A legacy of safety


By George Woods Baker | Ask almost anyone about what makes motor racing exciting to watch and they will inevitably tell you about the close calls between competitors on the track, often culminating in a spectacular crash. The more bits that go flying in all directions the better.

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In the early days of Grand Prix Racing, it was an accepted fact that drivers were literally taking their own lives into their hands every time they climbed into the cockpit and headed out onto the track. It was common to lose at least one driver per season to a mangled, fiery crash.

Until one beloved driver lost his life and the sport decided that enough was enough. We had the technology to prevent catastrophic injury and death. Until then it just wasn’t being mandated and incorporated into the rules of Formula 1.

Every driver’s life is sacred, of course, but when Ayrton Senna died of a severe head injury at Imola in 1994, Professor Sid Watkins, FIA’s Medical Delegate, made it his mission to do everything in his power to make driver safety his priority. It was as much an act of professional duty as a personal promise to the memory and legacy of Senna, his close friend.

The FIA, through their FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, has taken a central and far-reaching role in investigating new safety measures at every level of the sport. Charlie Whiting, the FIA’s Race Director and Safety Delegate, goes to great pains to make sure every aspect of a current Formula 1 race from the venue to the cars on the circuit are as safe and sound as they can possibly be.

While these shunts demonstrate the effectiveness of all the work done since 1994, one area, ironically, remains vulnerable. The driver’s head.


Progress toward a safer environment for the driver has been swift and through the years since 1994 the tub, roll bars, wheel tethers, neutral switches and various modifications to the cockpit have made it a very secure capsule. So secure that drivers have survived catastrophic crashes with relatively minor injuries such as Robert Kubica’s devastating crash at the Canadian GP in 2007, Mark Webber’s airborne crash at Valencia in 2010, or Sergio Perez’s sidelong T-bone into the barriers at Monaco in 2011, among others.

While these shunts demonstrate the effectiveness of all the work done since 1994, one area, ironically, remains vulnerable. The driver’s head.

In 2009, at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Felipe Massa suffered a severe head injury that required extensive surgery and rehabilitation when a suspension spring broke free from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car and slammed into Massa’s helmet just over his left eye. An inch lower and Felipe would have lost the eye and possibly his life.

Following Felipe Massa’s accident, the FIA mandated that helmets incorporate a visor panel made of zylon – a polymer material that is light, stronger than steel or kevlar and fire-resistant – the same material that clads the cockpits in special anti-penetration panels to great effect. Small comfort, perhaps, but a step in the right direction.

That same year, Henry Surtees, son of Formula 1 racing great John Surtees, was hit on the head by a wheel from the car of another racer during a Formula Two race as that driver spun into the wall exiting a corner. The wheel broke its tether and bounced back across the track into the following group of cars and collided with Surtees’ helmet. He died later that day from his injuries.

When French Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi and IndyCar’s Justin Wilson both died in 2015 due to head-related traumas, it was clear that the era of the open cockpit in Formula 1, if not the lower formulas, was rapidly drawing to a close.

During the weekend of the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, Whiting, along with FIA Safety Director Laurent Mekies and Grand Prix Drivers Association Chairman Alex Wurz, convened separate meetings with the Formula 1 racers as well as a scaled-down event with selected members of the media to discuss their most pressing concerns and recent developments.

In addition to the zylon improvements to the helmet visor, they include high-speed cameras in the cockpit beginning in 2016, that will monitor the driver’s head in coordination with existing sensors measuring deceleration and impact so that they can better assess the severity of injuries in the event of a crash.

During qualifying for the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix, Sergio Pérez lost control of his Sauber C30 in the braking zone for the Nouvelle Chicane and slid sideways across the kerbing and into the safety barrier at speed. The Mexican suffered a concussion that kept him out of the race.

“We’ve had onboard footage of crashes for a long time which has been useful, but of course it’s all low speed and it doesn’t really show what happened to the driver during the milliseconds of that impact event”, said Andy Mellor, a consultant for the Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety (GIMSS), the FIA Institute’s research partner.

Injuries to a driver can happen in a few milliseconds, the exact cause of which are often impossible to determine with the naked eye. A high-speed camera recording 400 frames per second, compared to a normal TV camera at just 25 per second mounted in a prime location can capture the driver during the moments of a crash, thereby providing crucial, and possibly life-saving information on what happens to the human body during an incident.

“It is designed to understand how the driver’s head and upper body interact with the environment”, Mekies explained. A prototype used on the cars of Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat and Mclaren’s Fernando Alonso during Friday’s first practice session ahead of the race in Austin proved to be highly successful. “They help us a lot, when an accident happens, to understand how much a human body can take”, Wurz added. A demonstration of the new technology was clearly effective and a substantial leap forward from the old system in place. As Mellor said: “I think the Formula 1 programme is likely to be just the start. We’ll certainly be looking to use this technology to further help to develop safety across motorsport.”

All well and good, but the drivers and the media had one thing on their minds and that related to the potential introduction of closed or covered cockpits. “A helmet clearly is not protection enough”, stated Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz.

“We’ve been working on this for a few years and come up with a number of solutions to test, some more successfully than others”, said Whiting. “We had the fighter-jet cockpit approach, but the downsides to that significantly outweighed the upsides”. Principally accessing an injured driver in the event of an accident.

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