Thursday, 13 September 2012

What Needs To Be Done To F1 Safety?

The Belgian Grand Prix saw one car launch off the back of another and somersault over the top of a double world champion's knees at high speed. Had the "ramp" been placed differently, we may have seen 640kg crash into somebody's head, and that's an injury that would take more than a box of Neurofen to fix, if it could be fixed at all. Naturally, this has got people talking about the dangers of open-cockpit racing, and much speculation over the idea of closing or protecting the cockpit has arisen. However, that might not be the right solution, and there is always the argument that, really, a closed-cockpit car is not a Formula 1 car, whether it's safer or not. So what other ideas are there, and what else could work? Can we improve the safety of F1 even more without compromising it?

First of all, it's worth saying that the idea of closed F1 cars is not something devised in the last couple of weeks. Ever since Felipe Massa was struck in the head and knocked unconscious by a small suspension piece that fell off Rubens Barrichello's Brawn GP001 during practice for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, the FIA have considered this idea and put it to the test, using aeroplane canopies (yet another instance in which aerospace will contribute to the automotive world). In an official video, they fired an F1 wheel at two designs of canopy - one open-topped and one stretched-bubble-shaped one akin to the one on the Red Bull X1 pictured above - at 225km/h (140mph), and while the open one broke, the full-length polycarbonate one merely flexed for a split second, and that was it. You can see the video below:

The open-topped windscreen is actually reminiscent of what they had in the 1970s and '80s, come to think of it. But there are two problems here. The first is visibility; drivers have several layers of plastic on their helmet visors, which they can tear off when the top layer is too heavily covered in flies and dirt. How are they going to do that with a canopy? While the Le Mans technique of having a pit crew member quickly spray and wipe your windscreen during a pit stop (shortly before knocking on your window and asking for money) is one solution, drivers on a one-stop strategy might find that that's not enough, especially in places with dirty air like China or India (the latter of whom's track was also very dirty last year). The other problem is what to do if a car rolls over and finishes upside down, especially if it's all one enclosed piece. The tub the driver sits in is not designed to have doors in it, and putting doors on would severely weaken the car's structure, so the drivers would have to wait until marshals righted the car before they could get out. Mind you, isn't that what they have to do at the moment?

So there's that idea, along with a rollcage mounted ahead of the driver that wouldn't fully enclose them, but would definitely limit visibility in a car that's hardly panoramic to start with. But current driver and occasional BBC columnist Mark Webber - who has had his fair share of big accidents over the years - postulates that the real problem with the Spa crash wasn't that Grosjean's Lotus somersaulted over another car, but that it got airborne in the first place. Here's an excerpt from yesterday's column:

"The tricky thing is to decide what exactly you are protecting against. The Grosjean incident, and a similar one involving David Coulthard and Alexander Wurz in Australia in 2007, happened because of cars climbing over each other and being launched into the air. That also happened to me when I flipped in Valencia in 2010.

So should you shut off that option somehow by enclosing the wheels but leave the cockpit open? Or leave the wheels open and create more cockpit protection?

Personally, I feel stopping cars launching is a bigger priority, if only because I think that happens more often. Cockpit intrusion is rarer, but it still has to be taken seriously. In both cases, we have been lucky and we all know that luck will run out one day

This is an interesting thought. Cars that can't get airborne can't possibly make direct contact with a driver (although cockpit protection would still matter, as debris can still fly). But how would that work? Completely closing the wheels - again, like the Red Bull X1 pictured above - would of course mean it's no longer an open-wheel racing car, which is entirely the point of a Formula 1 car, so that can't really happen. But it did make me think of the new "DW12" IndyCar car, which features side bodywork as far out as the wheels, meaning cars can't interlock and touch tyres at very high speed, the kind of thing that can cause a fatal accident in oval racing (what - or rather, who - do you think the DW stands for?).

No, it's not the prettiest racing car in the world - too rear-heavy, aesthetically speaking, and probably literally - but it is safe for wheel-to-wheel racing at very high speed, which is really what we all want to see. Plus the aerodynamicists will get to direct air around and over the wheels, which are a serious source of drag. Imagine the car pictured on the left, only with the tall, narrow rear wing and higher nose of an F1 car. Now stop wincing at that mental image. I wonder though, would it stop the cars jumping up the back of eachother? You might think the rear wing would stop them, but the accident at the 2010 European Grand Prix shoots that theory down quite effectively. Would those little bumper-type things behind the rear wheels do the trick? According to a couple of IndyCar fans, they do that on the DW12, and it's worked so far (barring someone being squished up against a wall at the Indy 500).

So there's a way of preventing cars using other cars as ramps, and I'm sure F1's relentless development will mean that it won't look quite as ungainly as this before too long, but Mr. Webber, along with former F1 and current WEC driver Alex Wurz, have another point to make. You see, almost all the crashes this year have involved people like Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado, who not too long ago were in the racing in the GP2 feeder series with everything to prove. GP2 racing is very eventful, and it seems that the current young drivers who have grown up in the safe era of motor racing don't have such a big fear of crashing, and when that's teamed with a lack of experience in top-level motor racing, it makes for erratic drivers in very fast cars. Wurz - who's currently a Williams driver mentor and has a road safety training business - says that "the driver standards there are appalling - bad, very bad - and they are coming in to F1." Webber added in the column that he shares the belief shared by other F1 people that younger drivers don't respect each other like the older folk, as evidenced by the fact that Williams driver Pastor Maldonado has twice used his car as a weapon against those who he felt had wronged him in Practice or Qualifying (once by side-swiping Lewis Hamilton at Spa, and once by driving over Sergio Perez's front left corner at Monaco). Add that to a reputation for being involved in incidents and he doesn't exactly make young "pay drivers" look good. You'll want to get that out of him, Mr. Wurz.

Romain Grosjean was banned for one race after his Spa incident, having been involved in 7 first-lap incidents in the first 12 races (the Belgian GP at Spa being number 12). After Maldonado had made a massive jump start in front of him, he had space to move, and immediately darted right across the track before misjudging where Lewis Hamilton's McLaren was and driving into him, starting the crash into the tight first corner. He watched as Lotus reserve driver Jerome D'Ambrosio qualify 15th and finish 13th at the Italian Grand Prix, and he says he's learned his lesson. Time will tell, but as Webber adds, "Formula 1 is not a finishing school when it comes to racing". Making sure drivers aren't reckless enough to cause these accidents in the first place would be an effective deterrent, but of course it wouldn't prevent accidents altogether. Hell, Webber himself gave his Red Bull wings after misjudging the braking point of a slower car and running up the back of it, and he's been racing for decades...

So there are actually at least three ways to improve the safety of Formula 1. You could cover the cockpit, or you could widen the rear bodywork to meet the wheels and prevent cars banging tyres or driving up the back of other cars, or you can simply improve the newer generation of drivers. Really though, that should happen whatever you do to the cars, because while some GP2 winners like Lewis Hamilton have been highly entertaining, some of the more recent graduates haven't quite got the balance between bravery and recklessness right just yet. That's what many believe to have caused this crash.

In my view, though, it is unnecessary to overreact to something that nearly happened. The culprit has been found and had an example made of him, so hopefully the idea of compromising what a Formula 1 racing cars is in the name of even more safety will stay on the horizon for a little longer than some would have you believe. At the end of the day, motor racing will always be dangerous. The only way you could possibly make it 100% safe is to actually remove the drivers from the cars and set up an elaborate remote-controlled Grand Prix with each car controlled by a driver in a simulator-type rig, which would just be silly. Racing drivers recognise and accept the risks of strapping into something that goes several times the speed humans were designed to go and racing alongside other cars on a track, or hurling a rally car through forests and deserts. They accept what could happen just like a pilot accepts that they might be involved in a plane crash, or a base jumper accepts that their parachute might fail, and they do it anyway, because it's what they love to do. And considering the thrills and entertainment it can bring, and the technologies it gives us over time, there's nothing wrong with that.

In very related news, the man largely responsible for there being no deaths in Formula 1 for 18 years, Professor Sid Watkins, passed away last night at the age of 84. The English neurosurgeon was the doctor who followed the F1 grid in the medical car on lap 1, and was the doctor on the scene when there was a serious crash. While he tried not to get to close to drivers emotionally, should they die, he nevertheless developed a strong friendship with Ayrton Senna. His darkest weekend was the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, when Roland Ratzenberger died after crashing almost head-on into a concrete wall (after his front wing failed at around 190mph), and he had to rescue Rubens Barrichello after a nasty crash into a tyre wall left him with his tongue in his throat. After Ratzenberger died, an emotional Senna consoled in Sid, questioning why he was racing. The 'Prof' came back with "Ayrton, You're a three-times world champion, you're the fastest man in the world and you've got nothing to prove. Why don't you quit and I'll quit and we'll both go fishing?" Ayrton replied with "Sid, I can't quit." During the race, he would be there when Senna breathed his last breath at Tamburello corner, after hitting the wall at 131mph. Following that black weekend, circuits were modernised to slow the cars down, and large concrete run-off areas have been designed into new tracks and added to old ones on the Grand Prix calender. The cars have also seen many improvements when it comes to safety, such as high sides around the cockpit to protect the driver. As a result, Senna remains the last person ever to have died at a Grand Prix.

When it comes to safety, Professor Watkins has helped us get to this point where drivers can walk away from very serious crashes, and arguably he is the reason Fernando Alonso didn't die at Spa. He has also directly saved the lives of dozens of F1 drivers after serious accidents, and along with Jackie Stewart, made huge efforts to prevent motor racing from being such a bloody sport, as anyone who has seen the documentary Grand Prix: The Killer Years can testify it was. He will be missed, but not forgotten. One of the truly important people in motor racing. Hopefully he and Senna are on that fishing trip now...

1 comment:

  1. The racing cars accidents are really devastating. I appreciate the efforts done by FIA.

    Speedway 660