Doug Nye: How safety has advanced in motorsport

13th June 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

Tee-hee. We never used to get absolutely first-hand, on-the-spot comments from Grand Prix drivers the moment something has gone terribly wrong. Last weekend’s opening lap of the Canadian GP produced a memorably enraged outburst from Haas team driver Romain Grosjean, for once on the receiving end of a particularly inept piece of lap 1 manoeuvring by another party.


As Carlos Sainz’s Red Bull pinched him out and spiralled across his car’s bow, Grosjean erupted over the radio “What a…? What a…mental guy!” and began ticking and squawking in the good old-fashioned Gallic manner like Donald Duck at his most incensed. The onboard camera view of poor Sainz’s ultimate head-on impact with the Montreal barrier just served to emphasise the value of seat belt harnesses in such a situation. 

This wasn’t always – by any means – the case. Wearing seat belts, indeed just like wearing crash helmets when Goodwood Motor Circuit first opened for business back in 1948 was not dictated there by any regulation. Indeed to do so would be regarded by many competitors as just plain cissy. Stirling Moss admits to having been grossly disappointed by his father’s attitude when ‘Pa’ Moss finally agreed to let him have one of the new 500cc Cooper-JAP racing cars, but only if he wore a protective crash helmet when driving it. Imagine the scene on the farm at Tring. “Ooh Daaad…! They’ll all laugh at me…” etcetera. Well once they realised they couldn’t keep the kid in sight any derisive laughter soon dried up. What really burned Stirling was the cost of a brand-new Herbert Johnson (of Bond Street, London) who charged at the time for a laminated canvas-and-gum polo helmet…£5 12s 6d. 

Seat belts had been worn in some racing cars from very early on in the motor racing story. But they were not being used to restrain the driver or riding mechanic from being thrown onto damaging parts of the car ahead of him, or indeed out of the machine onto his head – or backside – whichever might strike terra firma first. Oh no, such restraints were intended mainly just to keep the guy – or lady – in the cockpit at all, as protection against being thrown out due to the bumps and bangs of contemporary often rough-surfaced tracks.


My movie archivist friend David Weguelin has a wonderful piece of Brooklands footage which shows the Siamese Prince ‘Bira’ bringing his Maserati 8CM into the Clubhouse paddock there, then having to unfasten, or re-fasten, the length of mooring line he had around his waist, connecting him to car. Pounding and thumping around the frost-heaved Brooklands bankings at 130mph plus provided a muscular workout the like of which precious few commercial gyms would deliver today.

The harum-scarum world of American speedway racing provided the tremendous likelihood of wheel-to-wheel contact. This wasn’t at all a good idea when most front and rear suspensions on the big Championship cars and right on down through the dirt-track cars, the midgets and three-quarter midgets, involved solid beam axles. They tended not to fold back or break off like modern independent suspensions and would instead promote a kind of hand-over-hand rigid cartwheel effect. This was extremely bad news for the drivers on-scene at the time, and very quickly just before and after World War 2 restraint seat harnesses were being warn not just to keep car and driver united, but to save the driver from the worst excesses of steering wheel, cockpit coaming, windscreen edge and suchlike.

In retrospect, it seems to have taken even the increasingly safety-conscious Indy and USAC speedway-racing establishment much longer to recognise that if the car overturned, and the driver was being held upright in his seat by a harness, then his head and neck were at extreme risk of injury. Study the Indy car photographs year by year and the headrest bodywork common on those front-engined cars is way lower than the top of the driver’s head right through to 1957-58. 

On his final appearance at Goodwood, in the 1966 Formula 2 race - even Jackie Stewart was not wearing seat belts. He later became their prime advocate - and helped save many lives.

On his final appearance at Goodwood, in the 1966 Formula 2 race - even Jackie Stewart was not wearing seat belts. He later became their prime advocate - and helped save many lives.

In that latter year, there was a tremendous first-lap pile-up in the Indy ‘500’ which eliminated eight cars and killed local favourite driver Pat O’Connor. Into 1959, guess what? Roll-over hoops – approaching the top of driver head-height, appear on the classical front-engined Indy roadsters. The cars themselves were still – due to their inherent dynamics – more or less an accident seeking somewhere to happen, but with belted drivers, head protected by roll-over hoops – the move was heading in the right direction.

European-style road racing lagged way behind USAC and the Speedway boys. Only rarely would any form of seat belt, even a mere lap strap, would be worn. The thinking was that when cars crash and overturn they too often catch fire. Would you prefer to be strapped into a burning car, or take your chance on being “thrown clear” and leaving it to burn on its own? The answer was almost universally, “I’d prefer to be thrown clear”. Many years later, into 1966-67, proper research confirmed that more serious injuries were caused through not wearing seat belts than from being retained within the car by wearing them. But through the 1950s into the 1960s no driver restraint systems were used at all, nor were they required by regulation. 

It was in many ways the British Saloon Car Championship and similar competitions which really brought seat belts to the notice of the average racing driver. Lap belts, then lap and diagonals began to appear in Austin Westminster, Ford Zephyr and Jaguar saloons from quite early on through the mid-1950s. In 1963 the Aston Martin Project cars were equipped with seat belts for drivers like Innes Ireland, Bruce McLaren and Lucien Bianchi – but this was for drivers who had an eye upon – or had been involved in – American racing, in which seat belts were beginning to proliferate.

By 1967 the innovative Le Mans-winning Ford Mark IVs had roll-over structures, honeycomb panelling, and full seat belt harnesses as standard - Le Mans winner A.J. Foyt in command here of the Mk IV co-driven by Dan Gurney.

By 1967 the innovative Le Mans-winning Ford Mark IVs had roll-over structures, honeycomb panelling, and full seat belt harnesses as standard - Le Mans winner A.J. Foyt in command here of the Mk IV co-driven by Dan Gurney.

Back in 1957, the USAC establishment had raced in Europe for the first time, at the ‘Monzanapolis’ Two Worlds Trophy event at Monza, Italy. The Grand Prix road racers boycotted the event, but many of the personnel spectated and saw these tough, elbows-out Yanks cheerfully belting themselves into their car cockpits before going out to do unrestrained battle. In 1958 the second ‘Monzanapolis’ race saw Grand Prix aces like Moss, Luigi Musso and Mike Hawthorn taking on the American invaders. Hawthorn – for Ferrari – showed very little interest in the proceedings, and after taking over the immensely powerful, specially-built, 4.1-litre V12 Ferrari open-wheeler from an exhausted Musso, he was in turn very happy to let Phil Hill complete the race in it. This our friend Phil achieved in a darned spectacular manner, finishing third. But when he took over the car the Italian press commented on how “a fight” seemed to break out between Hawthorn and Hill, with many “little taps and slaps” being exchanged between them. When I asked Phil about this, many years later, he explained “Mike leant into the cockpit to help me cinch-up my seat-belt. Every time I pulled it tight he’d grab it and seemed to think I needed it pulled even tighter … well, it got the point where I didn’t”.

And then our heroes went racing. That’s just the way it was…

Photography courtesy of The GP Library

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