The next time Robert Kubica sees Sir Jackie Stewart, he should thank the Scotsman for starting the crusade for safety in Formula 1 after his huge crash in the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix.
Stewart is one of Formula 1’s greatest drivers. He won the Formula 1 driver championship three times in a career that lasted only nine years – 1965 to 1973. Also, Stewart started the initiative that remains in progress today to protect drivers (as well as spectators) by making both cars and circuits safer.
The fact that Kubica will have a chance to thank Stewart is living proof that the initiative, which has made great gains in recent years, is working.
Kubica is a promising young driver with BWM Sauber. On lap 27 of the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix, Kubica’s car was traveling over 170 miles per hour on the straightaway approaching the Casino Hairpin.
As Kubica tried to make a pass on the inside, his BWM Sauber made contact with the rear of a Toyota driven by Jarno Trulli. Kubica’s car was launched car into the air and off the track to the right.
After the front right wheel made contact with a concrete barrier, Kubica’s car continued forward and to the right. A heavier impact against a second concrete barrier removed the front wing/nosecone, the rear wing and three wheels. What was left of the car tumbled across the track and came to rest on its side after the underside hit a metal guardrail.
It looked like one of the worst accidents in Formula 1 in a long time. Fortunately, Kubica did not become the first driver fatality since Ayrton Senna in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.
Despite an impact of 75 times the force of gravity, Kubica suffered just a sprained ankle and a light concussion. After missing the United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kubica was back behind the wheel for the French Grand Prix weekend, which began less than three weeks after the crash.
Safety Meausres in Today’s Formula 1
Kubica had the benefit of the “survival cell” in his BMW Sauber. The survival cell, which remained intact, is a closed structure that contains the cockpit and fuel tank and is made of carbon fiber, Kevlar, honeycomb structures and metal.
Kubica was wearing the HANS Device. A collar that restrains the head and neck, the HANS Device is designed to re-route deceleration force that would impact the driver’s head and neck to the shoulders and upper body.
Because of the car’s high rate of speed, these safety improvements and others, all of which have been introduced in recent years and are mandated by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), were needed to allow Kubica to escape with only minor injuries, according to Peter Wright, President, FIA Safety Commission, in an interview with Automotive, the online magazine of the FIA. (The FIA is the worldwide governing body of motorsport.)
“If you asked me to list the factors that had a direct influence on Robert’s accident, I’d say the following: the extremely strong survival cell, the restraint system, the front and side impact structures, the high cockpit sides with padded head rest, the new-spec carbon helmet and the HANS Device,” said Wright.
“Without any of those, the effects of the accident would have been much worse.”
Stewart’s Crash in 1966
Safety was not a hot-button issue in Formula 1 when Stewart crashed heavily during the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix. That race took place on the old version of Spa-Francorchamps that was one of the world’s classic circuits.
That version of Spa-Francorchamps was just over 8.7 miles around. Its flowing nature and long straightaways allowed cars to reach very high speeds even by Formula 1 standards. It was dropped from the Formula 1 schedule after the 1970 season due to safety concerns.
Today, the Belgian Grand Prix is contested on a shortened version of Spa-Francorchamps. One lap is now approximately 4.4 miles.
The weather at Spa-Francorchamps, located in the Ardennes Forest and part of the battlefield for the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, is infamous. The sun can be out on one part of the circuit while rain is falling elsewhere.
On the first lap in the 1966 race, a sudden downpour of rain caused a number of cars to leave the track, including Stewart’s BRM (British Racing Motors).
Stewart’s car, which failed to negotiate a high-speed curve, hit a telephone pole and came to rest upside down. What the car hit in between – either a tree or a shed and a farmer’s outbuilding — differs depending on the report one reads.
Stewart was no different from any other driver in the race in that he was not wearing a safety belt. And parts of the circuit were dangerous due to the presence of objects, such as the telephone pole that Stewart’s car hit, close to the road.
Why was the telephone pole there? Because back then, the Spa-Francorchamps circuit on which the Formula 1 cars raced was made up of sections of public roads.
Stewart ‘s car crashed on a remote point of the circuit near the Masta Kink, a fast left-right flick at the end of a long straightaway. There was little or no margin for error on the Masta Kink, which was feared by drivers.
Drivers wanted to maintain as much speed as possible through the Masta Kink because it led to another long straightaway.
The Masta Kink and the straightaways leading to and from it were part of the old circuit that was eliminated in the name of safety when the distance of Spa-Francorchamps was essentially cut in half.
Stewart was trapped in the cockpit — reportedly for 35 minutes — with fuel leaking onto him from the ruptured tank. He was freed by his BRM teammate Graham Hill, not by a safety crew.
An ambulance did not respond to the scene of the crash. Stewart was taken away in a pickup truck. And there was no medical facility at the circuit where Stewart could be treated promptly.
Amazingly, Stewart only suffered injuries to his ribs and shoulders. He was lucky to survive as was Kubica at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2007.