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
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The Independent Online

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.