Danger and risk are part of everyday life and whether you are BASE jumping, crossing the road, taking a helicopter flight over Niagara Falls or just going for a jog in the park, there is always some chance that something terrible could happen. Sorry to break it to you. But clearly some activities are riskier than others, with construction the most dangerous job in the UK.
Thankfully, Formula 1 is now just about as safe as it can be given that it involves cars hurtling round tracks at 200 miles per hour or more. But there is no doubt it is still a very dangerous sport, in which drivers – and indeed teams and, to a lesser extent, fans – are taking on a very real level of risk. This risk varies from track to track, with some circuits widely considered to be more dangerous than others.
Injuries in F1 Racing
Quite what one means by “the most dangerous” F1 circuit is open to debate. We feel it would be a little unsavoury and perhaps even macabre to focus too much on fatalities and serious injuries. We do not want to glamorise or sensationalise the issue by offering clickbait headings about how man drivers have died at each track. Instead, we will take a more general look at the danger posed by the various Formula 1 circuits, both those used today and some from the past.
Returning to the issue of what we mean by danger, it may surprise some to learn that by many measures Formula 1 is not really a dangerous sport at all. Statistics can be used to prove almost anything in the right/wrong hands but, in general, it is rare for an F1 driver to miss a race due to an injury sustained on the track. Contrast that with, for example, rugby, American football and even football.
Injuries of varying degrees of severity are common in all of these sports and many more. A multi-car crash in Formula 1 may grab far more headlines and seem far more dramatic, but serious knee and leg injuries can change careers and lives in football, skiing and many other sports, and do so on a far more regular basis than anything we see in F1. Moreover, we have even seen people die on the pitch in these sports, with former Man City footballer Marc-Vivien Foe just one tragic example.
And, of course, that is before we even get to the potential long-term effects of many of these contact sports which have been linked to dementia and other degenerative diseases. So, what do we mean by danger in relation to F1 tracks?
Well, we’ll be looking at various factors, including those horrific times that drivers have been killed or very seriously injured. However we’ll also be looking at a track’s difficulty and how often crashes, even less dramatic ones, occur, as well as the general opinion of drivers and F1 experts as to which circuits are especially dangerous.
Most Dangerous Circuit in F1
Hard, or even impossible, as it may be to believe, when the first Formula 1 races took place in the early 1950s there was no medical back-up at all! What’s more, “The cars were designed purely for speed … (without) any form of safety net”. Some fans may hark back to earlier days of racing as a glorious period in which speed was all and drivers were heroes prepared to stare death firmly in the eye. Most people would say this was simply insane.
Irrespective of your view on the racing of this era and indeed for decades after the first F1 race at Silverstone in 1950, fatalities remained shockingly high until around the early 1980s. Note that the stats here are not all from F1 Grands Prix and we are also including any that occurred during testing or races at any FIA World Championship contest, or that occurred in an F1 car (but not necessarily during an FIA race or Grand Prix). So, including in testing, practice and races, there were a tragic 44 deaths between June 1952 and June 1982. That is a rate of well over one per year.
Following the death of Italian Riccardo Paletti during the Canadian Grand Prix on the 13th June 1982, there was no other death until another Italian, Elio de Angelis, died during testing in 1986. Since then there have been seven further Formula 1 (and related) fatalities, a tragedy for seven families but a great improvement on the earlier years.
So, in one sense the very simple answer to the question, “What is the most dangerous track in Formula 1” is, “The tracks of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s”. However, let us now look in more detail at some individual tracks that have the reputation of being among the scariest and most dangerous in the sport.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Although we do not want to fixate on F1 fatalities, we feel it is right to start with a couple of circuits that, sadly, have witnessed a high number of deaths. Due to the way the sport has got so much safer, the two tracks that have seen the most deaths were ones at which racing took place in the sport’s earlier years and it is America’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway that fairs worst of all.
Between 1953 and 1959, seven drivers perished at the Indiana circuit, home to the Indianapolis 500. Possibly the largest sports venue in the world, with the facility to host an impressive 400,000 people and boasting more than a quarter of a million permanent seats, it opened way back in 1909. It hosted the US Grand Prix between 2000 and 2007 but the deaths occurred during a period when the Indy 500 was part of the World Drivers’ Championship.
The modern circuit includes part of the traditional oval but most of the racing took place on an infield road circuit that was constructed at the end of the 1990s. In its short history, the race saw plenty of controversies and Ralph Schumacher suffered a bad crash there in 2005, fracturing his back. Part of the problem was that modern F1 cars and their tyres were not designed to handle the banking that exists on the original track, sections of which were used for the Grands Prix. In 2012 the US GP moved to Texas and the Circuit of the Americas.
However, before all of that, the Indy 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway proved themselves to be very dangerous places to race. In truth, much of this was down to the era of racing and one astonishing stat demonstrates that all too tragically: 33 drivers qualified for the Indy 500 in 1953 (as said, the contest being part of the F1 world championship at the time). Of those, almost half, 16, would eventually die taking part in the sport they loved.
Another circuit that has seen a very high number of fatalities is Germany’s Nürburgring. It has hosted the German Grand Prix, the European Grand Prix, the Luxembourg Grand Prix and the 2020 Eifel Grand Prix. There are several circuits here, including a more modern F1 track built in 1984 but all the fatal crashes took place on the Nordschleife, or North Loop. These accidents took place in the 1954 German Grand Prix (practice), the 1958 race, the practice in 1964, the 1966 German Grand Prix and again in the practice for the race in 1969.
Once again, rather than pointing the finger at the track, it is probably fairer to say that these deaths simply reflect racing in this era. Speed and derring-do, not safety and the preservation of life, were the order of the day. That said, the North Loop was certainly very challenging, with its steep changes of elevation, limited run-off zones and many blind corners. Indeed, ultimately it was deemed too long and too dangerous to be used for a modern F1 Grand Prix.
For this reason, if any track can lay claim to be the most dangerous, the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife certainly has a very strong case if we are looking at tracks past and present. Sir Jackie Steward won twice here but still called it the Green Hell and said “it was ridiculous. No runoff areas, not enough firefighters or marshals. There would be crashed cars from a previous touring car race parked on the side of the track when the Formula 1 race was on. It was crazy.”
In addition to the five deaths at the old circuit, it is perhaps even more infamous as the track where Austrian ace Nikki Lauda suffered a horrific crash. This event, in 1976, had a major impact on F1 safety. Lauda was badly burnt and lucky to survive. Perhaps even more incredibly, he returned to the German Grand Prix just a year later and won! That victory came at the Hockenheimring though, and the North Loop’s days as an F1 circuit were over, the new GP-Strecke circuit taking over Nürburgring duties from 1985.
The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, to use its full name, first held a Grand Prix back in 1925 and in modern times it has been the regular host of the Belgian GP. It is not an entirely purpose-built track and for a long time used a lot of public roads, holding a reputation as the fastest, scariest and most dangerous road circuit in Europe, if not the world.
The circuit has been tweaked many times, most extensively in 1979 due to safety worries about the layout. Indeed, 10 years earlier, drivers boycotted the 1969 race due to the extremely high number of deaths that had been suffered at the crash in F1 and other racing. Even so, it remains an incredibly quick and dangerous place to race.
The changes mentioned included the adding of barriers and other measures but they also shortened the circuit considerably. Even so, at a shade over 7km, it remains one of the longer tracks still in regular use (and longest on the 2021 schedule). Longer tracks are trickier to marshal, manage and make fully safe and, in addition, they increase the likelihood of variable weather.
Perhaps the toughest conditions for a driver occur when parts of a circuit are wet and parts are dry. Even with the brilliant technology of modern tyres with intermediates on, things are far from easy. Such conditions are not uncommon at Spa due to its length and also because of the weather in the Ardennes Forest, which is hard to predict and highly changeable.
As well as being affected by tricky weather and being exceptionally fast, Spa is also home to some really testing corners. The Masta Kink, one of the most feared corners in motor racing, may be long gone, but the exciting Eau Rouge-Raidillon combination still thrills fans and scares drivers. Whilst Spa’s two F1 deaths occurred back in 1960 (in separate incidents within 15 minutes of each other), there was a fatality as recently as 2019 in an F2 contest at Raidillon. This shows that despite the huge safety improvements at Spa, it remains very much one of the most dangerous circuits in the sport, with several other fairly major crashes in recent times in Formula 1 as well.
Monza is a city in the north of Italy and the Grand Prix, the fifth oldest in the sport, is considered to be Ferrari’s home race. Between 1922 and 2000, when the most recent fatality occurred, several drivers, officials and even spectators have been killed in accidents at Monza. Most of these deaths have occurred outside F1, although official Paolo Gislimberti was killed at the 2000 Italian Grand Prix when a wheel from Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s car hit him.
Another high profile incident saw Ronnie Peterson killed during the 1978 Monza GP. The “Super Swede” was twice a runner-up in the World Drivers’ Championship but whilst Monza is unquestionably one of the most dangerous tracks around, his death cannot really be blamed on the circuit. As with all circuits, most deaths at Monza happened in the sport’s earlier years but to this day it remains a challenging place to pilot a car at high speed.
Monza is, for one thing, a very fast circuit, with long, super-fast straights and a number of tough corners that are taken at great speed too. What perhaps makes it more dangerous than that, however, is the major lack of run-off areas. As with all circuits and virtually all elements of Formula 1, almost constant modifications have taken place to make Monza safer. However, some tricky areas of the circuit still lack run-off areas, with the chicane at Variante della Roggia the most obvious example.
Dutch driver Robert Doornbos, who has spent much of his career as a test driver, put it simply when he said “It’s a dangerous circuit” and other drivers agree. Both oversteer and, especially, understeer, present difficulties for drivers and given average lap speeds of more than 160mph have been recorded at Monza, that can be very perilous.
Most Dangerous Turns in F1
As well as looking at which circuits are the most dangerous overall, it is also worth considering which individual turns are especially difficult. As with the circuits, there is much debate over this but, in no particular order, here are some turns that we feel all at least deserve to be in that debate.
- Eau Rouge – As detailed above, this Spa icon is just about as dangerous as it gets.
- Wall of Champions – At Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, home of the Canadian Grand Prix, this high-walled chicane has claimed many victims, including world champions, hence the name, over the years.
- Fuchsröhre (Fox Hole) – The Nürburgring has a number of really tough tuns and sections but Fox Hole is perhaps the most dangerous, with high speeds, undulations and virtually no room to manoeuvre.
- 130R – The unromantic name of this corner at Suzuka refers to the radius of the corner’s arc but it has seen several major incidents over the years. Following bad crashes in 2002 and 2003 it was redesigned but the problems have continued and the danger remains.
- Fairmont – The name of this hairpin, perhaps the tightest in F1, changes according to the name of the nearby hotel but what stays the same is the difficulty it poses. Cars may take it at a relative crawl but the lack of space and harsh angle still regularly produces incidents that result in contact between cars.