Is Safety Killing Formula One?

The HANS device has saved many drivers over the past 20 years.
The HANS device has saved many drivers over the past 20 years.

As I checked the weather on race-day morning for the Monaco grand prix, one expectation quickly grabbed its predecessor by the throat and left it for dead – rain on the slippery streets may not be quite as exciting as I first thought.

Welcome to F1, deep into the second decade of the 21st century. I hereby join Jacques Villeneuve in declaring that it was “ridiculous” to invite the safety car to lead the sport’s most prestigious race for the opening 7 laps, just because of a sprinkle of rain. Not just that, a F1 so obsessed with safety had deprived the entire world of that slippery roar of 22 cars and drivers nervously planting their feet on the throttle on a perilous sprint to the first corner.

Today, safety must prevail.

The problem for F1 is an unfortunate combination of two facts: firstly, it is the most prominent of all the classes of international motor sport. And secondly, it takes part in an environment that is able to be strictly controlled. Combined, those facts are killing grand prix racing.

With every technological discovery, F1 becomes safer. HANS devices, crash testing, SAFER barriers, you name it. Now, all of this would be no problem if it didn’t actually interfere with the very reasons people tune in.

Take MotoGP as an example. Tragically, a second-tier Moto2 rider died at the weekend after slamming into the wall after rounding the awesome flat-out right-handers that used to complete F1’s lap in Barcelona. The top motorcycling category reverted to the new, sanitised F1 layout for the rest of the weekend.

The FIA has decided on Ferrari's version of the HALO cockpit protection device.
The FIA has decided on Ferrari’s version of the HALO cockpit protection device.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t ruin MotoGP. The pint-sized athletes who risk life and limb with every squeeze of the throttle will have that challenge no matter what safety features are introduced. Inflatable ‘air bag’ suits, better barriers, you name it, MotoGP will embrace it and yet we are still left to declare before our TV sets: “My God. I wouldn’t do that.”

Now, be honest. Twenty years ago, you may have watched a Formula 1 race and said the very same thing. Would you still say it today?

That’s the problem for F1. With every safety advance, like ‘halo’ cockpit protection next year, we are leaving our heroes looking more and more like weaklings. Like lucky boy-millionaires. What we need is for the audience to relate to the life-or-death uncertainty that today’s F1 drivers feel before they climb into their machines on a Sunday morning. But we can’t relate if the drivers themselves aren’t feeling it.

Take another extreme example – the Isle of Man TT. Sadly, two riders have died in the opening proceedings of the 2016 edition of what in essence is a ridiculous human pursuit. You don’t need me to explain why — just look it up on Youtube and watch it. I don’t even need to assume that you’ll be saying ‘My God!’ within 10 seconds. It’s insane.

But where is that sort of death-defying challenge for the best open-wheel drivers on earth? It SHOULD be F1. It’s just not. Not anymore.

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