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.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

An Evening With Mark Webber

How could I resist?  "An Evening With Mark Webber" was promoted as part of his Australian book signing tour.  It was a chance to hear Mark talk plus a Q&A session and book signing.  All with drinks and canap├ęs. 

Ticket in hand, I arrived 10 minutes early to see several hundred people already there.  All ages, some in Red Bull and even Porsche clothing.  After some refreshments, it was time.

Mark arrived and took the stage with ARDC President, Andrew Leithhead who was hosting the evening.  Mark's initial comments were around his happiness with the book sales (second print run already) and also about being in Australia during the winter, which was unusual for him.

Andrew's questions covered lots of areas and I'll try to provide a summary of what Mark said.

Leaving Australia, climbing the ladder, David Campese loan

Mark described his difficulties in securing money and motor racing opportunities in Europe.  He told the story of getting funding from Yellow Pages.  This was despite one of the decision-makers not liking him or wanting to do it.  That particular person is now friends with Mark and receives constant friendly reminders that he nearly derailed Webber's career early on!  Also David Campese, the rugby legend who funded Mark at a critical time.  That loan was offered interest free and was of course paid back as soon as Mark could.

Mercedes Le Mans accident

Another time when Mark's career could have ended.  He described how himself and Peter Dumbreck could have easily been killed.  Not to mention the marshals and spectators.  Webber was very upset with the team who initially blamed him.  The cause of the flip?  A "crap engine" low on horsepower which forced the team to strip too much weight in the search for pace. 

Minardi F1- 5th on debut

A very special day of course, Mark said it almost felt like a race win.  He described the battle he had with Mika Salo and his determination to finish the race despite gearbox issues.  He joked about race winner Schumacher congratulating him which provided a photo opportunity for Michael to ensure he got in the newspaper the next day.

Monaco

Webber told of his love of the circuit itself and the crazy and different nature of that particular race.  He also talked about the concentration and fitness required to do well there.  The walls get narrower as the race progresses.

Fitness

It was noted by Andrew Leithhead that Webber has a resting heart rate of 40 bpm.  Mark talked about his dedication to fitness and nutrition and the implications on his personal life.  He joked about being out with friends with him having small meals and early nights.

Red Bull success, Vettel

For this part I was recording video, so what follows are actual quotes:

"We had an incredible amount of success quite fast.  You obviously start at the back end of 2009 and then in 2010 we were both going for the championship.  That was quite hard for the team to... first of all we didn't predict it and couldn't believe we had both of us going for the championship.  We had Fernando and Lewis still in the game so it was a very, very hotly contested World Championship - the 4 of us going for it".
 
"What I found difficult honestly inside the team was not so much Sebastian; Sebastian was doing his job, working hard, he was young, of course incredibly fast, incredibly, incredibly sharp, probably "Schumacher-esque" in his approach to the job in terms of how technical he was."
 
"But I obviously struggled with Helmut (Marko) a lot, I really struggled to work out Helmut's role in the team and how much he actually brought Sebastian along.  They spent a huge amount of money to get into this position.  And this could be our only chance to win the championship, there is no guarantees that other championships are going to come in the future.  So we've got to make sure that in 2010, you know, he's going to be the youngest World Champion ..."
 
"There's a few things which, I just thought, I had a little bit of a headwind here and there where I probably didn't need it.  And even when I had the momentum and was leading the championship, they were still trying to keep Seb in the game.  Which again was not a huge reflection on Sebastian, it was just that I thought they were prepared to risk a lot to keep Seb in the game, then to also keep the other two in there as well; Lewis and Fernando".
 
Relationship with Ann Neal

Mark referenced Ann throughout the evening and again here.  He describes her as being as much responsible for his success and he himself is.  It's clear she is a driving force and positive influence both personally and professionally.

Integrity

Last question; Would you ever compromise your integrity to win?  Mark replied he was never confronted with that dilemma in his career but feels he would not.  He is proud that his trophy cabinet is clean in terms of himself and the cars he drove. 

Questions from the floor:

What's in the garage at home?  All Porsche's - great cars, just point and shoot.

Why didn't you sign the Ferrari contract?  This was my question!  Mark talked about wanting a 2 year deal rather than 1+1.  This meant he would be changing F1 teams toward the end of his career and 6 months down the track, he may not be offered his "+1 option".  Not wanting this, he decided to re-sign with Red Bull. 

Williams?  Mark admitted that he was the one to begin calling Nico Rosberg "Britney".  He also told a funny story about their last race together at Williams.  Rosberg crashed into Webber - Mark's rear wing was badly broken and Nico had front wing damage.  Webber was livid, behind Nico and expected to pit second.  But he was determined to pit first and overtake Rosberg.  After some eventful driving Mark arrived at the Williams garage first, much to Patrick Head's displeasure.

Alonso overtake at Spa  Mark explained the need for total commitment and trust in the man you are racing.  Much praise here for Fernando.  Mark had the best line at the bottom of Eau Rouge which setup the pass.

Favourite track?  Suzuka.  Largely unchanged, challenging and enjoyable; it's got everything.  He singled out "Degner" as a particularly good corner.

Favourite era?  1990's.

Will you return to Australia and race?  Very unlikely.  Enjoying his motorsport overseas and once the helmet is hung up there, then that is probably it.  Never say never though.  Mark commented he gets lot's of calls and offers! 

What about those poor starts in F1?  Webber talked about his difficulty with the Pirelli tyres in terms of recovering any wheelspin off the line.  The loss was usually around one metre which equated to one grid row.  Mark said he saw plenty of data comparing drivers starts and reaction times.  This showed the Red Bull was never great off the line.

How are you enjoying the Porsche?  Very much!  It's a very technical and quick car to drive.  It was here that Mark congratulated Nico Hulkenberg on his Le Mans victory.  Apparently he joked with Nico on the podium; "Do you still know how to use the champagne mate?".

After question time was the book signing.  With my copy of "Aussie Grit" signed and photos taken, it was time to go.  A fantastic evening, very insightful and enjoyable!

Thanks for reading.

Pep.

Tweeting daily about F1 here:  https://twitter.com/F1Podcast