Before safety cells, full-face helmets, fireproof suits or on-site medical facilities, Formula 1 racing was very much a white knuckle affair that required more bravado than technology to get round a track.
In fact, a simple element like a rollover bar wasn’t introduced until 1961. The basic flag waving system, which we see used today to caution drivers of an accident ahead – 1963. Drivers commonly used open face helmets throughout the ’60s and fireproof race suits became mandatory not before 1975. It wasn’t until 1978 that FIA, Formula 1′s governing body, required its drivers to possess a Super-License, which meant that before then anyone with deep enough pockets could buy his way into the glamorous F1 series.
Health and safety standards were afterthoughts in many professions during the 60s and Formula 1, the pinnacle of open-wheeled motor racing, was no exception. As you can imagine, F1 had a terrible record of attrition. Between 1952 and 1969, there were 29 deaths at the wheel of a racecar, 17 of which occurred during practices or testing. That meant that 1 in every 6 drivers would lose his life during that time span. Despite the statistics the show went on and F1 continued to be the most respected and prestigious driving championship in the world. Racers participated in events knowing, full well, the risks involved. In a way, the general attitude of the time was like that of a patriotic soldier called to duty: grit your teeth, and get on with it. In another, like mixed martial arts cage fighting before rules and regulations: a blood sport where participants wagered their lives for glory.
Not that I regard any driver from that period in vain. That ’60s generation produced racers willing enough to sacrifice their lives for the spectacle and prototype race cars that served as a test bed for modern F1 safety advances. Elevating Formula 1 from its crude beginnings, the likes of Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Dan Gurney and Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Colin Chapman and Bruce Mclaren were the sort of men whose great spirit for racing weighed down on those wingless cars, keeping them from going off track.
In lieu of the ‘Rush’ movie trailer, the F1 biopic about Niki Lauda’s 1976 race season, I dug around looking for some older F1 footage from the 1960s. I found this great video of the 1967 Canadian Grand Prix taking place at Mosport International Raceway (Canadian Tire Mosport Park today), just north-east of Toronto, Canada. With its vast elevation changes, sweeping corners and tight technical sections, Mosport was granted its first F1 race that year, six years after being built. In the video, we see just how dangerous the racing really was – even for the spectators – with no gravel traps or safety barriers or run off area for the drivers.
There are marshals waving flags just a few feet away from cars flying past them at 150 km/h. The pit lane was a joke. It would be easier to try to drive across a crowded subway platform during rush hour. And separating the pits from the main straight was a barrier barely three feet high. It all sounds harrowing. Then consider that many European tracks at the time were built on existing country roads or carved out of city streets. By contrast, Mosport was a top class, purpose-built race track.
If that wasn’t scary enough, it rained. The cars weighed about 1500 pounds a piece with engines producing 400 horsepower: veritable rockets on wheels. With no traction control systmes or anti-lock brakes or any downforce to speak of, the action on track was closer to ice skating than road racing as evidence by the four wheel slides through several corners. Miraculously, no one died.
The video is 20 mins long but the race itself lasted well over two and half hours! Back then, F1 was as much about endurance as it was anything else. Races routinely chalked up 70-100 laps, crossing the two hour threshold almost every weekend (about an hour longer than most of today’s races). Given that cars from the era were much slower than those of today, the Canadian GP at Mosport was still a 90 lap affair. At 3.96 kilometers per lap, that’s a 356 kilometer race distance. Considering the rain, the eventual race winner, Jack Brabham, put up a time of two hours and forty minutes, or an average speed of 134 km/h.
It’s a testament to our generation’s techno-prowess to see how
sanitized far F1 has come as safety measures and technology have improved over the years. Watching that footage now is almost comical, like watching the original ‘The Three Stooges’ movie and chuckling, wincing at the kind of antics they got away with back then. Unfortunately, tracks like Mosport or the Nurburgring(Nordschleife) can’t comply with modern Formula 1 safety regulations – even if the cars are much safer to drive. And that’s a bit disappointing as that seemingly last variable for excitement/risk/challenge has been factored out. I also get the impression that, back then, the drivers were more concerned with taming the track than racing one another. As if everyone was racing his own race, trying to stay competitive/not die. F1 has become so safe today it seems that we celebrate ballsy drivers who rudely talk back to their pit crew mid-race by starting Facebook fan pages and printing T-shirts in their honor. And if teammates break team orders and actually attempt to race each other, it’s kind of a big deal. I’ll cut the smoky, sarcasm burnout short there.