The 2021 Italian Grand Prix was one of the most exciting races in the Formula 1 calendar. Apart from McLaren scoring their first victory after nine years, it also showed how far F1 cars have come in terms of safety. Aside from AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly relatively subtle crash on the opening lap, the most serious incident was the scrap between Red Bull's Max Verstappen and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton going into the first corner.
If you weren't able to watch the race, Verstappen hit the Mercedes going into the corner, and the Red Bull ended up being on top of Hamilton. One of the wheels could even be seen hitting Hamilton's helmet. If it weren't for the halo system that was implemented in the 2018 season, the outcome might have been very different. Worst case, the 7-time world champion might not have been able to walk away from the crash as he did.
Following the death of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the FIA worked to greatly improve Formula 1's safety standard. Since then, the only driver to have lost their life due to injuries sustained on the track was Jules Bianchi, who collided with a recovery vehicle at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. The incident led to the FIA implementing the Halo system, which is now standard in F1, F2, F3, and other series, in 2018.
Aside from the Halo, what are the other safety measures and systems Formula 1 has enforced over the years to keep drivers safe? We'll give you a quick rundown below.
Helmets and Fire-resistant race suits
Aside from the cars, the drivers themselves need to be protected by wearing the proper safety gear. Today, wearing a helmet and fire-resistant race suits may be a no-brainer. But back in the early days of F1, not everyone wore them during a Grand Prix weekend. Imagine if Hamilton wasn't wearing a helmet when Verstappen's Red Bull went over his head. Even with the Halo, the tire would have crushed his head.
The FIA has constantly updated the safety requirements for helmets and fire-resistant suits. Today, helmets are often made of carbon fiber to save weight, withstand high impacts, and be fire-resistant. Meanwhile, modern race suits are now made from Nomex, a material capable of withstanding high temperatures in case a fire breaks out.
Possibly the best example of a helmet saving a driver's life was in 2009 when Felipe Massa suffered a freak accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix. A suspension spring had fallen from another car and struck Massa's helmet. While the helmet did protect him, he still suffered from serious injuries.
As early as the 1980s, Formula 1 already implemented regulations for teams to create a survival cell where the driver is seated. Effectively, it's designed to be indestructible and absorb huge amounts of energy during a crash. Over the years, the survival cell has been updated to withstand the most powerful crashes and collisions. It is the last line of defense between the driver and the track, after all.
Today, the survival cell is often made of strong carbon fiber composite along with layers of other materials. These are also thoroughly tested before the FIA and Formula 1 deem them to be safe to race in.
Possibly the best and most recent example of the survival cell would be Romain Grosjean's crash in Bahrain last year. It showed how safe cars are today. Without it, we may have lost another driver in the previous season. Considering Grosjean's monocoque was split in half, expect the FIA to implement new changes to make cars even safer in 2022.
Wheel tethers do exactly as what their name implies, keep the wheel tethered onto an F1 car. It was introduced in the late 90s to prevent wheels from flying off the track in the case of an accident. A wheel flying off could not only injure and cause other drivers to crash, but it could also hit marshalls. Before their introduction, wheels flying off during a crash have caused the death of marshalls and even drivers alike.
The FIA and Formula 1 have since upgraded the number of wheel tethers in F1 cars since it was introduced. Today, there are at least three tethers attached to the wheels to further prevent them from being detached in the event of a crash.
If you're someone who actively watches or even participates in motorsport events, you'll probably have heard about or have used a HANS device. For those unfamiliar, HANS is an acronym for Head and Neck Support. It's the horseshoe-shaped collar that sits on the shoulder of the driver underneath the seat belt and is connected to the helmet.
As the name implies, the system prevents fatal head and neck injuries caused by whiplash during an accident. Specifically, it helps stabilize the driver's head, keeping it in place. Aside from stabilizing the head, the device prevents the vertebrae from stretching which can possibly lead to neck-snapping-related injuries in the event of a crash.
The HANS device was is in development as early as the late 1980s, but it was only implemented in Formula 1 in 2003. It's one of the main safety features why F1 drivers can walk away from high-speed crashes on their own.
Possibly the most controversial safety system introduced into Formula 1 was the Halo. According to some, it made beautiful race cars look like slippers due to the Halo's design. Others argued that the system obscured the visibility of drivers. However, it has proven to be one of the most effective systems in protecting drivers.
It has protected numerous drivers since it was introduced in 2018. The Halo has prevented drivers from being crushed when another car lands on top of another. Subsequently, it serves as extra protection along with the roll hoop in the event of a rollover. It also stops or deflects large debris from entering the cockpit and striking the driver. Without it, Grosjean might have been decapitated by the barrier at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. At Monza, Hamilton may have suffered far worse injuries.
If the Halo had been implemented earlier on, it might have saved the life of Bianchi and possibly the injuries Massa experienced. It may not be the best-looking system, but it works.
Formula 1 and the FIA have gone to great lengths to make the sport safer over the years. Some say all the safety improvements have made F1 racing boring. While that may be true to an extent, it does keep the drivers alive in the event of an accident. And at the end of the day, isn't that what's important? The last thing any automotive journalist wants to write about is Formula 1 driver passing away due to a crash.