On one dreadful weekend in 1994, at the historic Imola racetrack in Italy, Formula One legend Ayrton Senna and rookie Roland Ratzenberger lost their lives. Less than two years later, at the start of Australian Grand Prix, Martin Brundle’s Jordan-Peugeot hit another car, was launched into the air, tumbled repeatedly and was rendered a misshapen, grotesque wreck.
Brundle not only walked away from the accident, he restarted the race in the team’s spare car less than a half hour later.
As of this writing, Senna and Ratezenberger are the last drivers to die behind the wheel of Formula One racecars. And it had been eight years before that since a driver was killed – Elio de Angelis’ testing crash in 1986. Considering what the sport of Formula One actually involves, its safety record is actually quite remarkable.
It certainly wasn’t always this way. In 1, a thrilling documentary about Grand Prix racing in the sixties and seventies, three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart tells of losing a fellow driver almost every weekend. He cut his own career a race short when his dashing protege, Francois Cevert, was killed at the end of the 1973 season, and became a tireless advocate for F1 safety.
The names are legendary: Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Jochen Rindt, Peter Revson, Ronnie Peterson. All legendary, beloved heroes who pushed their primitive cars to the absolute limit – and all killed doing what they loved. (Rindt, in 1970, became the sport’s only posthumous champion.) For an F1 fan in 2013, it is absolutely shocking to see just how little attention was paid to driver safety in the old days.
Never mind the impact-absorbing tire walls that line F1 circuits today – there weren’t even steel barriers. Firefighters and emergency personnel were sparse, and even when they did show up at the scene of a crash, total chaos and confusion reigned. At the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, promising Briton Roger Williamson was left to burn to death while track marshals – none of them wearing fire-resistant clothing – looked on.
The tipping point may have come at Monza in 1978, when the newly hired Dr. Sid Watkins – a top neurosurgeon drafted into becoming chief medical officer of Formula One – was actually kept away from Ronnie Peterson’s shattered Lotus. His teammate, Mario Andretti, mournfully speculates that the popular Swede would be sitting next to him today had more modern safety measures been in place.
For all the horrors they witnessed and the friends they lost, though, not one F1 driver interviewed from the period regrets doing what they did. Indeed, 1 suggests that the danger added to the camaraderie amongst the drivers, many of whom were so close that their families vacationed together. Their wives and girlfriends even started the “doghouse club,” named for where their speed-obsessed significant others metaphorically spent their time.
Other changes were coming. Gold Leaf tobacco started advertising on Lotus F1 cars in 1969, opening the floodgates for today’s mobile billboards. Around that time, Lotus also pioneered the use of wings and other aerodynamic aids – initially so flimsy that they flew off the cars at top speed, but before long every team was using them. (Even Enzo Ferrari, who sneered that “aerodynamics are for people who don’t know how to build engines,” succumbed.)
And, of course, massive improvements in safety were implemented, which turned out to be good for the sport’s financial health as well as that of the drivers. For many people, it’s easier to get attached to F1 when they know their favorite drivers won’t be lost. Forty years ago, race promoters were paying TV networks to show Grands Prix; today, thanks in no small part of the shrewd business dealings of former Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone, it’s a commercial juggernaut.
1 is not a perfect documentary – its timeline skips years ahead and then backward again, which may cause some confusion for viewers who aren’t familiar with the sport’s rich history. And as a Canadian I think the snubbing of Gilles Villeneuve – one of the most exciting and beloved drivers of the late 1970s – is inexcusable. (His fatal crash in 1982 is mentioned only in passing, and his crowd-pleasing driving style ignored altogether.)
The classic race footage is astonishing, however. (It’s particularly enjoyable to hear the great Murray Walker providing commentary as far back as the 1960s.) And the dozens of former drivers, team personnel, and drivers’ family members give real insight into what kind of person takes on a sport like this.
Formula One racing seems to be making some inroads into the American market, with a new purpose-built circuit in Austin, Texas, and Ron Howard’s Rush – about the rivalry between mid-70s legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt – currently in theatres. If Rush whets your appetite for more about those dangerous and exciting years of Grand Prix racing, 1 – now available on iTunes and on-demand services – is worth watching.