It certainly was a dangerous sport to be in!
In the early days of Formula One (and motorsport in general) danger and the risk of fatalities were seemingly accepted as part of the sport.
Over the years more and more adjustments have been made to the tracks, the cars, the drivers, the positioning of the crowd, the marshals and the racing rules to make the sport much safer.
Formula One legend, Scot Jackie Stewart led an almost single-handed crusade to improve health and safety in the sport in the late 1960s/70s:
“Here was a sport that had serious injuries and death so closely associated with it, yet there was no infrastructure to support it, and very few safety measures to prevent it. So, I felt I had to do something.”
A total of 52 drivers have died at an FIA World Championship event or while driving a Formula One car at another event.
It is thanks to Stewart’s tenacity that after 15 drivers dying in the 1950s, 14 in the 1960s and 12 in the 1970s – only 4 died in the 1980s, 2 in the 1990s and 1 in the 21st Century. Another 4 drivers have died this century driving Formula One cars at non-Formula One events.
See below our Part 1 of Formula One related fatalities during races.
From a current perspective, we find the most shocking aspect of racing during the early decades - was that racing tended to continue while drivers were dying.
1. Mario Alborghetti (1 entry) Pau Grand Prix, 11th April 1955: Alborghetti was a wealthy Italian, with a desire to take part in motor racing. He commissioned Gianpaolo Volpini and Egidio Arzani to build him a car for this purpose; they adapted a Maserati 4CLT with a new engine and bodywork. His first and only race was at the Pau Grand Prix in France, a difficult track – particularly for a novice. While running at the back, he appeared to press the accelerator rather than the brake at the hairpin bend – and crashed into the straw bales. The impact removed his helmet and he died from head and chest injuries. Several spectators were injured – but these injuries were minor. The race continued and was won by Jean Behra.
2. Bill Vukovich (6 entries) Indianapolis 500, 30th May 1955: Vukovich was leading by 17 seconds on the 57th lap when the 3 slower drivers (Rodger Ward, Al Keller and Johnny Boyd) travelling at the back crashed into each other. Boyd’s car ended up in Vukovich’s path and resulted in the latter hitting the outside wall, careering through the air several times and striking a low bridge. The car landed upside down on some parked cars and burst into flames. Vukovich died instantly (partially decapitated by the low bridge) and 2 spectators in one of the parked cars were injured.
3. Pat O’Connor (AAA/USAC 36 starts) Indianapolis 500, 30th May 1958: A spin by Ed Elisian on Turn 3 of Lap 1 started a 15-car pileup. O’Connor’s car hit Jimmy Reece’s and travelled 50 feet into the air, landing upside down and bursting into flames. Cause of death was believed to be a fatal head injury. Elisian was widely blamed for the incident and initially suspended by the USAC – although this decision was later reversed, he continued to be shunned by many in the sport. The following year metal roll bars installed behind the drivers’ head were mandated – as were helmets that had passed safety certification.
4. Luigi Musso (25 entries) French Grand Prix, 6th July 1958: Musso ran wide at the Gueux Curve while trying to catch fierce rival and fellow Ferrari driver Mike Hawthorn. He hit a ditch and somersaulted through the air – suffering critical head injuries – and died later that day in hospital. Hawthorn won the race.
5. Peter Collins (35 entries) German Grand Prix, 3rd August 1958: Collins was pushing to keep up with Vanwall’s Tony Brook and entered the Pflanzgarten section at too high a speed. He hit a ditch and the car was launched into the air. Collins’ was thrown from the car and hit a tree – suffering critical head injuries. He died later in hospital. Teammate Hawthorn was so shaken by Collin’s death that he retired after winning the Drivers’ Championship at the end of the season. Hawthorn himself died the following year in a crash on the A3.
6. Stuart Lewis-Evans (14 entries) Moroccan Grand Prix, 19th October 1958: Lewis-Evans’ Vanwall engine seized, throwing him into the barrier at high speed. The car burst into flames. Lewis-Evans was airlifted back to hospital in the UK but died of his burns 6 days later. Vanwall won the Drivers’ Championship that year – but this success was heavily marred by Lewis-Evans death. Tony Vandervell was so affected that he withdrew from the team (that he had founded) in January the following year.
7. Chris Bristow (4 entries) Belgian Grand Prix, 19th June 1960: The ‘wild man of British Club Racing’ Bristow had spun/collided on almost every track appearance. While trying to stay ahead of Ferrari’s Willy Mairesse at the Belgian Grand Prix, an error caused him to leave the track at the Burnenville Corner on Lap 20. At this point, there was a 4-foot embankment and barbed wire in the meadow 10 feet from the track – Bristow hit the bank, rolled and was thrown into the barbed wire which decapitated him.
8. Alan Stacey (7 entries) Belgian Grand Prix, 19th June 1960: 5 laps after Bristow, Stacey crashed on Lap 25 at 120mph – caused – according to some spectators – by being hit in the face by a bird. Stacey’s Lotus climbed the embankment, went through 10 feet of hedge and ended up in a field within a few hundred feet (and within a few minutes) of Bristow’s Cooper T51.
9. Wolfgang Von Trips (29 entries) Italian Grand Prix, 10th September 1961: Von Trips had been involved in a closely fought battle with teammate Phil Hill this season for the Drivers’ Championship. Von Trips was leading the race at Monza when he collided with Jim Clark’s Lotus, flew into the air and crashed into a fence barrier. Von Trips was thrown from the car and killed instantly. 15 spectators packed behind the fence were also killed. Von Trips had crashed and been injured twice before at Monza in 1956 and 1958.
10. John Taylor (5 entries) German Grand Prix, 7th August 1966: Taylor crashed into Matra’s Jacky Ickx on Lap 1 and was badly burned in the wreckage. He died 4 weeks later from his injuries.
11. Lorenzo Bandini (42 entries) Monaco Grand Prix, 7th May 1967: Running in 2nd, Italian Lorenzo Bandini lost control at the Harbour Chicane – skidded, hit a light pole and overturned. His Ferrari then crashed into the straw bales, ruptured the fuel tank and burst into flames upside down. Bandini was freed from the wreckage but suffered 3rd degree burns over more than 70% of his body and died 3 days later. A huge crowd of 100,000 people came to his funeral. Following this incident straw bales were finally banned from all Formula One races – and were replaced with an extended guard-rail.
12. Jo Schlesser (3 entries) French Grand Prix, 7th July 1968: Just 2 laps into the race, Swiss driver Jo Schlesser slid wide at Six Freres Corner, crashed into a bank and the car burst into flames. The Honda’s magnesium body, along with 58 laps worth of fuel were a lethal combination. Schlesser had no chance. John Surtees had test-driven the RA302 beforehand and declared it ‘not ready’ for racing and a potential ‘death trap.’ The death of Schlesser only confirmed his fears and when Surtees refused to drive the car at the Italian Grand Prix in 1968 Honda withdrew from the sport.
13. Piers Courage (29 entries) Dutch Grand Prix, 21st June 1970: Courage’s De Tomaso’s front suspension/steering broke on the bump at Tunnel Oost and he missed the bend, rode up an embankment and the car disintegrated, then burst into flames. Magnesium in the chassis/suspension burned so fiercely that nearby bushes/trees were also set alight. It is believed that it was a wheel broken off by the impact that hit Courage’s head fatally injuring him.
14. Jo Siffert (100 entries) World Championship Victory Race, 24th October 1971: Siffert’s BRM suffered suspension damage earlier in the race and when it eventually broke - Siffert crashed, and the car burst into flames. He died in the car. An investigation into the incident concluded that the failure of the fire extinguishers impeded the rescue effort. Siffert died of smoke inhalation. As a result of this, all cars were installed with onboard fire extinguishers and air was piped into drivers’ helmets.
We continue this in part 2 of the report on the casualties of formula one racing!