Life At The Limit by Sid Watkins

Life At The Limit

Life At The Limit: Triumph And Tragedy In Formula One deals with the dangerous world of Formula One racing. Fatalities were so common it seems odd that the ‘sport’ wasn’t just banned. Drivers would die, crew members would die, and spectators would die from the most horrific crashes. Drivers like Jackie Stewart forced changes to the sport, which went a long way to cutting down on many needless deaths. In 1978, Bernie Ecclestone (of F-1) asked Doctor Watkins to upgrade the onsite medical support. This book details the strides Watkins and his team made save drivers lives after crashes. The book is interesting with plenty of details, as Watkins descriptions of drivers, tracks, officials, and many of the accidents he attended. Some had good results but many were still fatal, such as Ayrton Senna. Watkins plays particular attention to Senna due to his personal connection.

I wish the book could have given a complete look at the strides made in auto racing safety. Changes to the cars and tracks have gone a long way to making modern auto racing safer. [some of these changes were listed in the Appendix, see below] But this book only deals with the medical aspect, and only F-1 Racing (1978-1994).

249 pages

Amazon Book Preview of “Life At The Limit

Excerpts from the book

The ‘Good’ Years 1983–1993

In Hockenheim in 1991, Erik Comas had a remarkable rotating corkscrew aerial accident while still moving forward, having had a launch from the tyres. Though he was a bit stunned, a CT scan of his brain later revealed the usual amount of brain to be expected, and he was able to race. Towards the end of the season Eric Bernard had a compound fracture of his leg in an accident in practice in Japan, and as a consequence was not able to race the next season.

1992 saw Christian Fittipaldi break his neck at Magny Cours in July; Comas did a repeat performance of the rotating corkscrew at Spa in August 1992 and was concussed, had to be extricated by the spinal team and could not race. Senna was the first person to the accident and when I got there he gave me Comas’s helmet and told me he had held Comas’s neck to retain it in a good position, and also made sure that Erik’s airway had been OK. Senna was a good pupil.

Finally that year at Estoril Patrese crashed after hitting Berger at the pit entrance and was launched in the pit straight. Had his car come down on the inside of the pit wall rather than the outside the carnage would have been inestimable. Patrese hurt his knees but was otherwise undamaged if not unshaken.

Christian Fittipaldi emulated Patrese’s epic at Monza in September 1993 on the last lap. After his remarkable flight and, by good fortune, landing the right way up, he skidded past my car and the finishing line wheelless and in a belly slide. He was unhurt and when I saw him in the paddock afterwards I suggested he should get himself a parachute. Earlier in 1993 Zanardi had a miraculous escape in August at Spa, and at the end of July Warwick had his adventure in the gravel at Hockenheim. He said that after the accident when he opened his eyes he could only see gravel. Certainly his helmet had a lot of gravel in it. More interestingly, when we got him to the medical centre I found gravel in both of his ear canals. When I showed it to him, saying, “Here are your brains,” Derek denied it vehemently and said, “I recognize the gravel. I got it at Monza in 1990!”

This litany of incidents should be a reminder that although there were a lot of accidents – many violent and frightening – there were remarkably few terrible injuries. Apart from paying tribute to providence, this was, in my view, testimony to the continuing search for improvements in the safety and integrity of the cars – a ceaseless occupation of the engineers and constructors. Derek Ongaro and Roland Bruynseraede as Safety Inspectors, and the Safety Commission had continued through the decade to press for improvements at the circuits, better layout, more run off, more gravel and more tyre barriers. In fact, Balestre at Magny Cours in 1994 claimed there was more gravel in the safety area at the circuit than there was on the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. To discredit the efforts of so many people in motor racing is, therefore, neither accurate nor admirable.

That there is more to be done there is no doubt. It is clear there is still much to learn about the biophysics of injury in car accidents, in road vehicles as well as in racing cars. There is much more research and development to be pursued before any of us can become complacent.
Niki Lauda, I believe, summed up the situation within Grand Prix racing safety after Imola succinctly by saying, `God had his hand on Formula One for ten years, but had taken it off that weekend at Imola.’

The President Of The FIA And The Advisory Expert Group

The Advisory Expert Group were given the following brief for investigation:

  1. The design of the cockpit, or any aspect of the car
  2. The integrity of crash barriers and a search for new materials
  3. The configuration of the circuits and the size and length of run-off areas.
  4. The protection of the personnel within the pit lane and in the public areas

Our first meeting was in June at Montreal and since then we have usually met monthly and reviewed progress at meetings at Magny Cours, Hockenheim, Budapest, Jerez, Adelaide, and at Heathrow in the winter months.

The main lines of attack on the problem soon became evident, for the biophysics of an accident in a Formula One cockpit had not been analysed in basic scientific terms.

We therefore commissioned a programme of high energy crash testing (HYGE tests) with the team of engineers and biophysicists at the Motor Industry Research Association at Nuneaton in the Midlands. This series of experiments involves the use of sophisticated dummies (HYBRID III) heavily equipped with sensors and accelerometers to measure the G-forces in the head, neck and chest from a variety of impacts.

Thus in frontal, rear, side impact or angled rear, or angled frontal, the response of the facsimile human form can be cine-photographed at high speed, and videotaped. Through a sophisticated system of computers the accelerometers will then provide information about the forces in G or energy terms with which to correlate the deformations of the dummy, and the dynamics of its movement within the cockpit.

which it moves depends on whether it is restrained by seat belts, air bags or not at all. However, the inertia developed has to be absorbed when the human form stops moving. A tertiary level of internal damage may then be sustained as the internal organs, brain, heart, lungs and intestines still traveling at the same speed collide with the inside of the skull, chest or abdominal wall as the external form stops.

In direct head injury, when the skull is struck by an impact, or in indirect injury when the movement of the skull suddenly arrests, the semi-solid brain suffers action and reaction injury stresses or rotational injury, damaging the surface of the brain against the inside of the skull or tearing its internal structure by sheering or rotational forces.

In a frontal crash, therefore, the head may hit the steering wheel, the cockpit edge, or in a road car the windscreen. The head is then thrown backwards to sustain injury at the rear by hitting the back of the seat, the head restraint or the back of the cockpit.

In a lateral crash the neck is subject to lateral bending and the head describes an arc the extent of which may fracture the neck. The heavier the head (plus the crash helmet) the heavier the load and the more likely the possibility of sustaining fracture or dislocation of the neck vertebrae. In angled impacts the trajectory of the head becomes compound as lateral and anteroposterior forces, depending on the angle of impact, produce a vector.

MIRA have been testing responses in all these different situations, with and without rear energy absorbing head cushions, with different widths of seat-belts and with different cockpit configurations. Our aim is to devise regulations which will reduce the internal G-forces within the human frame to below the level of tolerance at which injury is known to occur. Because of the expense of the high technological equipment for these sled crash tests and the time spent by highly skilled bio-engineers performing them, each test costs £2,500. The time taken to simulate the accident itself is a fraction of seconds but the preparation involved is complex and time consuming. In a day of research with such a team maybe three such tests can be accomplished.

With the results obtained from such a series of physical testing, computer graphic programmes have been developed which show the movement and the deformation of the human form obtained by direct study. Extrapolations can then be made or different configurations of accident or energy protection simulated to test various concepts or changes in the design of the cockpit configuration.

The energy levels of human tolerance at which injury occurs had been investigated over many years and there are known values for skull, brain, chest and neck injury and for damage to the internal organs such as the heart, lungs and great blood vessels within the chest or abdomen.

Investigation of crash barriers was initiated by the CSI in Milan at the request of the committee. Tyres in various configurations and numbers of layers have been compared with each other and with honeycomb materials supplied by Fabrizio Barbazza. In Australia a triple energy absorption system devised by Dennis Horley of Air Fence has been tested against tyres in the best configuration, (the so called Zolder Barrier). Representatives of CAMS and Frank Gardner on behalf of the FIA have attended the tests. We continue to search for new concepts and have recently cooperated with John Fitch and Ianto Roberts of Impact Attenuation Incorporated to explore new avenues.

Under the direction of Dr Harvey Postlethwaite all of the circuits used by Formula One have been analysed for velocity, G-forces in the corners and the high-risk areas identified using criteria related to length, speed and lateral G exceeding 4. Of the circuits in use, twenty-seven high-risk corners were identified, which matched well with the personal identification of high-risk areas that we asked Gerhard Berger to provide based on his experience. The measures introduced by the FIA for changes in the cars during 1994 reduced speed around the circuit by about three seconds – this alone halved the number to thirteen high-risk corners by cutting the lateral to G less than 3. Changes to the circuits themselves have further reduced the number to 8. With the computer programmes now developed for the research by Dr Postlethwaite it will be possible to calculate the physics of the necessary run-off configurations and sizes, and provide improved gravel beds and barriers.

Protection of the pit lane and the public will demand a new approach to provide high debris fencing to the pit lane and public areas and the work to determine heights and strengths is going forward.

With the support of the new GPDA a greater discipline will be required and enforced on the Formula One drivers to control the quality of crash helmets, and the flammability of their underclothes, Nomex hood, racing overalls, driving gloves, socks and racing boots. As part of this protocol mandatory random testing of drivers’ clothing and the standard of clothing will be performed. Already in 1994 at Magny Cours five crash helmets were taken for testing, and later at Jerez gloves, overalls, hoods, socks, boots and underclothing were likewise removed for testing. New materials are to be sought to prevent absorption or wicking of spilt fuel to avoid skin chemical injury. Such material at present available (which I wear in the race since the Berger accident at Imola) has so far proved too cumbersome to be enforced by dictate.

Future research for measures within the cockpit will encompass the possible use of frontal air bags to limit forward impact of the helmet on the steering wheel or cockpit edge, and the development of an energy absorbing seat which would serve as a spinal splint so that a driver may be extricated in the future integral with his seat.

After eighteen months’ research, the Advisory Expert Group submitted to the World Council of the FIA in October 1995 a report of its activities. For 1996 the cockpit has been redesigned, with high lateral sides and energy absorbing protective padding on both sides of the driver’s head, as well as behind it, which greatly reduces the forces likely to cause brain injury. The size of the cockpit has been increased to allow for this and to facilitate extrication of the driver. New seat belts were introduced in 1995 with an increased width from 50mm to 75mm. This reduces the possibility of chest injury. Work on the use of air bags has now reached the stage of evolving a suitable sensor system to fire the inflation, but which is robust enough not to fire accidentally.

Despite all this, the unpredictable is always likely to occur and the risk of injury or death can never be abolished – in motor racing as in many other sports.

Physiology of Motor Racing- the Limits of Human Performance

Appendix I, page 198–199

The possibility of making driving errors in high ambient temperatures is evident, and as mentioned earlier these factors may explain hitherto inexplicable errors of behaviour, e.g. Patrese in Brazil spinning and driving the wrong way, and Mansell attempting physically to push his expired Formula One car over the finishing line at Dallas when such a performance, even if successful, could not have affected his result. When I arrived with my friend and driver Tim Evans in response to the message that a driver had collapsed at the finish I found him rolling around on the tarmac physically intact but behaving quite foolishly.

The skill of the subject in determining response to an adverse environment proved to be of great importance. In Mackworth’s and my own studies (Figure 9, page 209) if the wireless operators were split into three groups according to levels of skill it was found that the exceptionally skilled showed little deterioration in performance even in the worst climate. Many people have asked me how drivers like Ayrton Senna, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Jimmy Clark and Michael Schumacher could perform brilliantly and far outstrip their fellows in heat, wet or adverse circumstances. Here is the psychomotor explanation – exceptional skill and high motivation are the significant factors in delaying or limiting deterioration in performance.

Clearly in heat stress the cardiovascular changes, tachycardia, dehydration, rising body temperature, sweat gland fatigue, poor cerebral response and hyperpyrexia will over come all in certain circumstances, but as the experiments with the aircraft pilots at temperatures of 160 to 200 F showed, psychological tolerance deteriorates much earlier than physical tolerance.

In summary, it can be said that driving a vibrating Formula One car, with virtually no suspension, under the emotional pressures experienced by the drivers, working physically at high ambient and body temperatures, threatened by dehydration and sustaining G-forces which increase their body weight by a factor of 4 truly represents the limits of human performance and sometimes tolerance – apart from the dangers of death or injury if a serious error of judgement or mechanical failure occurs.

Safety in Grand Prix Racing from 1963 to 1996

appendix II, page 207–212

Period Races Kilometers Accidents Injuries Drivers Officials Spectators
1963–1967 50 256,000 47 21 3 0 0
1968–1972 59 227,000 88 31 4 0 0
1973–1977 77 446,000 250 51 5 1 6 N.B
1978–1982 76 399,000 283 3 3 1 0
1983–1987 79 428,000 218 2 0 0 0
1988–1992 80 478,000 305 1 0 0 0
1993–1996 49 191,000 248 2 2 0 0

Notes: ‘Estimated kms.’ refers to racing only; practice sessions at events would increase this by up to 150%.
N.B: the spectators killed had all penetrated prohibited areas.
Fatalities: Drivers, Officials, Spectators – last three columns.

Introduction Of Safety Regulations By The FIA


Pump fuel only. Automatic starter; rollbar; double braking system; rules for seatbelt anchorages, fire protection, fuel tanks, fillers and breathers.
Electrical circuit breaker; reverse gear; cockpit designed for easy evacuation; oil catch tank; rollbar 5 cm above driver’s helmet.
Two extinguisher systems; parts with aerodynamic influence must be immobile, fixed to sprung parts of car only; maximum bodywork height & width limits.
Safety bladder fuel tanks.
Safety foam in fuel tanks; no magnesium sheet less than 3mm thick; 15W red rear light; headrest; minimum cockpit dimensions; combined electrical cut-off/ extinguisher external handle; FIA/spec/FT3 fuel tank.
Crushable structure round fuel tank; no chrome plating of suspension parts.
Self-seal breakaway fuel coupling.
‘Safety structures’ around dashboard and pedals.
Pedalboz protection defined.
Bulkhead behind driver and front rollbar defined.
Bigger cockpit opening; 2 mirrors; improved extinguisher system.
Reinforced ‘survival cell’ introduced and extended in front of driver’s feet.
Flat bottom obligatory; skirts banned; red light increased to 21W.
Refuelling in races banned; fuel tank in centre of car.
Frontal crash test.
Driver’s feet behind front wheel axis; static crash test of survival cell and fuel tank.
larger mirrors; quickly detachable steering wheel.
FIA tested seatbelts; FT5 fuel tanks; rollbar test; dynamic test of survival cell.
More severe tests with 75kg dummy and water-filled fuel tank.
Deceleration values for chest load reduced to less than 60G in dummy in crash test. Minimum cross-section of roll hoop must be 100sq cm minimum at 5cm below top
May. Reduced down force from diffuser and front wing end plates enforced.
June. Confor foam head rest protection behind head introduced. Pump petrol imposed. Airbox holes introduced to reduce ram effect and engine performance.
July. Skid block plate introduced to increase ride height.
Side impact test for cockpit. Increased impact speed for frontal crash test. Increased side load test on nose box. Minimum height of survival cell increased by 10cm. Mandatory headrest protection posterior of 7.5cm. Confor foam. Width of seat belts increased for chest protection from 5.Ocm to 7.5cm. Engine size reduced from 3.5 to 3.0 litres. Race car weight limit to include driver, clothing and helmets.
Increased neck and head protection 7.5cm Confor foam. Cockpit sides raised to increase lateral protection. Automatic closure of fuel breathers in case car overturns.

Note: Since 1969 the FIA has continuously adjusted the dimensions of bodywork and tyres in order to control performance and cornering speeds.


FIA begins taking over responsibility for circuit safety inspections from national authorities.

Considerations on circuit design published: track verges minimum 3m.; double guardrails; spectators at least 3m. behind fencing; barrier between pitlane and track; track width, surface and gradient change regulations; straw bales banned; mandatory FIA inspections.
Circuit Safety Criteria published; debris fence specifications.
Catchfences; rescue equipment; starting grid dimensions.
Catchfences + sand. 1975: Marshal posts; service roads.
Gravel arrester beds defined.
Obligatory permanent medical centre.
Tyre barriers; pitlane minimum width 10m.
Concrete wall may replace guardrails.
Catchfences banned. 1987; Criteria for temporary circuits.
Trackside barrier min. height 1m.; pitwall min. 1 m35.
Kerbs lowered; pitlane min. width 12m.; pit entry chicane obligatory.
Circuit configuration changes to reduce the number of high level G corners.
Increased tyre barriers. Increased gravel beds and run-off areas


Protective helmet and overalls obligatory.

Recommendations on seat harnesses, fire-resistant clothing, shatter-proof visors. 1911: Max. 5 seconds for driver evacuation from cockpit.
6-point harness. Drivers’ Code of Conduct published.
International medical card & examination for all drivers.
FIA standard for fire resistant clothing.
Helmets must be to FIA-approved standards.
License qualification requirements.
Life support system (medical air) obligatory.
F1 ‘Super license’ required.
Anti dope testing regulations (test results all negative to date).
Random testing of crash helmets, racing overalls, balaclava and gloves by post-race testing to FIA standards.
Anti dope testing-all results negative.


Flag signalling code.
Personnel, equipment and duties in race supervision, marshalling signals.
Fire service regs.
2×2 staggered starting grid with 12m length per car.
Medical service; resuscitation centre; obligatory rescue exercise.
Grid 14m per car.
FIA-appointed permanent race starter.
FIA approval of medical service obligatory; fast rescue car regulations.
Grid 1x1x1.
Permanent FIA medical service inspector; medical helicopter obligatory.
Grid 16m per car.
Permanent FIA race director.
Driver extrication exercise obligatory.
Safety Car introduced.
Permanent FIA Safety Delegate/Starter and Permanent FIA Race Director appointed.
Separate Permanent FIA Starter appointed. New start lights procedure.

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