As Formula 1 staged the Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2012 on |le Notre-Dame in Montreal, it was 30 years since the circuit's namesake, one of the bravest drivers ever, was killed in an accident at the Belgian Grand Prix in Zolder on May 8, 1982. A month later, another driver, Riccardo Paletti, was killed in a race accident on the Canadian circuit that had been renamed for Villeneuve.
After a safety overhaul that year, it would be 12 years before another death on a race weekend. But on May 1, 1994, one of the bravest and best, Ayrton Senna, died at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy. The day before, Roland Ratzenberger, a rookie, had been killed during a practice track session.
Again the series overhauled its safety regulations, and there has not been another fatality since. In fact, the series has come to appear so safe that the paradigm of racing drivers as brave superheroes seems to have faded. Yet among drivers, team managers, owners and other racing people, the consensus remains that racing a modern Formula 1 car still requires considerable bravery.
''That's why I do it,'' said Daniel Ricciardo, an Australian driver at the Toro Rosso team. ''We do it because it requires us to be brave and to stand out from the others. I've always preferred tighter circuits, street circuits, because there's many more moments when you need to be brave and let it all hang out.''
Niki Lauda, a three-time world champion, who was administered the last rites by a priest after a fiery accident that he would in fact survive at the old Nurburgring track in August 1976, said a driver must still be brave.
''To drive a car quick today is the same effort,'' Lauda said. ''You have to be a guy who likes risks, even if it is much reduced the amount of risk you have.... In my time we had to have 100 percent risk and no fear, and if we die, tough .... Today, thank God, it is 10 times better.''
Lauda, an Austrian, recovered within weeks of the 1976 crash and raced the rest of the season. His face remains scarred from burns that he suffered.
The French driver Jacques Laffite, a contemporary of Lauda and Villeneuve, was seriously injured in an accident at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1986 and still has multiple screws and pins in his legs and back.
''When I went off for a racing weekend, I wasn't sure I would return on the Monday,'' Laffite said recently. ''Which is a little different today, even if you still have to be careful today.'' He applauded the safety improvements, but noted that ''bravery is still necessary for a racing driver.''
''You need bravery to go 200 or 300 kilometers an hour without visibility into a corner where you don't know what is at the other end,'' he said.
Nonetheless, Laffite suggested it is easier to be brave today. ''Before, when you had a steel barrier like in Zeltweg at the Bosch corner and you came up to it at 300 k.p.h. and you knew that if you cut it and hit the barrier at 270 k.p.h., the guy who braked two meters closer was the more courageous,'' he said.
Villeneuve, who had started his career racing snowmobiles and was always a daredevil, had a different level of physiological reaction to speed and danger than the average person and even than many of his fellow drivers.
In his biography of Villeneuve, the Canadian journalist Gerald Donaldson recounts how Villeneuve and his teammate at Ferrari, Didier Pironi, were tested for pulse rate while racing. At Monaco, Pironi's pulse went from 60 beats per minute to between 180 and 207 throughout the race. In Villeneuve's case, ''the medical people were shocked to find his heart rate barely blipped above an average of 127 despite his ever-vigorous on-track activities.''
Villeneuve, Donaldson wrote, ''was always more worried about setting a quick time than crashing.''
Modern medical tests on drivers have improved, and today, Riccardo Ceccarelli, a Formula 1 doctor who works for the Toro Rosso and Lotus teams and runs a performance clinic for racing drivers in Italy, said his studies had shown that racing drivers in general do not have the same physiological reactions in their brain functions while undergoing stress as ''normal'' people .
''From my data, I can say that the driver is different from a normal person,'' Ceccarelli said. ''Comparing the brain of a Formula 1 driver during the action and a normal person, we see the performances are very similar, but he consumes much less blood in the brain to do the same effort.''
For Peter Sauber, owner of the Sauber team and a former racer, bravery is not quite the right word. Rather, he suggested, ''You need a lot of confidence and the ability to surpass yourself.'' ''And you need trust in yourself and faith in your car,'' Sauber said.
And, he added, drivers ''have to be a little bit crazy.''