Top-5 Most Unfortunate Deaths in Formula One

Time to visit an older blog idea which I had. Although there has not been a driver fatality in Formula One since Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994, the sport has an unfortunate and long list of fatalities to its name. Here I’m listing some of the most unfortunate F1 fatalities to have happened within the sport.

Edit March 3, 2014: Due to some of the videos no longer working, they’ve been removed from this blog.

5. Ronnie Peterson

In Sweden, Formula Ones were at the peak of their popularity in the 1970s. At one time races were even held on Swedish soil. However, the last Swede to have competed in Formula Ones was Stefan Johansson, who retired in 1991. The drop in Swedish interest in the sport can easily be attributed to the loss of one of their most talented drivers.

Ronnie Peterson, also known as the “Super Swede”, was the championship  runner-up twice during his career. In 1978 he could have had the chance to take the championship, were it not for his untimely demise.

In the Italian Grand Prix, the race started before all the cars were in their respective starting grids and as a result there was a massive crash which stopped the race for ten drivers.Peterson couldn’t escape his car but he was rescued from the burning wreckage by fellow racers James Hunt, Clay Regazzoni and Patrick Depailler. What makes this accident most unfortunate is that Peterson didn’t die at the crash site but instead in the hospital over-night. Peterson suffered several fractures but remained conscious which led his doctors to believe nothing was wrong. However, his untreated bones bled bone-marrow into his blood-stream and caused a fat-embolism which eventually killed him – thus undoing the good of Hunt, Regazzoni and Depailler’s heroic act.

Even more sadly is that Peterson had every chance in the world to take the championship for himself that year, finishing second posthumously in the standings.


4. Gilles Villeneuve

French-Canadian Gilles Villeneuve was one of the most well-known F1 drivers to have never won a world championship. His son, Jacques, would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps into the sport and to an eventual and sole championship in 1997. Gilles raced with many of the greats including Niki Lauda.

During the qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, Gilles clipped the tyres of Jochen Mass which sent his Ferrari flying through the air. What made this accident particularly unpleasant was the fact that Gilles was thrown out of his car into the wire-mesh safety barrier. Despite medical help arriving soon at the scene, Gilles died later in hospital as a result of neck fracture.


3. Roland Ratzenberger

The 1994 Imola Grand Prix weekend is called the Black Weekend for good reason. Rubens Barrichello suffered a severe accident in Friday practice and Ayrton Senna was killed in the race on Sunday. However, few remember the second fatality of that weekend, that of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger.

During Saturday practice Ratzenberger lost control of his car and plowed into the safety barrier at full speed. Ratzenberger died of a skull fracture which was the caused by the whiplash effect from the car coming to a sudden stop. His death had a noted effect in safety regulations (as did that of Senna) and in the late 1990s the Head and Neck Strap (HANS-device) became mandatory for all drivers.


2. Tom Pryce

There has only ever been one Welsh driver in Formula One history and unfortunately his death resulted in some of the most gruesome footage ever committed to film. Pryce was a popular, if not the most succesful, driver whose career spanned the mid-to-late 1970s. Pryce’s death came at the third Grand Prix of the 1977 season in South Africa.

The accident happened on the main-straight near the final curves of the track. Renzo Zorzi’s car had stopped off track and two marshalls dashed over the with fire-extinguishers to prevent the car from catching fire. Hans Joachim-Stuck was driving in front of Pryce and only narrowly dodged the marshalls. Pryce didn’t see the marshalls from behind Stuck and as a result ran down 19-year-old Jansen Van Vuuren.

Pryce was killed instantly by the fire-extinguisher carried by Van Vuuren, which struck his head. His helmet strap also dug into his neck due to the impact and nearly decapitated Pryce. The remains of Van Vuuren were flung several meters away due to the impact. Van Vuuren was so badly mutilated by the accident that he was only identified after the race through process of elimination.

The video below is a censored version of the incident for the faint of heart.


1. Wolfgang Von Trips

In 1961, Wolfgang Alexander Albert von Trips was well on his way to becoming Germany’s first F1 champion. Wolfgang had scored points in five of the six races driven at that point and been on the podium four times with two victories to his name. Unfortunately the eighth race of the season would be his last.

At the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Trips hit the back of Jim Clark’s Lotus which sent the pre-wing F1 car flying into the air and into the audience before flying back on to the track. Not only was Wolfgang killed in the crash, so were 15 spectators. This constitutes the worst F1 disaster in the history of the sport (even so, a far smaller death rate that the infamous 1955 Le Mans disaster).