The one big change in safety in the last 75 years, has not to do with helmets or gravel traps but attitudes: from the view that racing was inherently dangerous to that which said that crashes should be survivable.
Back then, narrow tracks and starting grids of four abreast seemed acceptable when acceleration was limited, and it took time to accept that the odd hay-bale was little use against track-side obstacles. Racing, it was argued, was risky, and if it scared you, you shouldn’t do it. At Donington cars continued to race through an arch of a bridge, because it was exciting, and anyone worried about crashing at the Nurburgring was cissy. And that nonsense about the danger making drivers take more care was regularly trotted out. Racers of all eras have needed the ability to close their eyes to risk…
Post-war, airfield circuits allowed more run-off space, but the fear of spoiling famous tracks outweighed the commitment to save lives. It wasn’t until the late ’60s that the theory of progressive deceleration, strong monocoques and safety-belts offered a real safety strategy. Run-off areas, gravel traps and catch-fencing brought cars to a controlled halt, while Armco barrier protected spectators and caused a less destructive glancing impact. Fire, once deadly, has been mitigated by extinguishers, fireproof overalls and oxygen supplies.
Latterly, safety gains have focussed on the car. Carbon-fibre monocoques have saved many drivers, and head restraints are now mandatory in F1. From this year, following Senna’s death, suspension arms are tethered by cable. Innovations continue: John Fitch, one-time GP driver, manufactures ‘soft’ barrier systems, and has designed an advanced driver safety capsule. In safety, progress has not bred complacency.