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5 worst crashes in the history of Formula 1

Track marshals clear the debris following Romain Grosjean's crash during 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images
Track marshals clear the debris following Romain Grosjean's crash during 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images
Rashi Bhattacharyya

Formula 1 is undeniably one of the most exciting sports to watch. But lurking behind the spectacle of speed is the danger which accompanies it all the time. One small mistake can leave the drivers with severe injuries, or worse, take their lives.

Over the years, the number of fatal crashes in Formula 1 has decreased significantly due to multiple safety reforms. Even Grosjean's fiery crash in Bahrain last year, which saw his car split in two, allowed the Frenchman to walk away under his own power.

Unfortunately, the important safety measures in Formula 1 that saved Grosjean's life came as a result of reactive changes over the years. Here, we will look back at the 5 worst crashes in the history of Formula 1.

#1. San Marino Grand Prix of 1994 saw some of the worst crashes in Formula 1 history

Medical team surrounds Ayrton Senna after he crashes during the San Marino Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images
Medical team surrounds Ayrton Senna after he crashes during the San Marino Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images

The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend is widely regarded as one of the most tragic in Formula 1 as Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna lost their lives on Saturday and Sunday respectively.

Even before these fatal accidents, Jordan's Rubens Barrichello suffered a crash during Friday's practice when his car came to a violent stop against the tyrewall at the Variante Bassa section. Fortunately, he survived the incident.

During the following day's qualifiers, Simtek driver Roland Ratzenberger lost his life after a damaged front wing caused him to lose downforce at the end of the fearsome Tamburello sweeper and crash into a concrete wall. Although he was quickly airlifted to a hospital, he was declared dead upon arrival. This was the first death at a Grand Prix since Riccardo Paletti in 1982.

The disastrous events of this unlucky weekend at Imola didn't stop there as, on race day, triple world champion Ayrton Senna’s car veered off track in the middle of the same Tamburello bend and struck the outside retaining wall. Upon sustaining skull fractures, multiple brain injuries, and a ruptured temporal artery after a tie rod pierced his helmet, the legendary Formula 1 driver was gone forever.

Already shaken by the death of Ratzenberger and Barrichello's accident on Saturday, Senna was apparently rethinking his decision to participate in the race. But he eventually decided to go ahead with it, which cost his life.

This tragic weekend led to Formula 1 introducing a host of safety measures during the rest of the season and in the years that followed.

#2. The 1961 Italian Grand Prix was deadly for the audience

The 1961 Italian Grand Prix at Monza was the penultimate round of that year's Formula 1 championship. Moments after the start, a disastrous accident on the approach to the Parabolica corner not only took the life of Wolfgang Von Trips, a leading title contender from Ferrari, but also killed 15 spectators.

Wolfgang Von Trips in his car before the start of the Italian Grand Prix, 1961. Photo: Getty Images
Wolfgang Von Trips in his car before the start of the Italian Grand Prix, 1961. Photo: Getty Images

The unfortunate event took place when the cars of Jim Clark and Von Trips collided. The impact on Clark was less severe as his car came to a halt after skidding for a few meters. However, Von Trips' car flew into the fencing at the edge of the circuit as he lost control, and crashed into the doomed spectators, while Von Trips died instantly as he hit the ground on impact.

#3. Formula 1 legend Niki Lauda's near-death experience at the 1976 German Grand Prix

Niki Lauda before the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring circuit, 1976. Photo: AllsportUK /Allsport
Niki Lauda before the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring circuit, 1976. Photo: AllsportUK /Allsport

Three-time Formula 1 champion Niki Lauda was skeptical about driving on the Nurburgring circuit during the 1976 German Grand Prix due to growing safety concerns on the mountainous 14-mile circuit. His fears came true in the worst possible way as he faced the biggest accident of his life on race day.

Lauda lost control of his car on the rise before the right-hander at Bergwerk and hit an embankment. As the car spun around on impact and stopped in the middle of the track, it burst into flames and was also hit by oncoming cars.

While his fellow drivers were able to get him out of the wreckage, his severe injuries pushed him into a coma. Miraculously, Niki Lauda survived and made a comeback, but this crash still haunts Formula 1 fans.

#4. Alberto Ascari's harbour plunge at the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix

Alberto Ascari at the wheel of his Ferrari at Silverstone circuit in 1953. Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Alberto Ascari at the wheel of his Ferrari at Silverstone circuit in 1953. Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Alberto Ascari, a two-time champion of Formula 1, was hoping to win the prestigious Monaco GP after managing to take the lead from Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss of Mercedes. But, as he neared the end of the race, his car broke through the barrier and crashed into the Bay of Hercules.

Fortunately, he was able to swim out of the harbor and didn't suffer from any grave injuries except for a broken nose. This bizarre crash is believed to have been caused due to the crowd's sudden reaction to Moss's retirement during the 80th lap. Four days later, however, a crash during testing cost Ascari his life.

#5. Gilles Villeneuve's fatal qualifying accident at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix

Gilles Villeneuve in action at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1982. Photo: Getty Images
Gilles Villeneuve in action at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1982. Photo: Getty Images

Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve was one of the most flamboyant drivers on the Formula 1 circuit in 1982, and a sureshot bet for that year's title. Unfortunately, a crash during the final qualifying session of the Belgian Grand Prix claimed his life.

At the time of the crash, Villeneuve was trying to improve his standing on his final qualifying lap, with eight minutes left on the clock. Jochen Mass, who was on a cool-down lap, moved to the right to let Villeneuve pass. Unfortunately, Villeneuve, who was going great guns, didn't read Mass' intentions in time and also moved right to overtake the German. This inevitably ended in a collision, which caused Villeneuve's Ferrari to launch into the air before crashing into the ground and disintegrating. Villeneuve was catapulted from the wreckage, causing injuries that proved fatal.

Edited by Sandeep Banerjee

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