Will Hawkes: You may think F1 has got deadly dull. Once it was just deadly

View From The Sofa: Grand Prix: The Killing Years, BBC4

Boredom is much underrated. That might be hard to accept, reading this, but consider for a moment the world of Formula One. You often hear people opine – I may have said it myself on occasion – that since this most glitzy of all car-based action became "too" safe, the racing has lost something. Well, F1 certainly can be dull: the chief attraction of any year's Monaco Grand Prix is the glimpse of Mediterranean sun it brings.

But given what F1 was like before safety became a consideration, perhaps boredom is not such a bad thing. As the subtly named Grand Prix: The Killing Years made clear, death was a weekly occurrence in F1 in the 1960s. Take the Italian GP in 1961, when the aristocratic German Wolfgang von Trips and a dozen fans died when his car flipped into the crowd. Remarkably – by modern standards – the race was completed.

Nor was any effort made to improve safety afterwards. If anything, things got worse with the arrival of what Enzo Ferrari disparagingly called the "garagistes": British teams, led by Colin Chapman's Lotus, that operated out of tiny workshops (garages) but who beat the traditional big guns of F1 with innovation and derring-do.

Unfortunately, the programme suggested, they also made F1 less safe by making the cars' chassis lighter and more fragile. "To survive in that period of time was not a question of talent," said French driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise. "It was a question of pure luck."

The grim statistics bear him out. Every season a handful of drivers would perish, and it is remarkable that more did not. Cars were death traps, there were races on tracks where drivers would push up to 200mph in forest with no crash barriers. As Jim Clark's mechanic Dave "Beaky" Sims, put it: "Were the drivers expendable? Nearly."

The turning point came at Belgium's Spa Francorchamps, the F1 nerd's track of choice, in 1966. Torrential rain made this most testing of circuits almost impossible to navigate: Jackie Stewart crashed off at the fourth corner and his car turned over. The Scotsman flitted in and out of consciousness for half an hour as he struggled to escape from his car in the knowledge that it could go up in flames at any time. Once he was out, he noticed cigarette butts lying all around his stretcher. On the way to the hospital, the police bike leading the way lost the ambulance, whose driver didn't know which way to go.

Stewart began a campaign for better safety but not before more deaths, including that of the great Clark, in 1968. "So many people died that year," said Nina Rindt, wife of the Austrian driver Jochen. "We felt like we were going from one funeral to the next."

But track owners did not want to invest in barriers and other safety equipment, so the drivers decided to boycott big races. Things began to change, particularly after Rindt himself became the first posthumous world champion in 1970. His heavily tranquilised wife picked up the trophy.

The arrival of sponsors proved decisive: understandably, they did not want viewers associating their products with dead young men. 1976 was the first season with no fatalities. It had taken deaths and Stewart's refusal to take no for an answer, but F1 had become far safer. Also duller, perhaps. But the drivers competing in Malaysia next Sunday will get over that.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home