F1 safety opponents must learn to distinguish danger from risk

Unsurprisingly the prelude to the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend was dominated not by the tightening title fight but by the ferocious debate over motorsport safety.

Between the British and Hungarian races the FIA and the sport’s commercial rights holder came together to push through the F1 strategy group the 2018 implementation of the so-called halo head protection device, much to the chagrin of many.

Rare is it that safety and aesthetics are fought with equal might, but those were the lines drawn in the closing fortnight of the first half of the season, and this column weighed in last week to the effect that superficiality should never be allowed to outweigh the science, as the FIA has decided is the case.

But aside from the aesthetics and the nebulous idea of what comprises the ‘DNA’ of F1 car design, interesting has been the argument put forward to the effect that mortal danger — the risking of life, the possibility of death — is the beating heart of Formula One.

Whether it is that the fans get a kick out of watching our athletes put their lives on the lines or that the drivers get a rush from risking it all, is there any base to this principal?

“Definitely I would say danger doesn’t excite me in any way,” Williams driver Lance Stroll said when asked by this writer if he shared the sentiment that danger equates to satisfaction. “We’re still fighting on track and we’re still going out to qualify to try to do the best possible lap — that’s where we find the excitement.

“I don’t think it’s in knowing you can die that excites you. That’s not cool if you ask me. I wouldn’t sign up for that.”

Indeed, driver safety is something that drivers do consider, perhaps contrary to the idea that they are recklessly fearless.

“For sure you always think about safety,” Stroll continued. “You have to evaluate the risks you’re taking on track, because not only are you putting yourself at risk but you’re putting other drivers at risk, and that becomes tricky.

“That doesn’t change whether it’s safer in one car or in another car — I just use my head in the best possible way in every situation.”

When put by this writer to Daniel Ricciardo, a driver fast becoming defined by his gutsy and aggressive racecraft, he too agreed.

“I don’t think it makes us sound like we’re less brave if we’re worried about getting hit in the head with a wheel,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Why do we wear a helmet?’ We wear a helmet to avoid getting in the head with things, so this [halo] is like an additional helmet.”

But after the danger of losing your life comes an important distinction of terms.

“The danger for sure gives it excitement,” Ricciardo added. “But for me the danger is not getting hit in the head with a wheel, the danger is pushing the car to the limit and nearly crashing on every corner on a street circuit or something.

“Knowing if you go for an overtake you might end up crashing because maybe the gap disappears at the apex or something — that kind of danger I enjoy.”

This, straight from the mouths of today’s Formula One drivers, expresses simply the gap between the safety debate and reality: risk is fun, danger is not.

It may sound ambiguous, but there is a significant difference between danger and risk. Danger is the putting the drivers’ lives in harm’s way by neglecting safety, whereas risk is ensuring that there remains competitive challenge in the sport — a driver risks the perfect lap by pushing his braking points, by taking more kerb, by inching closer to the barriers at Monaco and by risking losing his lap or ruining his race.

Formula One ought to celebrate risk because the balancing of risk and reward is the distillation of a racing driver’s job to extract the maximum out of the car.

Similarly, the idea that fans travel in their masses — as they did in Budapest, where the crowd was 200,000 spectators strong over three days — to bask in the glow of a blood sport, to hope to see injury and perhaps fatality, is sickening, yet this is at the heart of those who argue that danger is inherent to Formula One. It is an inescapable truth at the foundation of that principal.

However, seeing drivers take risks to beat their rivals is what makes Formula One tick, and implementing the likes of the halo and the myriad of other safety devices and ideas the FIA has introduced over the decades means that drivers can take those risks without putting themselves in danger.

It’s about time we understood that difference.