I was reading the May edition of Motorsport magazine, which was the 60th F1 World Championship anniversary edition. It included a quote from Jackie Stewart, “Keep in mind the statistics at the time, between ’68 and ’73 for example, provided a driver like myself with a one-in-three chance of living and a two-in-three chance of being killed.” I have heard and read statistics for that period of that shocking nature before, and wondered how they calculated them, and how accurate the figures were. Thus this quote has persuaded me to do my own analysis.
The first thing is to compile a list of drivers that were regular competitors in Formula One from 1968 to 1973. I have excluded, for example, Jack Brabham and John Surtees as both retired before the end of this period. I have also excluded Jo Schlesser, killed in the early laps of the wet 1968 French GP in the experimental air-cooled Honda, as he was not a regular F1 driver, his only earlier starts being in the F2 class in ’66 and ’67 at the German GPs at the Nürburgring. Drivers that joined anything but soon after the start of ’68 have also not been included. This leaves me with a list of eighteen drivers who either competed throughout these six years, or might have if not killed or injured.
Jim Clark Clark was killed in a wet F2 race at Hockenheim on the 7th April, 1968. He had already won the opening GP in South Africa plus the last two of the 1967 season with Lotus.
Jochen Rindt Austrian, Rindt had won five rounds with Lotus-Ford in the 1970 World Championship when he was killed in practice for the Italian GP on the 5th September, 1970. The 45 points this gave him, despite missing the last four events, were still enough to win the title, making him F1’s only posthumous champion.
Mike Spence After Clark’s death in April, Spence took over his Lotus for the Indianapolis 500. The Englishman was killed when he took a team-mate’s car out for a few shakedown laps, losing control and hitting the wall. He died a few days later on the 7th May, 1968.
Jackie Ickx Ickx raced in F1 from 1967 to 1979 with eight wins and 2nd in the title-chase in ’69 and ’70. He retired from sportscar racing in 1985 having won six times at Le Mans. His worst accident was in an Ensign in the 1976 USA GP when he hurt his ankles and legs.
Chris Amon The New Zealand driver famed in F1 history for how many times he led WC races only for something to go wrong, drove in F1 from 1963 to 1976.
Graham Hill Norman Graham Hill drove in F1 from 1958 to 1975. A very bad crash at the 1969 USA GP in a Lotus-Ford mangled his legs, such that his return to F1 was an amazing achievement, but he was never to return to full competitiveness. He died in November, 1975, crashing the plane he was attempting to land in foggy conditions.
Jo Siffert Siffert was killed on the 24th October, 1971, in the last non-Championship F1 race of the year, the Rothmans Victory Race at Brands Hatch. His front suspension was damaged in a first lap incident and later failed, throwing his car into a bank. The Swiss driver was trapped in the wreckage and asphyxiated from the fire. This lead to on-board fire extinguishers becoming mandatory, as well as an emergency piped-air supply for drivers.
Bruce McLaren Killed on the 2nd June, 1970, testing a McLaren Can-Am car at Goodwood. The New Zealander’s last F1 WC win, at the 1968 Belgium GP, was the first F1 WC victory for a McLaren car.
Jo Bonnier The Swedish driver was killed driving a yellow Lola in the 1972 Le Mans 24 Hours on the 11th June.
Jackie Stewart Stewart drove in 99 F1 WC races, from 1965 to 1973, winning 27 rounds and three titles. He withdrew from his last event, the USA GP, after the death of his Tyrrell team-mate, François Cevert (not included in this list as his F1 career began in 1970). In the 1966 Belgium GP, a first lap crash saw him trapped in his car soaked in fuel, after which he became an outspoken safety campaigner.
Denny Hulme He raced in F1 from 1965 to 1974. In 1970, his team-mate, friend and fellow Kiwi, Bruce McLaren, was killed, and Hulme had his hands and feet badly burned after an accident in practice for the Indianapolis 500. Subsequently, he toned down his aggressive approach unless victory was in the offing. He took to Australian touring cars in the 1980s, suffering a heart attack during the 1992 Bathurst 1000. Denny was able to pull the car over but died before reaching hospital.
Chris Irwin In May of 1968, London-born driver, Irwin, lost control of the unpredictable Ford P68 sports prototype avoiding a hare in practice for the 1000km Nürburgring. He suffered horrific head injuries and never drove again. He was disfigured and lost his memory of his family life before the accident. Chris broke up with his wife, disappearing from his family and any racing connections, only re-emerging slightly in recent years. Irwin made an appearance at Thruxton’s 40th anniversary celebrations in April 2008, giving a short interview to Motorsport magazine.
Ludovico Scarfiotti The Italian had been driving in F1 since 1963. Scarfiotti was killed on the 8th of June, 1968, at a hillclimb event in the German Alps.
Jean-Pierre Beltoise This Paris-born driver won eleven national motorcycle titles before his F1 career from 1966 to 1974. Beltoise then raced in French touring cars until the ‘eighties. He still ice-races. He had a horrible crash at the 1964 Reims 12-hour race, breaking his arms and legs in sixteen places, with the result that movement in one of his arms was thereafter restricted.
Pedro Rodríguez One of two racing brothers, Ricardo was killed in the non-championship 1962 Mexican GP. Pedro died in an Interserie sportscar race at the Norisring, Germany, on 11 July 1971, driving a Ferrari.
Piers Courage Eton-educated Courage lost his life on the 21st June, 1970, at the wheel of a Frank Williams-entered De Tomaso, crashing in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort. With magnesium parts, the car burned so fiercely that nearby trees were incinerated but his death was probably due to being hit by a wheel during the impact.
Jackie Oliver Jackie drove in F1 from 1967 to 1973 and in 1977. He won Le Mans and the Can-Am championship, but is probably best known for running the Arrows team for many years.
Lucien Bianchi The Belgium had driven in F1, 1959 to 1965, returning with a regular drive for most races in 1968 with Cooper. He had a fatal accident in an Alfa Romeo in testing for Le Mans in March, 1969.
Others that were occasional F1 drivers or became regulars during this period were also killed. Schlesser’s death on 7th July, 1968, has already been mentioned. Moisés Solana competed in six Mexico GPs and two USA GPs from 1963 to 1968, dieing in July, 1969, in a hill-climb. Italian, Ignazio Giunti did four races for Ferrari in 1970, driving a Maranello machine when cut down in January, 1971, in the 1000 km Buenos Aires. Roger Williamson was killed at Zandvoort in July, 1973, in only the Brit’s second GP for March. Cervert was killed at Watkins Glen at the last round of ’73.
This all amounts to a depressing catalogue of death and injury. Oddly, no one on the list survived the period in question to be killed in a racing-car accident later. Out of eighteen drivers, ten died in accidents, and Irwin had such a bad crash he never raced again, whilst Hill was never fully competitive again. Not quite a two-thirds fatality rate but most drivers would have raced for more than six years, so it stands as a representative figure (not driving for Lotus improved the odds). Of course, not all the tragedies were in F1-cars, but in those days racing in other disciplines was part of the career plan, and probably the contract. Three on the list died in F1 cars in this period, plus three not on the list. The worst spell was April to July, 1968, when Clark, Spence, Scarfiotti, and Schlesser were lost, as well as Irwin’s terrible smash. McLaren and Courage both lost their lives in June, 1970.
Certainly, this was one of Formula One’s most dangerous times, as was ’57 to ’60. For 1961 to 1965, F1 engines were lower powered 1·5 litre capacity, and many teams struggled to find suitable three-litre units in ’66 and ’67 before the Ford Cosworth DFV became available to all. Nine drivers were killed in F1-related accidents 1974 to 1982, which averages out at one a year, so safety improvements were pegging the increases in speed. The introduction of carbon-fibre and safety improvements after 1982, when Gilles Villeneuve and Riccardo Paletti were killed as well as Didier Pironi suffering career-ending leg-injuries, made a big difference. Subsequently, Elio de Angelis’s demise, testing for Brabham in ’86, was the only fatality until the fateful weekend in May 1994, when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died at Imola. That was sixteen years ago and safety has improved much since then, but the death of Henry Surtees in F2, and Felipe Massa’s near-miss last year in Hungary, show us the next driver-fatality is only a matter of time and bad luck.
Huge credit must go to Jackie Stewart for campaigning for an end to often senseless and avoidable deaths in a time when many criticised him thinking danger was part of the show, and that no one was forcing drivers to drive. It took bravery to race, and it took bravery to speak out even if called a coward. Much as it pains me to admit it, Max Mosley did much to improve safety, but only after the deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna, followed by Wendlinger’s life-threatening crash at Monaco a fortnight later, made the issue so obvious. The question is has safety gone too far? I certainly do not want F1 returned to a blood-sport but the acres of run-off we see today are too forgiving. It is good to see races like Monaco or Suzuka where drivers making mistakes result in a damaged or stranded car, not just a quick detour over a car-park’s worth of asphalt. Jacques Villeneuve was castigated for complaining about the over-reaction to Olivier Panis breaking his legs at Montreal in 1997, pointing out people break their legs skiing. (Panis was asked about this when he became Villeneuve’s team-mate at BAR and pointed out that when he was in hospital, the only driver to phone him to ask how he was doing was Villeneuve.)
The incident that enraged me was that after Kubica’s violent Canada crash in 2007, he traveled two weeks later to Indianapolis, was medically examined, given the all-clear, and he was still told that he could not race! Why the hell did they have him go all that way to be examined if however well he seemed, he was still not to be excluded? Surely, the logical extension of being that precautionary is no one races? Even if it makes me sound like an old fart, I do not want F1 drivers, or any adult, subjected to that level of nannying.
In short, I think Formula One should be a little bit dangerous. Drivers should not risk their lives going flat-out through a turn anyone in the field can do without lifting, but the calendar should feature a few challenging corners that thrill drivers and viewers, like Eau Rouge used to. I very much approve of the water-filled barriers at Singapore that greatly reduce the impact of a crash, but still punish drivers for mistakes, and allow spectators to be closer to the action. (For years they used tyre-barriers as old tyres were cheap and plentiful. Last century, they did a study to find something better, and discovered tyres were about as good as anything else they could think of.) I dread how sterile safety in Formula One might become if the next terrible accident is seen by millions. Think of the children watching!