David Tremayne published The Science of Safety: The Battle Against Unacceptable Risk in Motor Racing just six years after the weekend that claimed the lives of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. During that era, both the sport and the world at large had begun to ask what, exactly, Formula One had done throughout its history to make the sport safer and how they could continue that legacy in the future.
Tremayne walks a fine narrative line here in his interpretation of safety’s advancements. He’s of that era where drivers of the past were referred to as gladiators pursuing glory, and he also feels that those eras presented a frankly unacceptable amount of risk — but he also argues that there’s too little risk nowadays. It’s a mindset plenty of people still hold: safety is a good thing, but drivers should also have to navigate a certain amount of risk to make the racing all the more exciting.
It’s a mindset that influences Tremayne’s word choice as he walks readers through the years. Much of the book is dedicated to detailing the science of accidents and the technology of the cars, alongside how drivers, teams, and series personnel came to understand the way changes in on-track conditions impacted driver safety. So, the author highlights the ways that, say, a team realized the car needed to be stronger but also the delay in understanding that a highly rigid car doesn’t do much to dissipate the crash impact and actually causes further injury to the driver inside. He shows how growing speed resulted in improved race tracks — but also how ineffective those changes could be.
One of the most interesting things in the book, though, is how Tremayne writes about the evolution of drivers’ mindsets. In the immediate postwar era out of which F1 grew, there was a sense that asking for safety changes was futile; here was a generation of men likely returning from war with a deeply changed concept of loyalty and requests for change. If a circuit owner said the track was fine for competition, then drivers would race it. There would be no questions.
Things started to change as the 1960s proceeded, when that former era of driver had either retired or died and when a new era of driver wasn’t quite willing to accept rampant death in exchange for race wins.
Jim Clark’s death in 1968 was one of the first turning points in F1's history where those attitudes rapidly changed. Tremayne notes that the revolution was largely internal; because F1 wasn’t broadcast on television, it wasn’t quite the cultural touchstone it became during the 1980s and 90s. So, when Clark died, the world at large remained oblivious, but the small circle of drivers were shocked. Clark, an impeccably careful driver, had seemed invincible. If he could die, then anyone could die.
That inspired BRM team chairman Louis Stanley to begin requesting his drivers make subtle changes to protect themselves. Wear seatbelts. Adopt full-face helmets. One of those drivers, Jackie Stewart, carried that safety-conscious mindset into the early 1970s, at which point the torch was carried by several drivers and the focus of improvement was aimed more at race circuits.
Senna’s death in the 1990s was different. F1 tracks were fairly safe at that point, and cars had seemed pretty invincible. But it was at this point that people began to consider the driver in all of this, to realize that there were subtle dangers that could influence him. When Senna was killed, he didn’t look outwardly injured; that was another Clark-like moment of shock, but this time, it happened on an international stage.
Tremayne doesn’t have the benefit of 20 following years of analysis to understand how post-Senna changes have worked, but his optimism is frequently tempered by concern that things would become too safe. This was before the HANS device was fully mandated and before head injuries had been seriously investigated. It was before F1 went two decades without a driver death.
I wonder how he would consider F1's success with that in mind. But as it stands, The Science of Safety is a great history of what it has taken to transform F1 from an extremely dangerous sport to one where drivers can have careers that have lasted longer than some of the previous drivers had lived.