In the days when a driver’s death was accepted as par for the course, the safety of spectators had a higher priority. Keith Howard reveals how crash barriers found their way into racing.
When Jackie Stewart had his 150mph accident in the BRM at a treacherously wet Spa in 1966, what ensued is barely credible by today’s F1 standards. As he left the track he demolished a couple of walls and part of a house before finally coming to rest in a car that might very easily then have caught fire. As chance would have it a conflagration didn’t ensue despite the fuel pumps continuing to run, and Stewart was lucky to escape with only a broken collar bone, dislocated shoulder and cracked ribs.
The young Scot had already demonstrated his concern with safety issues but the Spa experience must have hardened his resolve that, once he’d bagged his first world championship, he would assume a leading role in improving the safety of both cars and circuits.
Although there were plenty of traditionalists — reactionaries, more like — who considered that unnecessary death was a price worth paying to keep motor racing just the way they liked it, from today’s perspective it’s plain they were wrong and Stewart and Jo Bonnier, the prime movers in advancing the safety cause, were much the more clear-sighted. In his foreword to Karl Ludvigsen’s recent biography of Stewart, Chris Amon wrote: “Had [the safety improvements] not been initiated I believe that Grand Prix racing would not have survived. In hindsight I believe we were treading a very thin line between the acceptance, or not, by modem society of the mortality rates which we were experiencing.” Far from destroying Formula One, Stewart and Bonnier were actually engaged on saving it.
One of the most obvious results of the Grand Prix Drivers Association’s ongoing safety campaign during the late ’60s and ’70s was the increasing installation of crash barriers. When the GPDA advised the organisers of the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix to install barrier all around the Montjuich Park circuit in Barcelona, the princely sum of £25,000 was spent doing so. The investment paid off immediately when the Lotuses of both Hill and Rindt crashed heavily during the race because of rear wing failures.
Jackie Stewart believes that the barriers saved not only the lives of the two drivers but of countless spectators also. The latter is an important point. Many of the drivers of the time — Chris Amon and John Surtees among them — voiced their dislike of the barriers, and with good reason. Cars of that era weren’t strong enough to dissipate the extreme crash energies involved in hitting a rigid barrier at high speed, and many drivers thought they stood a better chance of survival without them. But the barriers were erected principally to protect spectators, not drivers. Stewart and his supporters were canny enough to understand that had there been a Formula One reprise of the carnage at Le Mans in 1955, Chris Amon’s very thin line might have been crossed and F1 racing itself would have perished.
Crash barriers soon began to appear at the most dangerous sections of all the major race circuits. From an early stage, though, the rather tedious term crash barrier was supplanted by the altogether more memorable name of Armco, the US company which manufactured it both in the States and Britain.
Much to the bemusement of Armco staff in the US, where the product was simply termed ‘guard rail’ and there had been little use of the product in a racing context, the name stuck. Retired Armco employee Bill Kinsey, who helped with my research for this piece, recalls seeing a TV programme about Jackie Stewart in which the driver openly referred to Armco, and rushing to tell colleagues the following day that in Europe the company was famous.
To this day the Armco name is widely used still (it regularly pops up on the Murray and Martin show, for instance) despite the fact that Armco withdrew from bather manufacture over a decade ago and didn’t even invent the product — an honour which belongs to the Sheffield Steel Corporation of Kansas, which introduced its Flex-Beam guard rail in 1933, shortly before Armco Inc took the company over.
In the UK, manufacture of the barrier by Armco’s British subsidiary began in 1954. First use of it on the public road occurred soon after, on the A308 at Runnymede near Windsor, where it was installed to prevent errant motorists making unscheduled river excursions on the nearby Thames. The first major installation at a race track took place a few years later when a substantial amount of Armco was erected at Monza along the perimeter of the notorious banking.
Curiously, however, it did not feature as part of Britain’s much-heralded MI motorway when it was opened in 1959. When an enterprising soul at Armco had the temerity to suggest to the Ministry of Transport that its product might have a role to play on Britain’s new high-speed road network, they were rebuffed with the indignant response that the roads had been designed to be safe and so didn’t require such items. Another example of pin-sharp foresight from our political masters.
Essentially the barrier’s design — manufactured today in the UK by Asset International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of old Armco competitor Hill & Smith — has remained the same since Sheffield Steel Corporation introduced it, and been much copied by others. Made of nothing more exotic than mild steel, it is manufactured in two operations, the first punching the bolt holes by which it is mounted and the second pressing it into the familiar W-profile. Small changes to the bather flanges and number of bolt holes were made in the 1950s, and alterations to the mounting arrangements followed, but otherwise the design has stood the test of time. Originally painted, it is now universally galvanised for corrosion protection, giving it a typical service life of 20 years on the public road.
A thriving market exists in used bather, a lot of which finds its way on to smaller racing circuits to save cost, particularly as it is often deployed two or more sections deep. To return to the early years, a cruel irony was that two of the GPDA activists responsible for improving track safety, Bonnier and Rindt, were later to die in accidents involving the new barriers — Bonnier at Le Mans in 1972 and Rindt in that horrible fiasco at Monza two years earlier. But the clarity of their vision is to be seen at every modem race circuit, where crash barrier — Armco, if you insist — is now as accepted a part of the scene as the blacktop itself.