugly; they’re not meant to be ugly. That’s the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda — it’s something passionate and if it looks crappy, it is crappy.”

Fernando Alonso: “We are all happy to implement the device. This is the most effective way to protect the head of the drivers; it’s more than welcome in my opinion.”

Former NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip gets upset when a driver is killed and people say: “Well, at least he died doing what he loved.”

Waltrip’s take is: “I didn’t want to die doing what I loved, I wanted to live doing what I loved.”

So, as for the halo, I would prefer not to see it. I mean literally not see it because it is so ungainly and unsightly. And it offends and ends the quintessential aura of open-cockpit F-1 cars. But what I really don’t want to see is drivers getting killed or injured.

A halo would not have saved the lives of Ratzenberger and Bianchi, and it would have had just a 17-percent chance of deflecting the suspension piece that struck Senna. It is designed to fend off large items like tires and body parts rather than small things.

But the halo can save lives. It would have saved the lives of Greg Moore and Justin Wilson. The FIA works closely with IndyCar on safety matters for both series.

Where the halo will really be effective will be in cockpit-to-car and cockpit-to-barrier accidents. The FIA showed the drivers and the media photos of numerous close calls of just those types of accidents where the driver has escaped injury by a matter of inches.

We might as well get used to the halo because the FIA plans to eventually have similar setups in all its open-wheel series. I just wish there was a better solution, aesthetically, for getting the job done.