Motor racing is dangerous. It’s a point that is written on every Grand Prix ticket. Some purists will argue with the ultra high safety standards of the current era that F1 is not the spectacle it once was while Lloyds’ Insurers, who provide insurance packages for Formula One Management, continue to maintain high premiums to cover off the high risk factor of something going wrong.
"I accept every time I get in my car there's 20% chance I could die," exclaims actor Daniel Bruhl, who portrays Niki Lauda in Rush, a new film about F1.
A recent insight by the BBC’s More Or Less programme (podcast available here) questioned the statistics behind the risks of a F1 driver in the 1970s. The study reports that the correct figure, during an era when fatality and serious injury happened at least twice per season, is difficult to pinpoint. Kevin McConway, Professor of Applied Statistics at the Open University, points out that “in the decade preceding 1976 drivers had a 0.35% chance of mortality every time they raced at a Grand Prix weekend”. He then continues to show that the figure rose to 4.4% across a F1 season and increased again if a driver took part at every Grand Prix weekend for five years. In this scenario his chance of death did approach the 20% mark. To give some kind of perspective - the risk to a Formula 1 driver fatality per GP event was equivalent to travelling 1.5 million miles by car today.
The numbers will put it into perspective. A Grand Prix (Sunday Race only) is held over a distance of 305km or thereabouts. Monacois 260km due to the nature of the lower average speeds achieved on the tight and twisty circuit layout. Since Senna’s death in ‘94 a cumulative figure of about 140,610km would have been travelled had a single driver completed every race lap up until the 2013 Singapore GP. Of course no single driver has achieved this total but an average of 14 cars per race per season has completed every lap of a Grand Prix over that 19 year period which totals 1,968,540km. That’s1,223,194 miles without a fatality on circuits with large braking zones and high g-forces which rip the necks of the drivers
If the safest place to be during an event is in the cockpit then what are the risks involved for a mechanic or a spectator? Even with stringent risk management accidents do happen and have happened. Earlier this season a loose wheel during a pit stop hit a cameraman stationed in the Red Bull pit box knocking him to the ground with rib injuries. Although a full recovery was made efforts to reduce pit lane speeds have been put in place to lower the chances of an accident even further.
With the 1.5 million miles by car figure mentioned above some perspective can be given to the tyre event at the German GP. Examining detailed figures from the UK, which has been consistently the top nation in the world in terms of road safety, comparisons can be made. The most recent comparable survey (conducted in 2009) states that there are 3.8 deaths on the road per 100,000 people. Malaysia has a figure of 23.8 per 100,000. The last time a renegade wheel caused injury to pit lane personnel was in 2010. It’s close to 60 races since that incident in which an injury has occurred. In this time there have been a staggering 12,236 tyre changes during 3059 pit stops in race conditions. Using the model for road deaths above we can see a result of 8.17 pit lane injuries per 100,000 tyre changes in F1 or 32.69 pit lane injuries per car stopped. Factor in practice and qualifying session where stops at racing speed take place and the number is almost halved (teams generally practice as many stops during a practice or qualifying session as they would during a race) to 4.8 pit lane injuries per 100,000 tyre changes.
It’s difficult to draw major conclusions from these figures however it can be said that on the road in the safest country with the safest record in road traffic statistics in the world each year about 288.59 injury events will take place. In the pit lane of F1, for every 100,000 pit stops (which would take about 98 years) 32.69 will be injured under current trends.
In a sport where so many are drawn to be on the edge of their seat the FIA are ensuring we’re all strapped in safely.
Ed Valentine has worked for Honda Formula One. He is a former student of Univeristy College Cork and graduated with a BComm (European) Degree in 2010.