Sunday, July 19, 2015

Improving Safety in Formula One

Safety in Formula One has again come into the spotlight following recent deaths in open cockpit racing.  Questions are rightly be asked and discussions will continue.  Inevitably, some changes will be made.

The reason change needs to happen is that we've had 5 deaths in open wheel cars in the last 6 years.  Henry Surtees died in 2009 driving F2, aged just 18.  Dan Wheldon died in 2011 in an IndyCar, age 33.  Maria de Villota died in 2013 testing F1, age 33.  F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in 2015, age 25.  Most recently Justin Wilson also died 2015, aged 37.

So yes, something must be done.
 
F1 and other open wheeler racing formula have different rules and safety aspects, especially when it comes to the actual car itself.  Formula One is of course considered the pinnacle.  That said, open wheel cars have shown in recent years they have several weak points in regard to safety.  When these weak points "line-up", it can cause serious injury or death.

Motorsport is dangerous and the worst can still happen. But that doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made.  Below are some ideas and suggestions around circuits, procedures as well as the cars and drivers.
 
Circuits
 
The circuits themselves are nowadays generally quite safe of course, especially the newer ones.  They have ample run-off with good general design and safety procedures in place.  Monaco is the exception to this which is tolerated.
 
There should be an ongoing and comprehensive review of circuit safety – race by race, corner by corner.  This should be done to find any weak points or possibilities for improvement.  In addition, F1 should always listen to the drivers themselves.  If the drivers believe by consensus that a change should be made to a circuit - however minor - then everything should be done to facilitate that change in the shortest possible timeframe.

Some other suggestions:
  • Cranes.  We need the latest and best available.  The optimal outcome is to have adequate cranes behind the safety wall removing cars from circuit.
  • Catch fencing :  Improvements can be made.  Take for example Dan Wheldon's accident or the unfortunate death of volunteer marshal Graham Beveridge at the Australian Grand Prix in 2001.
  • We need improvement and standardisation of different track elements such as kerbs, rumble strips, run-off, catchment, tyre walls, fencing, gravel vs. asphalt etc.

Trucks
 
In any racing situation, there will be a time where a person or a truck needs to be on the race track itself.   So, can the trucks themselves be improved?  I hope so.  In any case, when a truck or a person are needed on the race circuit, at that point the F1 cars need to be driving at safety car speeds.
 
Procedures
 
The rules around safety car and procedures can also improve.  Firstly of course flags are not adequate.  For years now safety warnings have also been displayed via bright illuminated signage on-circuit and instant driver notification via steering wheel or radio transmission.
 
Are these adequate?  This technology needs to be maximised to ensure we have appropriate and plentiful illuminated signage at each Grand Prix.  And the race director of course needs complete control to make any safety decisions and communicate safety messages to every driver and team instantly.
 
Slow zone - "VSC"
 
This concept has been used in LMP1 racing and has now been adopted in F1 as a "Virtual Safety Car" (VSC).  This concept has proven to work well and it should continue.
 
Cars and drivers
 
We should never be complacent with regard to safety of the F1 cars themselves.  This is especially the case with the safety cell.  As new technologies and materials become available, F1 should always respond with improvements.  For example improving frontal and side impact regulations, stronger wheel tethers etc.
 
And for the drivers themselves improvements in helmets, HANS devices, race gear and even accident deployment technology could also be a possibility.
 
Canopy
 
Some have suggested the introduction of a fighter jet style canopy for F1 cars which could also include a forward roll hoop.  This would significantly reduce the chance of injury to drivers heads.  Of course the introduction of canopies presents a range of safety challenges.  Not insignificantly, it would also involve a brand-new era of F1 where we no longer have “open cockpit” cars.
 
I can live with that.  I believe that F1 can and should adopt fighter jet style canopies.  If it saves one life (and surely it will save more) ... then it’s worth it.
 
The issues with canopies are several.  Drivers exiting the car, fogging and weather, the impact on the drivers particularly their vision.  All of these can be overcome.
 
Let’s do it.
 
Conclusion
 
It is pleasing to see that a Strategy Group was setup in order to tackle this issue.  I hope and expect that this Group will be bold and forward-thinking.  Along with the other parties involved; the FIA, Bernie etc, we need real change with realistic timeframes for introduction.  Every area of F1 needs to be reviewed and changes to the regulations need to be swift.
 
We owe that to those who have been killed or injured as well as their families.
 
 
Pep, F1 Podcast.
 
Thanks for reading, please leave your comments.

1 comment:

Ben Smith said...

It's taken far too long for new safety updates for f1.
There is no point crash testing the f1 cars if you are not going to take into consideration what you can hit.
When they code the F1 games they have to sit and work out all the physics that the car will encounter, be it another car or a wall, I can't see why in the real world this does not happen.
A race weekend is a complete controlled environment, the cars can only hit things that have been cleared by someone was ok.
Anyone with even a measuring stick could look at the side of that truck and see the outcome of even a low speed collision.
Also as for canopies, Mercedes non roofed road cars have for years had discreet roll hoops that pop up when the car is in trouble and have saved countless lives, I can't see why f1 cars can't have something similar in front of the driver.