Even though the official birth of Formula One is often contested, pundits generally agree that F1 was influenced by the early road races that took place in France at the turn of the century. After several decades of refining and tinkering, Formula One racing was officially launched in May 1950, where the first World Championship race was held at the now iconic Silverstone Circuit in England.
Like with most sports, Formula One evolved tremendously over time. Technological advancements in car manufacturing saw new waves of race cars emerge at an exponential rate, resulting in faster clock speeds and more aerodynamic designs. Although many precautions have been put into place to provide safety to drivers, fatalities in Formula One are inevitable. When speeds reach 220 mph, even the slightest miscalculation or maneuver by a driver can cause a high speed crash. The sport has lost 51 drivers since its inception, as well as staff and spectators that were involved in some horrible crashes and many legendary racers have had their lives taken away at peak moments in their careers. Here are 15 of the most tragic deaths of Formula One drivers.
15 Cameron Earl
Cameron Earl was the first recorded fatality in the history of Formula One. Earl was a British auto engineer best known for his aiding in the design of British car engines. He travelled to Germany in the 1940s to meet with engineers from the world renown Mercedes-Benz company and returned to England with blueprints and secrets he uncovered from the German design team.
Cameron Earl died in a hospital bed at the age of 29 from a fractured skull. Although not a race car driver himself, Earl was working as a consultant for the English Racing Automobiles team when his car was overturned while doing a test drive on a test track in Warwickshire. His death marked the first of many that would follow in the sport during the next half of the century. Aside from spectators or marshals, there have been over 50 deaths in Formula One since its inception. The tragic event shocked the racing world by bringing to light the inevitable dangers surrounding the sport and was a catalyst in bringing safety to the forefront of Formula One in the years that followed.
14 Chet Miller
Chet Miller was the first American race car driver to be killed during a Formula One race. His death came 11 months after Cameron Earl died during a test run in Warwickshire. Miller had only 4 races under his belt at the time of his death. The accident occurred on a practice run during the Indianapolis 500 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 15, 1953.
Although they were governed by a different set of rules, the Indy 500 used to be part of the Formula One World Championship until 1960. Today they are considered two separate Championships. Indy 500 racers now all use the same spec cars, they race on oval tracks and have faster straight line speeds. Indy 500 is also a much less lucrative sport and Formula One teams can have up to 10 times the budgets of Indy 500 teams, and have some of the biggest and most prestigious car manufacturers in the world building race cars for the sport.
13 Roland Ratzenberger
Roland Ratzenberger died on April 30th, 1994 during a qualifying round at the San Marino Grand Prix. His death was largely overshadowed by the death of Aytron Senna, who died the following day during (the same event), on the same race track.
Roland damaged his front wing during a lap and decided not to go into the pits since he was pressing for the final grid spot. The wing ended up breaking off from the body of the car when Roland was travelling at a very high speed on the straight and it traveled underneath the car. Roland lost control of the race car because of this and wasn’t able to properly maneuver around the incoming corner. He slammed into the wall at a frightening 195.7 mph. His tragic death marked 12 years since the previous death in Formula One during the 1982 season, and only 24 hours before the next death on the following day. The racing association came under intense scrutiny following the two deaths in the two days, and new safety measures were put into place to increase the safety of the drivers.
12 Bill Vukovich
Bill Vukovich won the 1953 and the 1954 Indianapolis 500 and was considered to be one of the greatest drivers of the sport by his peers at the time of his death. For a racer with a short career of only 6 entries, Bill has managed to make history with his 2 Indy 500 Championships. He also holds a record for leading the most laps in a race for three consecutive years. He led a mind-blowing 71.7% of the laps he took part in.
Vukovich was killed in the 57th lap of the 1955 Indy 500. He died in a chain reaction crash that involved 3 other drivers. His car became airborne after being hit, landed upside down and burst into flames. He died instantly. His death came only a few years after being officially inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992, and into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991.
11 Luigi Musso
Luigi Musso was a race car driver for the Ferrari team and was active on the Formula One scene from 1953-1958. Musso was known in the racing world as a risk taker and was later recognized for his secretive feud with English drivers Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.
At the time of his death, it was reported that Hawthorn and Collins had made a pact to split the earnings from a potential victory between the two of them. Collins, Hawthorn and Musso, were all teammates at the time. The combination of two drivers united against him and the fact that Musso was severely in financial debt at this point in his career forced Musso to push himself and his vehicle to the limit. Musso died during the 1958 French Grand Prix while chasing the race leader and fellow teammate, Mike Hawthorn. His car struck a ditch and somersaulted. The high speed impact caused critical head injuries and Musso passed away later that day while Mike Hawthorn managed to stay in first place and won the race.
10 Peter Collins
Peter Collins died a frighteningly similar death to his teammate Luigi Musso, that same year in another race. He was only 26 years old when he was killed in an accident during the 1958 German Grand Prix. Like Musso earlier that year, Collins was driving excessively fast when his car hit a ditch, summersaulted into the air and landed upside down. As the car summersaulted, Collins was ejected from the seat and struck a tree. Like Musso, he sustained critical head injuries and died shortly after the accident occurred. Collins’ teammate Mike Hawthorn, quit racing all together after learning of Collins’ death.
Only six months after retiring from racing, Hawthorn also died a tragic death caused by a roadside accident when he was driving on the Guilford bypass in England. His death caused shockwaves around the world because he and his teammates, Collins and Russo, all died from tragic car accidents within less than a year from each other. The Hawthorn Memorial Trophy was created in his honor and is awarded to the most successful British F1 driver. The current trophy holder is 2015 World Champion, Lewis Hamilton.
9 Eugenio Castellotti
Eugenio Castelotti was a Formula One driver from Italy. Castelotti was famous during his lifetime for his very public relationship with actress and ballerina Delia Scala. He was equally famous for his cool demeanor and tailored clothing.
A local benefactor from Italy provided Eugenio with a Ferrari at the tender age of 20 years old. He began officially racing cars in 1952 and eventually made his debut in the Grand Prix on January 16th, 1955, with the Lancia team. He set a world record for being the youngest driver to secure a pole position during the 1955 Belgian Grand Prix, at just 24 years old.
Like many of his counterparts, Eugenio died at a very young age. He was 26 years old when he was test driving a new Ferrari Grand Prix car that would be used for the 1957 season. He crashed his car when driving on the Modena Autodrome track and his body was tossed 100 yards away. He was determined to have died immediately upon impact due to severely fracturing his skull.
8 Tom Pryce
Tom Pryce holds the distinguished record of being the only Welsh driver in history to win a Formula One race. He died during the 1977 South African Grand Prix after striking a teenage fire marshal on the racetrack.
The accident occurred during wet conditions after another driver’s car caught fire during the race. Two fire marshals attempted to cross the track to put out the fire without having gotten prior permission to cross the tracks. As the race was still going on, the second fire marshal never managed to successfully cross the racetrack and was struck at 170mph by Tom Pryce. The 19 year old fire marshal died immediately on impact and his body was said to have been violently disfigured due to the shear force at which he was hit. The fire extinguisher he was holding hit Pryce directly in the head and killed him on impact. His car continued down the track with him dead at the wheel and eventually came to a stop when it hit an entrance for emergency vehicles.
7 Gilles Villeneuve
Gilles Villeneuve was an iconic Formula One driver from Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Quebec. Villeneuve started his career as a snowmobile racer and eventually graduated to becoming a professional Formula One driver. He started as a driver for the McLaren team in 1977, and moved on to join the Ferrari team until the time of his death in 1982. Villeneuve has never won a Championship but finished second place in the 1979 season. He did however, record 6 Grand Prix victories over his short career.
Villeneuve died during a qualifying run at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. A 140 mph crash after colliding with driver Jochen Mass, led to his tragic death. After he clipped the rear end of Mass’ car, Villeneuve’s car was launched 100m into the air and disintegrated after nosediving into the side of the track.
His son, Jacques Villeneuve, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a racer himself. He carried on his father’s legacy with pride and went on to win the 1997 Formula One season, being the first and only Canadian to do so in the history of the sport.
6 Piers Courage
Piers Courage was active on the Formula One scene from 1967 until his death in 1970. He was vetted to take over his family's extremely lucrative business, the Courage Brewery, but chose to follow a career in race car driving instead, due to his passion for the sport. He worked for many different car manufacturers; Lotus, McLaren and Brabham BT26. Courage never managed to win a race before his death, but came in second on two occasions at both the Monaco Grand Prix and the US Grand Prix.
Piers Courage lost his life in a freak accident during the Dutch Grand Prix in 1970. His car’s front suspension got loose when he was taking a turn near a tunnel and his car rode up an embankment at insanely high speeds. His death came about when one of the front wheels detached from his car on impact and slammed full speed into his head. Courage was said to have died immediately on impact due to severe head injuries caused by the tire.
5 Wolfgang von Trips
Wolfgang was the third driver to be killed in a Formula One race during the 1961 season. The toll of his accident during the 1961 Italian Grand Prix involved the most deaths ever in the sport.
In a split second maneuver attempt to overtake Jim Clark’s Lotus, von Trips collides with his opponent and his Ferrari is launched into the air. Since he was not wearing a seatbelt, Wolfgang was immediately thrown out of his car like a rag doll. His car flew into the nearby crowd and immediately killed 11 spectators that were watching the race. Three other spectators died in the hospital a few days later from injuries sustained during impact with the race car.
As with most accidents in Formula One, a split second mistake or miscalculation can lead to incredibly devastating accidents. When driving at speeds of 180mph, there is very little margin for error.
4 Ronnie Peterson
Ronnie Peterson was a Swedish driver known by the nickname ‘SuperSwede’. He raced professionally from 1970 until 1978, and recorded 10 wins in 123 entries throughout his career. He spent his last racing season as the number two driver in the Lotus team behind Mario Andretti.
Peterson was hit in a crash during the Italian Grand Prix that involved 10 other drivers. He lost control after being clipped by James Hunt and his race car flew into the barriers. He was fully conscious throughout the whole ordeal and was pulled from his car by two other drivers who were involved in the 10 car melee. Although his injuries were visibly serious, doctors did not realize that they were actually life threatening. He died the next morning of kidney failure due to the physical trauma on both of his legs.
Beatles legend George Harrison, paid tribute to Peterson in 1979 with a song he dedicated to the late driver called ‘Faster’.
3 Jules Bianchi
Jules Bianchi died in 2015 at the age of 25 years old. His passing marked the first death in more then 10 years since Aytron Senna’s death in 1994.
Jules Bianchi’s accident occurred on October 5th, 2014, at the Japanese Grand Prix. He was driving for the Marussia F1 Team when he collided with a tractor crane on the outside of a curve on the track. The wet conditions of the racetrack at the time of the accident were the main reason for Bianchi losing control of his race car. Bianchi’s safety roll bar inside his car was destroyed and his vehicle was extensively damaged. The high speed impact caused Bianchi to lose consciousness. It was later confirmed in the hospital that Bianchi suffered from Diffuse Axonal Brain Injury. The injury left Bianchi in a vegetative state. 90% of people who suffer from DAI will never regain consciousness and this was also the case for Bianchi. After being placed into an induced coma when undergoing emergency surgery, he remained comatose and never recovered from his injuries. He passed away almost a year later on July 17th, 2015.
2 Mario Alborghetti
Mario Alborghetti was killed in his Grand Prix debut on April 11, 1955, at 26 years old. He raced for the Volpini-Arzani team on the Pau circuit in 1955.
Mario was not considered to be an excellent driver and did not possess enough experience to race in a professional tournament. As the sport was still in its infancy stages at the time, Alborghetti managed to use his wealth as leverage to join the sport. He commissioned engineer Egidio Arzani and designer Gianpaolo Volpini to build him a Grand Prix car that he could drive in a professional tournament. The team rebuilt a Maserati 4CLT acquired from the Scuderia Milano racing team and enrolled in the 1955 Pau Grand Prix.
Alborghetti suffered fatal chest and head wounds on the 19th lap when he collided into straw bales on the side of the racetrack. He reportedly pressed on the wrong pedal as he approached the curb causing him to accelerate instead of break. Many experts have since stated that the Pau racetrack was considered to be a very tricky and difficult course and a driver with as little experience as Alborghetti should not have raced during that Grand Prix.
1 Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna won three Formula One World Championships in 1988, 1990 and 1991, and is widely regarded as being one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time. From a very young age, Senna’s father supported his aspirations to race. He built Ayrton his first go kart and entered him in a karting competition at age 13. His passion for racing saw his career quickly progress and he became an official Formula One racer in 1984. Before his tragic death, Senna went on to win three World Championships for McLaren in 1988, 1990 and 1991.
During a race at the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1st, 1994, Senna was killed when his car incomprehensibly left the track and crashed into a concrete barrier. Senna had mentioned multiple times throughout the season that he did not feel supremely confident with his vehicle as it sometimes made inexplicable maneuvers while he was racing. Major safety reforms followed after his death that shocked the entire racing community. Senna left behind a flawless legacy due to his passion for the sport and humanitarian efforts throughout his career.