On the Saturday evening of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend, the official formula one surgeon, Sid Watkins, was struck by the thought that the sport had reached a historic watershed.

Roland Ratzenberger had been killed in qualifying practice that day and Rubens Barrichello had been in a serious accident the previous day.

“I felt that, with the sociological changes widely occurring in the world, expectations had so altered that the old panache of formula one was close to being no longer acceptable,” Watkins wrote in his book Life at the Limit.

The next day, three-time world champion Ayrton Senna was killed during the race and Watkins’ intuition proved to be eerily accurate.

There had not been a fatality at a grand prix meeting for 12 years before Imola’s black weekend, since Gilles Villeneuve died in Belgium in 1982, so it was hardly surprising that a false sense of security had settled over the paddock. No one would have been foolish enough to declare the sport “safe” but there was no comparison with earlier decades when drivers perished in droves.

“I started in formula one with the March team in 1970,” recalls Max Mosley, now president of the FIA, the sport’s governing body. “If you made a list of all the F1 drivers who’d won a race, one-third of them were racing, one-third had been killed racing and one-third had retired, so it was more or less 50-50 whether you could retire.

“The first formula two race I ever did there were 21 cars on the grid in April. By July three drivers were dead. The odds were like being in a front-line regiment in Vietnam or something. I remember thinking if I ever get to any position of power in motor racing, I’ll do something about this.”

The decade since Senna’s death has duly resulted in a comprehensive upgrading of safety measures for both drivers and spectators. Drivers enjoy vastly improved protection and are wedged securely inside a super-toughened survival cell.

Mika Hakkinen’s near-fatal crash in Adelaide in 1995 speeded up the introduction of a new foam headrest, while the recently introduced “driver head-and-neck support device” offers extra protection against skull and spine injuries.

Meanwhile, spectators, who, in the old days, might have been separated from howling cars by a few straw bales or a wooden fence, now sit in stands designed to be at minimal risk from flying wheels or bodywork. New circuits such as Bahrain and Shanghai, which will host their debut grand prix races this year, have been built to the highest safety specifications.

“Motor sport, particularly formula one, is much safer because of Senna’s death,” said the former driver turned ITV commentator Martin Brundle.

“The cars are a lot safer now even than when I had a big accident in Australia in 1996. And when I look at the car I drove in the mid-80s, I wouldn’t feel safe walking past it now, let alone driving it.”

Brian O’Rourke, chief composites engineer at BMW Williams and a man who spends much time juggling the often conflicting demands of chassis weight and driver safety, said: “I recall people telling me that after World War II, when they began racing at places like Goodwood, some drivers were horrified there were straw bales around the circuit.

“That was taking away the danger element. But what we do know is that, when accidents happen, suddenly everybody is very interested in safety.”

Of course, it is not only in safety terms that the sport has been transformed.

Senna himself would surely be flabbergasted by the amounts of cash swilling around nowadays, not only from corporate sponsors but increasingly from governments keen to buy into the glamour and prestige a grand prix can bring,.

Yet amid this international expansion, there is also the sense that something significant has been lost from the sport.

“We’ve lost passion in F1,” said the former McLaren driver John Watson. “I think we have a politically correct F1 now, which I do understand, but at the same time we need to develop the personality and characters that to some degree have disappeared.”

Inside the air-conditioned motor homes, though, one wonders if there is the same concern. Is not formula one cruising in a comfort zone, with paddock principals becoming as complacent about the risks of serious injury as they are about the shows they put on?

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Mosley. “You cannot race cars at speeds in excess of 200 mph (320 km/h) in complete safety.

“All we can do is make it as safe as possible. I think all the insiders realise it is a very dangerous sport and we can have a fatal accident at any moment.”

source: © Guardian