Formula 1: Engineering safety at 200mph

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In the 10 years to 1972, there were five crashes for every four Formula 1 Grand Prix events. Accidents were almost three times as common by the turn of the centuryi .

The difference was, no drivers died.

Formula 1 has been, and probably always will be, a dangerous sport. Teams spend hundreds of millions of dollarsii on the best drivers and fastest cars that FIA regulations allow, with cars accelerating faster than space shuttles to top speeds of more than 200mphiii.

But safety has improved since the heady 1970s, when drivers such as James Hunt - whose rivalry with champion Niki Lauda was portrayed in the movie Rush - famously raced hungoveriv.

The Formula 1 safety care was introduced in 1992.

Nine driversv and six spectatorsi died in Formula 1 Grand Prix events between 1970 and 1979, prompting new safety regulations that defined seatbeltsvi, crumple zones and a near-indestructible core called the monocoque.

Consequently, there have been no driver deaths in F1 cars at Grand Prix events since 1994vii.

The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) presides over an evolving set of rules that ensure a minimum standard of safety in Formula 1 and defines the playing field for engineers each year.

FIA rules introduced safety walls in the 1970s, drug tests, crash tests and on-site medical centres in the 1980s, and the Formula 1 safety car in 1992vi.

Cockpits were redesigned in 1971 so drivers could be rescued within five seconds, which, with new fire-resistant clothing, improved their chances of survivalvi. Fire extinguisher regulations were tightenedviii, and to reduce the risk of a fire, the FIA added safety foam to fuel tanks which are within crash- and fire-resistant structures.

This year's race cars and their drivers must together weigh a minimum of 702kg - almost a third more than the 1970 minimum. Heavier cars go slower than lighter ones; the increased weight limit encourages teams to use more protective casing in their carsix, and curbs the practice of having drivers lose weight to gain a competitive edgex.

New materials have improved safety as well as performance, with strong, rigid, lightweight and moldable carbon fibre compositesxi replacing the aluminium alloy of the 70s.xii Modern Formula 1 cars are made almost entirely out of carbon fibrexiii.

The carbon-fibre monocoque, which comprises the cockpit and safety cell, is designed to be as strong as possible, with a 6mm bullet-proof layer to protect drivers from debris, and crash-protection structures that deform to absorb energy in an accidentxiv.

Changes to the Formula 1 rulebook have shifted engineers’ focus to various parts of the car, producing some incredible innovations in the name of speed.

In the 1970s, a majority of teams used a 450-horsepower Ford Cosworth DFV engine so the competition was all about the best driver and the most manoeuvrable carxv. Lotus pioneered aerodynamic ground effects, using side skirts and a contoured underbody to create a downforce that improved traction so drivers could take corners at higher speedsxvi.

Elf Tyrrell took a different approach to improving traction with its six-wheeled P34 in 1976xvii. The FIA effectively put an end to six-wheeled cars and ground effects in 1983, over logistics and safety concernsxviii.

The Elf Tyrrell P34 six wheel F1 car was developed to reduce drag and increase road contact. Source: Tyrrell P34-5 (Mauro Pane) under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Turbocharged engines dominated the late-'70s and '80s, reaching 1400 horsepower by the time the FIA banned turbocharged cars in 1989xix, believing them to be too powerful for existing racetracksxx.

Today's race cars are powered by what the FIA now calls a "Power Unit" instead of an engine, to account for 2014 regulation changes that introduced new, more fuel-efficient hybrid engines. By replacing the former standard 2.4-litre V8 engines with 1.6-litre hybrid V6 engines, the FIA said it was "coming into line with carmakers' everyday production models"xxi.

The FIA's new green focus could be a huge help to mainstream electric cars by sparking the development of new technologies that - like push-button ignition, roll cages, and rear-view mirrorsxxii - have trickled down from the racetrack to everyday passenger vehicles.

iAtlas F1, Safety improvements in F1 since 1963, viewed 17 April 2015,

iiBenson, A. 2014, Formula One: Where does all the money go? , 5 November, viewed 18 April 2015,

iiiTorchinsky, J. 2012, This chart explains why Formula One cars are so damn fast, 14 November, viewed 18 April 2015,

ivScott, C. 2010, Recalling James Hunt, champion of a different era, 21 November, viewed 18 April 2015,

vBarnes, H. 2013, Lauda, Hunt and Rush: How deadly was 1970s Formula 1? , 22 September, viewed 18 April 2015,

viFormula 1, History of F1 Safety, viewed 18 April 2015,

viiWilliamson, M. Deaths in Formula One, viewed 18 April 2015,

viiiFormula 1, Safety equipment, viewed 19 April 2015,

ixBendemra, H. 2015, Increased efficiency and safety: What’s new for Formula 1, 12 March, viewed 18 April 2015,

xPriestly, M. 2015, 2015 rule change: increase of Formula One car weight, 12 February, viewed 18 April 2015,

xiMcLaren Technology Group, Case Study: Carbon Fibre, viewed 19 April 2015,

xiiDe Groote, S. 2002, Carbon fibre, 12 September, viewed 19 April 2015,

xiiiSauber F1 Team, Technology materials, viewed 19 April 2015,

xivFormula 1, Cockpit safety, viewed 19 April 2015,

xvTop Gear Australia, 2013, Why the 1970s was the best F1 decade ever, 20 September, viewed 19 April 2015,

xviPanzariu, O. 2009, Ground effects in Formula 1, 14 May, viewed 20 April 2015,

xviiGolson, J. 2014, Well that didn’t work: The crazy plan to bring 6-wheeled cars to F1, 17 December, viewed 20 April 2015,

xviiiEdmondson, L. 2012, Banned Brilliance, 9 January, viewed 20 April 2015,

xixPanzariu, O. 2010, Turbocharged engines in Formula One, 16 March, viewed 20 April 2015,

xxGray, S. 2014, Turbo engines return to F1 after 25 years, 13 March, viewed 20 April 2015,

xxiFormula 1, 2014 rules and regulations, viewed 20 April 2015,

xxiiPage Deaton, J. 2008, Top 10 everyday car technologies that came from racing, 4 August, viewed 20 April 2015,