In the 21st century Formula One has drawn criticism from some quarters as a result of the lack of contact between cars and the perceived decrease in entertainment as a result. The cars have very strict restrictions placed upon them in modern F1 and some believe that, as the pinnacle of motor racing, F1 should be allowed greater freedom to create faster and more extreme cars. In total, 50 drivers have died driving an F1 car since the sport began at Silverstone back in 1950 with 39 coming in events that were part of the Formula One World Championships. Some undoubtedly awful crashes will miss out on this list by virtue of there being limited surviving footage of the events.
With each decade came increased safety precautions and a drop in the number of deaths. 15 deaths in the 1950’s became 14 in the 1960’s, followed by 12 fatalities in the 1970’s, four in the 1980’s and two in the 1990’s. The deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger marked a watershed moment in the history of F1 racing and saw the introduction of a number of security measures introduced to prevent any future incidents. Following the pair's fatalities in 1994, no F1 driver had been killed whilst racing, although in 2013 María de Villota was sadly found dead and her death was attributed to cardiac arrest which was a result of a crash she had over a year earlier in 2012.
As well as the number of fatalities, the amount of contact between cars has decreased dramatically since the 1970’s, which many people consider to be the peak of the sport. As a result, the majority of major crashes happened over 30 years ago. However, with the cars hitting top speeds of up to 180 mph, when contact is made it still tends to end in dramatic fashion. Following Jules Bianchi’s crash in 2014 further efforts were made to increase safety within the sport.
15 Robert Kubica, 2007 Canadian Grand Prix
The 2007 Canadian Grand Prix is best known as Lewis Hamilton’s first victory in F1 and the first race to be won by a black driver but there was another notable event that took place in Montreal that day. Robert Kubica was unfortunate enough to hit a hump in the grass as he came off the track, losing control of his car and crashing into the concrete retaining wall to the side of the track. Kubica’s speed upon impact was recorded at just over 186 mph, and the Pole was subjected to an incredible G-Force of 75 G. Kubica was left with mild concussion and a sprained ankle but those injuries are minimal in relation to the shocking nature of the crash.
14 Jarno Trulli, Silverstone 2004
Jarno Trulli’s crash at Silverstone in 2004 proved just how far the safety of F1 cars had come over the last decade. Trulli lost control whilst exiting Bridge Corner, spinning wildly and flipping over once, the car was torn apart leaving him in the carcass that remained. Amazingly, Trulli came out on the incident relatively unharmed and was able to get out of the car and jog out of the way of any potential danger. Trulli raced in F1 between 1997 and 2011 and won one race in that time, coming in the same year of his major crash at the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix.
13 Derek Daly, 1980 Monaco Grand Prix
Although only one F1 driver has ever died at a Monaco Grand Prix, the track is well-known for the tendency for cars to crash on the circuit. The narrow roads and sharp turns are a recipe for collisions and the Monaco circuit whilst it has seen some of the most entertaining races in F1 history has also seen some catastrophic collisions. At the 1980 Monaco Grand Prix, Derek Daly had a coming together with Bruno Giacomelli at the beginning of the race. The crash threw Daly spectacularly over Giacomelli and into a melee of cars in between racers Jarier and Prost. Only eight drivers completed the race but fortunately no one was seriously injured.
12 Mark Webber, 2010 European Grand Prix, Valencia
Mark Webber’s crash at the 2010 European Grand Prix in Valencia is testimony to the advancements in safety of the modern Formula One car. When Webber drove into the back of Heikki Kovalainen on the ninth lap approaching turn 13, his car flipped and became airborne. Webber came crashing back down to Earth, landing upside-down. Such was the speed that Webber hit the ground, his Red Bull car bounced back onto its wheels before crashing into the tire wall at considerable speed. Webber came out of the incident largely unscathed.
11 Christian Fittipaldi, 1993 Italian Grand Prix
Christian Fittipaldi’s crash is remarkable by virtue of his recovery. The incident is possibly the most bizarre in F1 history. As Fittipaldi approached the chequered flag, his left wheel made contact with his teammate Martini’s right wheel, launching Fittipaldi’s car into the air. Instead of crashing to the ground in a ball of flames or flying off the track, Fittipaldi’s car completed a perfect back flip, landing back on all four wheels and hobbling across the line. The heavy impact was enough to dislodge one wheel and damage the car but not enough to stop the Brazilian crossing the line in the same position he had been in prior to the crash in extraordinary fashion.
10 Alberto Ascari, 1955 Monaco Grand Prix
Alberto Ascari had two major crashes in the year of 1955, the first he escaped with a broken nose but he was not so fortunate four days later when he somersaulted his car twice and was dead within minutes. Ascari’s first accident occurred in Monaco where he spectacularly crashed into the harbour and came close to drowning. His fatal crash came days later at Monza. Exiting a fast left-hander, Ascari skidded out, somersaulting twice and landing on its front.
The similarities between Ascari’s death and his own father's have been particularly well-noted. He was only four days older than his father Antonio had been when his crash killed him. Both left behind a wife and two children, both had been involved in serious accidents four days earlier and both crashed whilst exiting fast left-handers. Alberto was one of the finest early F1 drivers, winning two World Championships in 1952 and 1953 having finished second in 1951.
9 Belgian Grand Prix 1998
There is no single driver named above as the crash at the beginning of the Belgian Grand Prix involved 13 cars and it is difficult to know who was fully to blame. It was an incredibly wet day in Belgium, so much so that even the race footage is obscured by the adverse weather conditions. It appears that David Coulthard was the first driver to lose control, spinning into a right angle on the track and triggering a chain reaction which saw a 13 car pile-up in catastrophic fashion. Metal and rubber was propelled into the air in the melee and the race had to be stopped in order to clear the debris, before being restarted. No drivers were seriously hurt but only eight managed to finish the race in the torrential rain.
8 Jody Scheckter, 1973 British Grand Prix
Although Scheckter’s first crash was not particularly dramatic, it did leave him stationery covering a large breadth of the track. Coming at the start of the race, this meant the South African was a sitting duck and one can only imagine what must have been going through his head as he sat there with a number of cars heading towards him at considerable speed. As the cars hit Scheckter a pile-up ensued which caused 11 cars to retire in a shocking spectacle. The crash was so severe that the race eventually had to be stopped and restarted.
7 Ayrton Senna, 1994 San Marino Grand Prix
The most famous crash in F1 history is probably that of Ayrton Senna. Regarded by many as the greatest F1 driver of all time, Senna was a true champion. Victorious on the track and loved off it, Senna donated a reported $400 million to charities for children in poverty and left a great legacy when he lost his life at the age of 34. Senna had been heavily involved in the improvement of driver safety following the death of Roland Ratzenberger and had been advised by FIA Medical Chief Sid Watkins to retire from the sport, but he did not.
Imola was the site of Senna’s death. He was exiting the famous Tamburello corner when his car traveled in a straight line rather than taking the corner naturally. Senna hit the concrete retaining wall at 145 mph and when the rescue team arrived on the scene they found he had lost over four litres of blood and was suffering from a dangerously weak heartbeat. Senna was taken to hospital but his time of death was given as 2:17 pm, the time in which he crashed. His death marked a significant change in the safety of F1 and no driver has died on the track since.
6 Gerhard Berger, 1989 San Marino Grand Prix
The Ferrari 640 which was used for the 1989 Formula One World Championships had been described as ‘fast but fragile’, and so it proved. At the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Gerhard Berger had one of the highest-speed crashes in F1 history. Failing to turn at Tamburello Corner, Berger went straight into the wall at 180 mph. On top of the major collision, Berger’s Ferrari then burst into flames. Those who witnessed the crash were stunned Berger had come out of it alive. The rescue team was on the scene within 16 seconds and put the fire out after another 10; leaving Berger with only minimal burns and broken ribs. Berger never won a World Championship, but did come in third on two occasions.
5 Roger Williamson, 1973 Dutch Grand Prix
The death of Roger Williamson is one of the most tragic in F1 history because it could have easily been prevented. Williamson’s suffered a tire failure and as a result he crashed into the left hand barrier with speed, causing the vehicle to be launched over 275 metres all the way to the opposite side of the track. As his car slid along the ground, the petrol tank ignited leaving Williamson trapped in a ball of flames. The March Engineering works automobile was stuck on its front, leaving Williamson with no way to escape.
Fellow driver David Purley immediately pulled over and risked his own life running across the live track to get to Williamson. Officials thought that Purley must have crashed but had escaped the vehicle and did not put the red flag out and the race continued. Purley was unable to overturn the vehicle himself and marshals would not help as they weren’t wearing the correct overalls. Horrified spectators tried to assist Purley but were held back by security staff. Only eight minutes later did a fire engine arrive on the scene, by which time the struggling Williamson had died of asphyxiation.
4 Wolfgang von Trips, 1961 Italian Grand Prix
The crash of Wolfgang von Trips at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix is regarded as the greatest tragedy in the sports history. As the drivers came down the straight towards Parabolica, von Trips tangled with Jim Clark sending him off-course. The German’s Ferrari crashed into the banked curve which landed the car into a crowded section of spectators. The crash killed von Trips as well as 15 spectators. He had crashed twice previously at Monza, and been badly hurt on both occasions. Wolfgang von Trips was experiencing a superb campaign in 1961 and would have comfortably won the World Championship if it weren’t for the tragedy in Italy.
3 Tom Pryce 1977 South African Grand Prix
The death of Tom Pryce and Frederick Jansen van Vuuren is probably the most horrifying sight in F1 history, if such criteria can be measured. Renzo Zorzi pulled over to the side of the track and stopped as he was experiencing difficulties with his car. The car then caught fire and Zorzi eventually disconnected his oxygen pipe and escaped the burning car. Two marshals arrived to try and put out the fire, but were faced with the task of crossing the live track. The first made it across to Zorzi’s car, the second, van Vuuren, did not.
Frederick van Vuuren was carrying a 40 pound fire extinguisher when Pryce drove into the teenager at 170 mph. The impact killed both instantly. The crash threw the mutilated marshal into the air in harrowing scenes whilst the fire extinguisher had hit Pryce’s helmet and dislodged his head.
2 Niki Lauda, 1976 German Grand Prix
The 1976 Grand Prix in Germany at the Nurburgring witnessed one of the most dramatic crashes in F1 history. Only a week prior to the race Lauda had actually urged his fellow racers to boycott the race due to the weather, but the notion was declined and the race went ahead. The problem was that part of the track was wet and part of it was dry. Lauda was one of the first racers to switch to the slick tires, a decision which gave him the edge in the race but almost cost him his life.
Lauda’s Ferrari smashed into the embankment at high-speed before bursting into flames and subsequently had Brett Lunger crash into him. Lauda was trapped in the car, among a ball of flames. Lauda sadly developed severe and permanent burns, inhaled large quantities of toxic gases and fell into a coma. He had severe scars to his scalp and lost most of his right ear; remarkably Lauda returned to F1 only six weeks later, still heavily bandaged, he had to wear a specially customized helmet. Lauda finished second in the World Championships that year and won a further two World Championships before ending his career in 1985.
1 Gilles Villeneuve, 1982 Belgian Grand Prix
Despite a short career, Villeneuve was one of the most beloved figures within the sport. Renowned for his eccentric and exciting driving style, he never won a World Championship, finishing second in 1979, but did manage to win six races over his six year career. Villeneuve’s crash occurred during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix and is one of the most shocking moments in F1 history.
As Villeneuve came around Butte corner he saw Jochen Mass travelling much slower than himself. Mass tried to move out of the Canadian’s path but was unable to do so, and Villeneuve hit the back of Mass’s car and was propelled into the air. Villeneuve’s Ferrari traveled over 100 metres in the air before crashing to the ground. As the nose of his Ferrari struck the ground, Villeneuve was jettisoned from the vehicle and thrown a further 50 metres forward into the catch fence of the track, whilst the car largely disintegrated upon impact. Villeneuve had a fatal neck fracture and was not breathing, he was kept alive on life support until later that day when he died.