When we look back on the history of Formula One, it’s quite obvious that the 1970s stand out as pivotal in countless ways: technology, race organization, driver preparedness, and more. But today, I want to focus on one of the big ones. Safety.
The 1970s has always been one of my favorite eras in F1 for countless reasons, but that balance between acceptable danger and safety has always been one of the more fascinating elements for me. And after spending some time fully entrenched in the era for The RACEWKND’s 1970s issue and wrapping up The Science of Safety by David Tremayne, I feel like I have a few ideas.
Most importantly, the 1970s signaled the introduction of a new era in both the world and in racing. Both Tremayne and George Copeland in 50 Years of Motorsport Marshalling note that the return to motorsport after World War II was characterized by a pretty blasé attitude toward danger. These were men who had made it through a massively deadly war unscathed and were, in many cases, looking for that same kind of near-death thrill.
Copeland argues that there was an added element simply doing as you were told, something taken from the military service many postwar drivers had served. If a team owner told a driver to race a rickety mess of a car, well, okay. They would. If a race organizer told a marshal he didn’t need anything more than that hay bale to use as protection, then fine. That was just how it was.
But as the 1960s melted into the 70s, many of those postwar drivers were gone. They’d either died or retired. In came a new generation of drivers who were born just before, during, or after WWII. They hadn’t served. They didn’t know much about what life was like before the war. And they began to slowly outnumber the previous generation.
Think of Jackie Stewart, one of the stalwarts of the safety movement. Stewart was born in 1939, which meant he didn’t experience WWII in the same way as a soldier or a fighter pilot. After suffering his own awful crash at Spa-Francorchamps in 1966, where he was rescued by fellow drivers and was tended to at the circuit’s dirty medical facility, Stewart became well attuned to the dangers of racing that he deemed unnecessary. Where the previous generation may not have even noticed it, Stewart couldn’t ignore things like the lack of barriers or safety personnel. And while he wasn’t exactly popular, his campaigning spoke to enough people that things began to change.
That shift coincided with a wealth of other changes. Automotive technology was rapidly advancing, and designers like Colin Chapman were quickly realizing that the aerodynamic principles used on airplanes could be translated to F1. That saw some frankly disastrous tech introductions, like Lotus’ rear wing that saw both Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt suffer a crash. Regulations regarding that technology were usually implemented on a case-by-case basis; no one was really thinking of the future.
But it was becoming clear that F1 would have to start thinking ahead. With the introduction of aero, cars got massively faster, but they were still racing on tracks that had struggled to host their much slower predecessors. The crashes that started taking place were often more brutal, and crashes that drivers may have been able to escape from in a slower era grew fatal.
Those bad crashes may have been easy to ignore in and of themselves, but there were two other big changes that came in full force in the 1970s: sponsorship and television rights.
F1 began allowing teams to pursue individual sponsorships in the late 1960s, which teams like Lotus seized upon immediately. There was a problem, though: sponsors didn’t like their logo branding the cars of dead drivers. And they really didn’t like it when F1 races started hitting television screens in the average person’s home. If regulating bodies weren’t going to require teams to make their cars safer, financial pressures could get the job done. After all, if cars could be engineered to go faster, they could certainly be engineered to be a bit safer.
What Stewart started progressed rapidly toward the end of the decade. The regulating body of F1 had begun to write rules that prioritized safety, such as where teams were allowed to mount things like wings. It introduced Sid Watkins as a traveling doctor for the series, and he became someone with a truly unbiased perspective into the sport, allowing him to advocate for anything that would provide a safer event.
It’s kind of astounding how quickly things changed in the 1970s, something I didn’t fully put together until I was writing that issue of The RACEWKND. Where previously big events would stick out in my mind as important, I never quite pieced them together in the cause-and-effect way I did with that issue. Ultimately, a generational shift paired with an increased understanding of technology and a commercial interest in keeping drivers alive and healthy all meshed together to change motorsport as we know it today.