A look a the real risks of Formula One driving

Ross Gibson

Formula 1 racing is a sport that has been continuously evolving over the nearly seven decades since its inception.

In the early years most of the technological advancements were all about making the cars go faster. Nowadays safety is the primary concern, but also without detracting from the excitement, and the cars and equipment make the sport safer than ever before.

The real safety revolution has taken place over the years since both Roland Ratzenburger and the legendary Ayrton Senna died at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, one in qualifying and the other in the race. After that there were no fatalities in a Grand Prix for twenty years until Jules Bianchi who passed away nine months after receiving severe head injuries at the end of the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

However, put twenty cars on a racing circuit at speeds of up to more than 200mph and there will be accidents, and the risk of death is ever present. There are plenty of spectacular crashes, most of which, to the layman, the drivers almost miraculously walk away from. But many injuries are sustained.


Driver Fitness

F1 drivers are among the fittest athletes in any sport, and they have to be because they experience incredible forces on their bodies throughout a race. The latest car designs have greater downforce creating a G-force of more than 6G through the fastest corners. That is like adding an extra 25kg of pressure on their neck, more when you add the exponential weight increase of the helmet.

In training the drivers use various pieces of specially designed equipment which pull the head forwards, backwards and side to side simulating the movement in the car. Resisting the forces builds up the strength of the neck.

Despite having power steering, guiding the car on the track for around two hours under race conditions puts great strain on the arms, wrists, shoulders and core muscles. Also, the legs are worked constantly, especially the braking leg which needs to create 80kg of pressure down on the pedal, and that really gives the calf muscle a workout.

The heart rate of an F1 driver during a race can be around 160 beats per minute and sometimes peaking at more than 200bpm. The rate of a normal, fit, young man would be around 60bpm. It also gets incredibly hot in the cockpit and a driver can lose up to 3kg in weight through sweating.

To build stamina and endurance the drivers use a variety of training techniques including running, cycling and weights but, while building core strength, they have to be careful not to put on too much bulk which might impede them in the cockpit.

F1 Driver Injuries

Just the actions of driving a F1 car, especially on a track with lots of sharp turns, can cause overuse injuries from fighting the wheel. There can be damage to the hands, wrists and elbows.

When things do go wrong on a racetrack at speed, the consequences can be catastrophic because the forces involved when there is an impact are huge. Parts of the car are designed to absorb impact and the monocoque cockpit gives great protection to the driver.

In a frontal impact there is the risk of serious injuries to the arms and legs and, in a severe crash, to the spine and neck. One of the worst injury risks is head trauma which, despite the protection of the cockpit and the driver’s helmet, can occur due to the severe shaking of the brain within the skull. This can cause concussion and other brain injuries which can have life changing consequences.

Because of the open cockpit design of the cars, drivers are also vulnerable to being hit by debris from the track. One such notorious incident happened to Felipe Massa in 2009 when a spring came off another car and impacted his helmet at around 170mph. He suffered a fractured skull and almost lost the sight in his left eye. He was lucky to survive.

Another big fear after a crash is the car catching fire, something which fortunately occurs less frequently these days. There are many safeguards built into the cars to protect the driver, but the thought of being trapped in flames in a confined space must concern the drivers.

Safety Measures

To combat the risk of fire the cars have an extinguishing system which can be operated by the driver or by a switch on the outside of the car. This will operate even if the electrics fail. There is also a switch in the cockpit to cut the electric circuit.

The drivers wear lightweight fire-resistant race suits which have to be able withstand a temperature of 800 degrees Celsius for a minimum of eleven seconds without the inside exceeding forty-one degrees. Even the zips and sewing threads have to meet that standard.

In the event that the driver can’t get themselves out of the car, the seat has to be able to be removed with the driver in situ with his seatbelts on. To help with lifting them out the race suit must have straps on the shoulders which act as handles. These must be able to take the combined weight of the driver and the seat.

The cockpit of the car has to have special padding to protect the driver’s head to the sides and rear. Also, extra padding has to be installed above and to the sides of the legs to minimise the risk of leg injuries in a crash.

The driver’s helmet is extremely light to reduce the pressure on the neck and exceptionally strong to resist being penetrated by an impact. The helmet is also aerodynamically designed to reduce drag.