From a marshal’s point of view: Karen Richards

At every motorsport event, there is an army of marshals, prepared to deal with whatever the racing throws at them – from cleaning the track after an incident to waving warning flags, the marshals are vital to any and every race weekend, be it club racing or F1. We caught up with Karen Richards, a marshal with four years’ experience, to find out about what the job entails.

Emily Inganni: What inspired you to start marshalling and how long have you been doing it for?

Karen Richards: We, my husband and I, have been keen motorsport spectators for many years. I think my earliest memories are of Hunt vs. Lauda, especially the epic 1976 season and of course later on Senna vs. Prost. A few years ago, we were at Goodwood Festival of Speed & dropped into the Goodwood Marshals Club tent for a chat & the rest as they say is history! We have been marshalling for 4 years now and love every minute. It gives you the opportunity to be more involved with racing at all levels and of course, the views are great when you’re on post!

EI: What is the training process for new marshals? How long does it take?

KR: There are training programme for new marshals run by various Marshal clubs, we belong to the British Motorsport Marshals Club (BMMC). Potential new marshals can attend a ‘taster day’ at their local circuit where they shadow marshals on post to get an idea of what the role is all about. Then it is advisable to join a club and attend a training programme before becoming a trainee marshal. Training sessions include both theory and practical sessions, also covering firefighting and rescue unit work. Training will cover all aspects and disciplines of the sport and whilst being a trainee there will always be experienced marshals to guide and advise you at race meetings.

Full details of the training process and membership advice is available on the BMMC website at: www.marshals.co.uk

Image courtesy of Karen Richards

EI: Which events have you marshalled at so far? Do you have any favourites?

KR: We have covered a multitude of different events from club racing, Formula E and endurance racing. I think my favourite is the Le Mans 24-hour event closely followed by the London EPrix in 2016, there was something special seeing cars racing around the streets of London.

EI: What does a race weekend entail for you day-by-day as a marshal?

KR: Race weekends always start with a daily sign on and allocation of post and duties/role for that day. This could be anything from flagging, track or incident depending on experience, other roles can include paddock marshal, start line marshal, pit marshal and scrutineer amongst others

Once on post there are checks and distribution of fire extinguishers, ensuring the circuit equipment is available e.g. flags, brooms etc, then the post chief will brief everyone before the meeting starts

EI: What safety protocol is in place for incidents near your marshal post? What kind of ones have you had to deal with?

KR: There is a general safety protocol for all incidents which is covered in training. There will also be an allocated incident officer, an experienced marshal, who will direct proceedings in the event of an incident. Generally speaking you will deal with cars stuck in gravel traps, car fires, collecting debris from the track etc.

EI: Do the procedures differ from event to event or is there a universal way of doing things?

KR: There is a universal approach to dealing with events with safety for marshals, drivers & spectators being paramount.

EI: How much contact do you have with race control during a race?

KR: The post chief is in contact with Race control throughout the meeting & will pass on relevant information as appropriate.

EI: Are there any specific events that you’d like to marshal at in the future?

KR: Not specifically but I am always looking forward to the next Le Mans 24 Hours!

EI: Finally, what would you say to people thinking of marshalling? Do you have any advice?

KR: If you love motorsport then try marshalling as it gives you a different perspective on the art of motor racing… I don’t think you will be disappointed!

For further information visit the BMMC website here: www.marshals.co.uk

Thanks to Karen for taking the time answering my questions, if you want to find out any more information about marshalling or are thinking of giving it a go, hit the link above!

(Featured image courtesy of Karen Richards)

Safety in Motorsports Week: Dan Wheldon, A Horribly Perfect Storm

The 2011 IndyCar season finale is about to begin. The thirty-four drivers line up on the grid of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but there’s an unusual entrant at the back. Dan Wheldon had been without a permanent ride all season – he’d only started two races in 2011. Las Vegas was to be his third, this time with a very tasty incentive. He had been offered $5 million if he could win from the back of the grid by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard as a way of adding to the spectacle, dubbed a ‘dash for cash’.

The race distance stands at 200 laps. 200 laps to pass 33 cars and make it to Victory Lane, a challenge that Wheldon, ever the racer, relished. ABC selected the two-time Indy 500 champion as their in-race reporter, and they talked to Wheldon just before the race start, where he told them, “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think that I could win”.

Formation lap done, it was time for the green flag, and Wheldon made up ten places in the first ten laps. If he continued at that pace, he’d stand a very good chance of being in the mix by lap 200 and he knew it.

Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe made light contact on lap 12 in a seemingly insignificant incident. However, the numerous and fast-approaching cars changed that. Cunningham and Hinchcliffe were collected in a high-speed, 15-car wreck as drivers tried to avoid the chaos.

This type of wreck was more accustomed to NASCAR rather than IndyCar, but it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary. The consequences, however, were.

While 14 of the 15 drivers got away relatively unharmed, one didn’t. That one was Wheldon. There was a two-hour delay before the remaining drivers were given the news. It told them of something they knew could happen, but didn’t think ever would happen to them – they wouldn’t step in the car if they thought it would. The race was abandoned after the field completed a five-lap salute to their fallen friend, but this was just the start of what was to unfold.

2011 Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon. Image courtesy of Greg Hildebrand (creative commons 2.0 )

On December 15th 2011, a 49-page document was published and released to the media, providing in-depth analysis of every angle of the 15-car crash that resulted in Wheldon’s death. It attributed his death to a “non-survivable” impact with a fence post on the catch fencing where his roll-hoop was torn off and left his helmeted head exposed.

As a result, Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s contract was temporarily suspended and eventually permanently ended after it was deemed that the series could no longer race there with ensured safety. The same fate almost befell Texas Motor Speedway, which is another high-banked oval, but after some consideration it remained on the calendar and is still there to this day.

Las Vegas have since expressed interest at returning to the schedule, but IndyCar management remain sceptical, not wanting to re-open old wounds or risk anything else at that track.

Since 16th October 2011, Bernard and IndyCar as a series have come under huge amounts of criticism for creating the deadly circumstances surrounding Wheldon’s death, namely the chance to earn $5 million, the often three-wide high-banked oval, the speeds in excess of 220mph and seasoned drivers having to fight against rookies. It is still such a worrying crash to look back on. Sure, the so-called ‘dash for cash’ competitions are no longer held, but the man-made nature of the circumstances are disturbing to say the least.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosting a Nascar event in 2011. Image courtesy of Tom Donoghue (under Creative commons 2.0)

This all happened at a time when IndyCar was far more like NASCAR than F1 and that was the direction that the series was being taken in. The directors wanted close, high-speed pack racing that was both unpredictable and dangerous in nature. But, while NASCARs can bump and barge without too much worry, open-wheeled IndyCars, quite clearly, cannot.

This has since been turned around. A change of series directors brought about a change in attitude, and the realisation that IndyCar was not NASCAR and shouldn’t try to be like it because it just wasn’t going to work. The controversial and often polarising duo of Bernard and Brian Barnhart are no longer part of IndyCar’s management, with the former being removed in 2012 and the latter leaving to set up Harding Racing at the end of 2017.

The truth is that Wheldon’s death didn’t cause anywhere near as much change as it should have, and probably would have if it happened now. It showcased the blame-culture within the management at the time, with blame being put on the circuit for a culmination of issues that were mostly in the series’ control, not the track’s. Change was dangerously slowly implemented but that has now altered, primarily and unfortunately due to another tragedy.

Justin Wilson died as a result of injuries sustained at the 2015 IndyCar race at Pocono after being struck by a piece of flying debris that had come off the crashed car of Sage Karam. The report, which was never released to the media like Wheldon’s was, stated that it was a “freak accident”. Since then, front and rear wings have been tethered to the cars, the new universal aero kits were brought in to reduce the amount of flying debris and soon the new windscreen will be brought in, something that many believe would have saved Wilson’s life.

This showed a quick, coordinated and effective response to a tragedy, one that was far from present in the aftermath of Wheldon’s crash. IndyCar, and motorsport in general, has thankfully changed drastically since 2011, with a much greater interest in safety and the prevention of unnecessary risks. But, the sport is, by nature, reactive rather than proactive. It takes an accident for the true danger of something to be seen and the correct preventive measures to be put in place.

Not as much has been learnt from Wheldon’s accident as it should have, but times have changed. IndyCar has woken up to the safety revolution that European motorsport is already undergoing. That change just needs to keep going.

Monger – Motorsport is as safe it can be right now

Billy Monger feels that global motorsport is as safe as it can be in the present climate and that you “can never predict everything” when it comes to the issue of safety.

Monger lost both of his legs in a freak British F4 accident at Donnington Park last year and praised the work done by authorities to make the sport as safe as possible.

“Motorsport is as safe as it can be at the moment, the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to make it safer, there’s been so much pioneered over the years that if we were racing with the standards that we had back in the 80s and 90s it would be worse, we’re in a much better place now.

“There’s still stuff that you can improve on, with my accident they’ve made changes to the F4 cars so that hopefully the same thing that happened to me won’t happen again,  we can do our best to try and eliminate everything.”

Monger thanked well-wishers for their continued support, and said that they played a big part in getting him through the ordeal after his accident.

“The support I’ve had has been crazy, I can fault it and it’s been overwhelmingly good and I only hope that others in this situation get the support I got because the amount of support I got after what happened to me really helped me pull through.”

The 19-year-old from Reigate qualified third on the grid for Saturday’s British F3 race at Brands Hatch, and says that the infamous “leggie” celebration – drinking champagne from his prosthetic leg in a reference to Daniel Ricciardo’s “shoey”, may return after it debuted at Spa.

“I said to the team that if I win this weekend then they’ve all got it drink out of it, not just me so that’s the goal to get everyone drinking out of my leg. I don’t want to overuse it but it will come out again, but I’d love to do it while winning.”

Monger says that the celebration came about after a chat with an ex-soldier wounded while on tour.

“The leggy came about as I’ve recently spent a lot of time with some ex-military people, one in particular told me that he sometimes drinks out of his leg when he gets drunk, so I thought that “I’ve never tried it, why not?”.

“The podium at Spa was a great result, it just popped into my to do it with some champagne on the podium. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, it’s a first for me.”

 

Safety in Motorsports Week: IndyCar Safety Development

IndyCar has evolved huge amounts over the last decade in terms of safety with numerous crashes and unfortunate tragedies to be learnt from. Development has come for the cars, the tracks and the safety crews but it’s a constant race to keep the stars as safe as possible with speeds reaching in excess of 230mph.

One of the biggest changes to come to the oval races was the introduction of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barriers, more commonly known as just ‘SAFER Barriers’. These first came about, after a number of high profile fatalities, in 2002 when they were installed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before being retro-fitted to all ovals used by IndyCar and NASCAR by 2006. Since then, the SAFER Barriers have been used at some IndyCar road courses – such as Watkins Glen – where there’s not enough room for sufficient run off given the speed of the cars.

SAFER barrier at the top and the traditional indy car oval barrier on the bottom, at the Indy 500, Indianapolis speedway. Image courtesy of hondanews.eu

Iowa Speedway was actually the first track to have the SAFER Barriers incorporated in the track design, featured around the whole perimeter of the track to reduce the loading on the driver, decreasing the chance of injury or worse.

During the event itself, the AMR IndyCar Safety Team are there for the drivers, should they be in need of their assistance. A dedicated team consisting of three trucks and, in total, twelve personnel, follow IndyCar around for every race of the season, joining forces with the local safety teams at each track. This group are there to focus on the three main areas of an incident – the impact zone with the wall, the place where the car comes to rest (including the driver) and the debris field. The teams will be dispatched to every incident from a simple breakdown to a multi-car wreck and, for 99% of the time, the incident can just be cleared and the session can continue as usual.

It’s that 1% where the problem lies.

One of those such incidents happened on 18th May 2015 during Practice 8 of the Indy 500, the day after qualifying. It was about an hour into the session and James Hinchcliffe was getting some draft practice in before race day when his right front rocker failed. This was a highly unusual failure, when cars have been through huge crashes, their rockers will more than likely be intact but, for Hinchcliffe, that wasn’t the case. The Canadian was left a passenger in his #5 Schmidt Peterson as it ploughed into the wall of the famous speedway coming out of Turn 3 and into Turn 4. From the outside, the crash didn’t look that bad at first, sure, it was a big hit but we see them quite a lot in IndyCar.

However, all was far from well. The piece of suspension that had caused the crash had also puncture the tub and, along with it, Hinchcliffe’s thigh. Worse still, it had hit the Canadian’s femoral artery. This was not good news but, thanks to the quick work of the Safety Team, they managed to get Hinchcliffe out of the car and to the hospital – all with about 90 seconds to spare before his time was up.

Just days after Hinchcliffe’s crash, parts had been added to the rockers on all cars to stop them failing in the same manner and the tubs had been strengthened further to prevent anything from puncturing it.

Once Hinchcliffe had recovered enough to be conscious and talking, his third question was “when can I get back in a car?” which is true testament to the mentality of racing drivers. Return he did, having sat out the rest of the 2015 season, Hinchcliffe was back for 2016 and, incredibly, took pole for the Indy 500, at the track that had so nearly claimed his life the year before.

Another one of those 1% crashes came at the Indy 500 last year when Sebastien Bourdais hit the barriers during his qualifying run. After running pole pace on his first two laps, Bourdais lost control of his car on the third, hitting the wall and causing the tub to break. As a result, Bourdais fractured his pelvis but, thankfully for him, that was the only damage done and he returned to racing just over three months later at Gateway. The consequences weren’t nearly as severe for Bourdais as they were for Hinchcliffe but both their injuries contributed to the all-new design for the 2018 cars.

The biggest change on the new cars safety-wise was the restructuring of the sidepods. They, along with the oil and water radiators, were moved forwards to be ahead of the driver’s hips, providing extra cushioning to the driver in the case of a side impact, such as Bourdais’. Additionally, a wider edge to the base of the sidepod and other modifications means the cars are less likely to go airborne during spins and collisions, as they have been doing in previous years.

Also, the front and rear wings have less elements and the rear wheel guards, along with the winglets, have been removed, all to reduce the amount of potential flying debris in incidents. The design of these cars allows for a cockpit windscreen to be put in place which is where IndyCar is heading next.

While F1 have pushed ahead in developing and implementing the ‘Halo’, IndyCar have been forced to take a different route, primarily because of the ovals and the visual implications to the driver that would surface as a result. IndyCar’s cockpit windscreen has already had a few running’s in tests and practice sessions by numerous drivers, who agree that it takes a while to get used to but does need to be put in place.

IndyCar has a very personal reason for wanting some form of cockpit protection. Back in 2015, Justin Wilson was killed at Pocono when he was struck by a piece of front wing from Sage Karam’s crashed car, it was a fatality that shook IndyCar to the core and the first in the series since the much-loved Dan Wheldon in 2011. Following Wilson’s crash, front and rear wings were tethered to the main body of the car, in a similar way to the wheels, to prevent them from breaking free but the huge loss was all the same.

Over the years, huge changes have been made to all aspects of IndyCar, making the series much safer than before with the crashes acting at catalysts for quick or more long-term changes. However, like any other form of motorsport, there are still changes to be made and, as it was put it perfectly in the documentary ‘Yellow Yellow Yellow: The IndyCar Safety Team’, “you think you’ve got every aspect covered until they figure out another way to crash…”

Red Flags: Safety in motorsports week

A red flag waved during a Formula One race. Image courtesy of Joe Barbosa (under CC 2.0)

Red Flags are used when Safety Cars are not enough of a safety precaution following an on-track incident.

As well as giving drivers the chance to change to fresh set of tyres and potentially gain track position, red flags are in place to make sure that the drivers do not race in conditions that are just too dangerous.

Red flags are typically seen when after an accident in which there is an incredible amount of debris on the track that should not be driven around even under a safety car. Or when one of the barriers is so damaged following a crash that it cannot absorb impacts efficiently, or during a wet race when there is so much standing water on the track that it is too dangerous to continue. At such point the race is suspended. Red Flags do count towards time limits in races.

During the Red Flag period, the drivers line up in position order in the race in the pit lane to await a restart. The race will only be restarted once the stewards and marshals deem that it is safe enough to resume racing.

Once the race is restarted, it will be restarted behind the safety car, and the race will then be resumed either with a standing start or a  regular safety car restart.

If it is thought that it is too dangerous to resume the race, or that there is no point due to a lack of remaining laps in the Grand Prix, then the session will be abandoned. Should it be abandoned before the race is halfway completed, then half points will be awarded.

Red Flags can also be used in Practise, Qualifying and Test Sessions. The cars will then return to their garages at a very low speed, before being allowed back out once the danger is cleared. Again, if there is not enough time left in the session or it is too dangerous to continue, the session will not be restarted.

Safety in Motorsports Week: Safety Cars and Virtual Safety Cars

Safety cars and virtual safety cars form an important part of modern Formula One, and they are something we see very often over the course of the season.

Known in the United States as the pace car, the safety car gives the drivers the opportunity to make a free pit stop while everyone else is going slowly, and it can completely change the outcome of a race.

However, the safety car is not there for show. It is there, in essence, to save lives. When there is an incident on track, the safety car can be deployed to lead the drivers around the track at a reasonable and controllable speed, guide everyone through the site of the accident and ensure that no harm can come to any of the drivers, marshals, or spectators. This can be while there is a stricken car on or just off the circuit, or while there are marshals working on removing it.

If the track is extremely wet and slippery after rain, the safety car can even be used to begin a race if performing a normal start would be too dangerous. Likewise, if the safety car then leads the drivers away and it is found to be too wet, the race can be stopped ready for the safety car to lead them away again if and when the conditions improve.

The virtual safety car was created after Jules Bianchi’s horror crash at Suzuka in 2014, which would eventually claim the talented Frenchman’s life nine months later. When a Safety Car is considered excessive after an incident, a virtual safety car can instead be deployed to ensure that all the drivers stick to a minimum delta.

It is also used for when localised yellow flags are not enough. Drivers are expected to slow down under yellow flags, but they are given no delta time to stick to. As a result, the drivers can end up going too quickly into the yellow flag zone as they try and lose as little time as possible. This could then result in them losing control and hitting either the stricken car, or those trying to recover it. If we look back at most races, how many times did we see drivers slowing down significantly for local yellows? The VSC means that they are obliged to go slowly, thus extremely decreasing the chances of being involved in  potentially life-threatening accident.

Though they are a common sight in F1, safety cars and virtual safety cars should be viewed as a very special aspect not just of F1 but of racing in general. Without them, we would be seeing many more incidents of drivers running into other drivers’ stricken cars, or worse, making these safety measures extremely vital in our sport.

Featured image by Wolfgang Wilhelm, courtesy of Mercedes AMG

Safety in Motorsport: The Monocoque

Without doubt the biggest safety advancement in Formula One over its 68-year history is the introduction of the monocoque.

The monocoque combines the driver’s survival cell, cockpit and forms an integral part of the chassis, with the engine and suspension among the compartments bolted to it.

Despite it not being common-place until the 1980s, the first example of this device appeared in the 1960s/ An aluminum alloy monocoque chassis was first used in the 1962 Lotus 25 Formula 1 entry, while McLaren was the first to use carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers to construct the monocoque of the 1981 McLaren MP4/1, this being the device and construction the world of motorsport is used to.

For safety reasons, no fuel, oil or water lines may pass through the cockpit and the driver must be able to get out within five seconds without having to remove anything except seatbelts and steering wheel (which he must be able to refit within another five seconds). F1 seat belts comprise a six-point harness, which the driver can undo in one movement. They have been compulsory since 1972.

The monocoque must be mainly constructed of carbon fibre, with up to 60 layers of it in places to absorb the energy of heavy impact accidents largely due to the high-speed nature of accidents in modern day Formula One. There is also a roll-over hoop behind the driver’s head, made of metal or composite materials while the survival cell’s flanks are protected by a 6mm layer of carbon and Zylon, a material used to make bullet-proof vests. The updates to this in recent years include the HALO device, designed to prevent foreign objects entering the cockpit and striking the drivers head.

The width of the cockpit must be 50 centimetres at the steering wheel and 30 centimetres at the pedals, the modern day monocoque often compared to driving in a bath tub as a result.

The driver’s seat is a single plastic cast and is tailored to each driver according to their exact shape and size to provide maximum protection. Since 1999, the seat has been detachable for it to be possible to remove the driver and seat as one after an accident, decreasing the chances of spinal injuries.

The system is now synonymous with the open-wheel racing community and has saved the lives of many a driver, famously Robert Kubica at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix and Mark Webber at the 2010 European Grand Prix.

The monocoque started out life in Formula One as an aerodynamic device designed to increase efficiency, making the car narrower. The development of this system has led to Formula One and the wider racing community now being as safe as it ever has been, and the motorsport community continues to strive for improvements.

F1 Crash structures: Safety in motorsports week

There are several car features in modern day Formula One which have significantly improved protection for the drivers over the years, and these features have been developed over the years through thorough research and testing. Here are some key features to protect F1 drivers during a crash:

Dan Istitene, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Monocoques:

The first Monocoque was introduced to Formula One in 1962, and it was made entirely of aluminium. This went a little way towards protecting the driver, but the cars were still dangerous, because the material simply isn’t the most efficient way to protect a racing driver during a crash.

In 1982 the first ever carbon monocoque was produced, and over the years carbon composites have been developed thanks to devoted research from experts.

During a crash, the monocoque, which is tight to the driver in the cockpit, will absorb a lot of pressure from the impact, reducing the stress put on the driver’s body during a heavy impact.

Monocoques for F1 cars actually used to be made by plane manufacturers, but these days all F1 teams are expected to make their own monocoque.

Ferrari Media

Front nose:

A head-on crash is one of the most dangerous in F1, because it means a lot of exposure to the driver’s body on impact with a wall or another car.

The front wing is designed to shatter on impact. This is scientifically proven to cause a constant reduction in speed after the crash, which helps to limit shocks to the driver from a heavy impact—instead the crash feels more cushioned, with the majority of the pressure from the impact being absorbed by the car.

Steve Etherington / Mercedes AMG

HANS device:

The HANS (Head and Neck Support) device is used for the driver’s neck and shoulders. It limits their movement within the car so that they are less exposed and more protected, not just during crashes, but also during high levels of G-Force.

The HANS device goes over the shoulders and round the neck, clipping onto the driver’s crash helmet.

Steven Tee / McLaren

Head rest:

The head rest is the object you see drivers taking off from around their heads when they get out of an open-wheel race car.

The head rest does a similar job to the HANS device, except it is designed to provide more protection to the head. It limits movement of the head during high levels of G-Force or a crash, and ensure that not too much strain is put upon the head and neck. If the head is not able to move as much, then the neck will also be more still, reducing the risk of a serious neck injury. Head rests are also used to absorb the pressure during a crash.

In the past, we have seen head-rests come loose: for example in Baku 2017 when Lewis Hamilton lost the lead because it was not put on properly by the team. It also came off during Kevin Magnussen’s Eau Rouge crash in 2016, which could have been very serious because Magnussen’s head will have had mass exposure and his neck will have suffered a lot of strain because of the unabsorbed impact.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

The Halo:

The Halo is a new feature for 2018, and it is being steadily introduced across all FIA-sanctioned series’.

The Halo is designed to prevent debris from hitting the driver in the head. The late Jules Bianchi’s crash was cited, and if a car comes into contact with a recovery vehicle, the Halo is thought to be able to prevent the head hitting the vehicle.

Pirelli Media

Wheel tethers:

F1 now has much stronger wheel tethers than it did before, which greatly reduces the risk of wheels flying off during a crash.

In 2009, Henry Surtees tragically passed away when he was hit in the head by a flying wheel following a crash during a race. The wheel tethers now are designed to hold on to the wheel even during extreme impacts, so that there is much less chance of a wheel hitting someone’s head following a crash.

Pirelli Media

Barriers:

The cars are not the only things designed to keep drivers safe during crashes. Tecpro barriers were introduced to F1 several years back to help absorb the impact when a car hits it, rather than spitting the car back out again like metal barriers do.

Tecpro barriers provide more of a cushion for the car and the driver, so as to provide extra protection during a crash.

Pirelli Media

Crash tests:

Every year when a team releases their new car, the FIA runs extremely thorough crash tests to make sure the car can survive high speed crashes, and that they will provide the correct protection for the driver in the event of a crash.

The team will not be allowed to run their car on track until they have met all the criteria in the crash test.

Featured image courtesy of Renault Sport Media

Safety in Motorsports Week: The HANS Device

The Head and Neck System (more commonly referred to as the HANS device) is often overlooked in the world of modern Formula One. Its historical significance, though, should not be underestimated, not least because at the time of its introduction it was one of very, very few occasions in F1’s history up to that point where the FIA had reacted to a non-fatal accident.

Photo credit, Dan Istitene / Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The accident in question occurred at the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, hosted at the popular Adelaide circuit. At one of the fastest points on the track, a rapid tyre deflation sent Mika Hakkinen – then in his third season in F1 – hurtling into the barriers. The impact was so extreme that his neck hyperextended, his skull was fractured, he swallowed his tongue, and he suffered major internal bleeding. He spent over two months in hospital – a significant amount of that in intensive care – but he eventually made a full recovery and returned to F1 for the 1996 season.

F1 drivers in that era were still sitting very high up in the cars with their shoulders often clear of the chassis, making them extremely vulnerable to head and neck injuries. It was this driving position, mixed with the fact that Hakkinen had nothing supporting his neck, which made his injuries so severe.

The HANS device was already in existence at this point, having initially being designed in the 1980s by Dr Robert Hubbard, but it was too bulky to fit into the narrow cockpit of a single-seater racing car, and he was unable to find sufficient financial backing to complete the necessary redesigns. Hakkinen’s accident, though, made the FIA realise its potential in terms of safety, and they offered to help in and fund its development.

Photo credit, Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

The HANS device, because of Hakkinen’s accident, evolved into what it is today – a collar-type piece of carbon fibre that fits either side of the drivers’ shoulders, attached to mounting points either side of their helmets by two tethers and held in place by the seatbelts. In the event of a crash, these tethers stop the head from whipping backwards and forwards, keeping the neck in line with the spine and thus preventing it from hyperextending like Mika Hakkinen’s had. In addition, it helps to transfer the energy that would otherwise be absorbed by the head, into the stronger torso, seat, and the belts, reducing the strain put on the head.

Even today, head and neck injuries are still the leading cause of driver deaths regardless of category, and it begs the question just how many potential fatalities were prevented by the HANS device.

Hindsight, though, is a wonderful thing. When the HANS device was initially introduced, it was greeted with a very lukewarm reception. Many drivers claimed that it was cumbersome, uncomfortable, and might even cause more injuries than it prevented. NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt even went so far as to refer to it as a ‘noose’. In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, Earnhardt was killed by a basal skull fracture in 2001, the forth NASCAR driver in the space of fourteen months to die of such an injury, one which the HANS device would have helped prevent.

Photo credit, Paul Ripke / Mercedes AMG

The National Hot Rod Association was the first series to adopt the HANS device, following the death of Blaine Johnson in 1996. In 2002, at the Italian Grand Prix, Felipe Massa became the first man to wear the HANS device during a Formula One race. The next year, in 2003, it became mandatory for drivers in any and all FIA series to wear the HANS device, at the risk of being disqualified from the event should they fail to do so. Some have claimed that Massa’s accident at the 2004 Canadian Grand Prix was the first example of the HANS device potentially saving a driver’s life.

Amid all the talk of Virtual Safety Cars and halos of late, it is easy to overlook the HANS device and the impact it has had on safety in motorsport. Before its introduction, even crashes that did not on the face of it seem that dramatic could end in tragedy. Yes, head and neck injuries may still be the leading fatalities of drivers, but the number of times the HANS device has prevented such an incident from happening is innumerable and worth its weight in gold. It has become a staple of motorsport safety, and in no way should it be taken for granted.

Interview with Chris Roberts, M-Sport engineer.

Introduce yourself Chris

Well, I’ve been here five years. I started out in the customer engineering department, spent a couple of years there, I was working with Nassar Al Al-Attiyah, and we did WRC2 and we won that championship, did a couple of years in the Middle East. I then transferred over to the works team in 2015 and been there ever since. I worked with Elfyn these past years including last year in the D-Mack car and obviously this year as well, so that’s where we’re at really. With the works team, we actually quite a small team, we have a lot of responsibilities, not just the car, kind of spread out to other departments.

Chris Roberts is the furthest from the camera – M-Sport engineer to Elfyn Evans and Dan Barritt / FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 2017 -WRC Monte Carlo (FRA) – WRC 24/01/2018 to 28/01/2018 – PHOTO : @World

Okay, well the reason for this call is to get a point from the safety aspects of the way the cars are constructed, how you tackle the events, from that safety aspect, keeping everything safe so they can go all out knowing it’s all safe.

Warren Nel

The first question is, in terms of the FIA, what kind of checks do they do on the cars, are there any inspections for the cars, before you enter each year?

Chris Roberts

Yes, the main inspections are during scrutineering at each event, so with the car being homologated the FIA expect you turn up with a design that is homologated, within the safety regulations. As a manufacturer, we actually self-scrutineer before the event.

The event scrutineers and the FIA technical delegate will arrive in the service park and will go to each manufacturer team and they will inspect simple things like fire extinguishers, they’ll look at the cut off switches and they’ll check the safety foam around seat and the doors, side impact structures, just very basic checks, but they expect us to self-scrutineer and present the car in a safe manner. Now one of my responsibilities is to liaise between the FIA and ourselves with regard to what we are going to seal at each event, be it engines, transmissions, whatever it is we are sealing and we present a scrutineering form for each car and that declares that part is safe to start the event.

If you then get caught at post event scrutineering, if that part of the car is found not to conform to the form, there can be penalties. There is a certain amount of trust from the FIA to the manufacturers as we present the car in a safe manner. Now, that is different for a customer team, so anybody who competes as a customer WRC or in the WRC2 or any of the support championships, they don’t self-scrutineer, they are inspected a bit more thoroughly, as I guess they have fewer resources, they maybe are not familiar with the regulations, so they have to present their car to the FIA and pass a series of tests before they start. In that respect, it’s easier for a manufacturer, but a lot goes into it, with homologating the car and so on.

W.N 

In terms of the construction of the car, were there many changes to the cars, compared to the previous generation, other than the obvious things?

C.R

Yes, there was a big drive in fact. The main concern from the FIA was looking back to the mid 2000’s, the cars hadn’t really progressed from then to 2015, 2016, so in that ten-year period the safety side hadn’t really developed, so there was a bit of a push from the FIA and also the Global Institute for motorsport safety, which is an independent body that sits inside the FIA. So, going back to when they presented the new regulations in 2015, the FIA came up with a safety road map for the WRC.

The first thing presented to the teams, a proposal for safety enhancements as part of the new for 2017 regulations. Now each car is fitted with an accident data recorder and using statistical analysis they were able to see the highest ‘G’ impacts on the cars could sustain without having any injuries and if there was a threshold above which there were injuries to the crews and then they would work to increase that threshold by improving various aspects of the safety that’s when they started to present a proposal for new equipment, to change the design of the cars that means that incorporated new seatbelts and new side impact, new regulations on seats as well.

That was all the effort to increase the safety. Now the safety road map is something that all the teams are working towards, for 2017 we had to as part of the new regulations, the cars were wider and that allowed us to add 20% extra impact foam and this was in the door the carbon structure along the sill as well. As well as that we were able to introduce new regulations for the fuel tanks and we had to fit a medical light to the windscreen so that in an impact of over 25g the light switches on and any marshal that arrives at the car, if this bright blue light is flashing, then the crew will need medical attention.

W.N

Thinking then during an event, if there is any damage to the car during an event what happens there, obviously you’d try to fix it, but would the FIA come a re-inspect the car before it goes back out?

C.R

If it’s an impact that damages the safety cage, the FIA will want to inspect that. If it’s an impact that we deem we car repair, we’ll have to get the car re-scrutineered again during the rally2 service, plus if it’s an impact that we deem we can’t repair then at that point the FIA remove the seals that are on the body shell and roll cage and then when that shell is repaired and brought back into circulation, it will have to be re-inspected and sealed again.

We always have the FIA technical delegates around and they’ll always be checking if there is any damage to the roll cage. Effectively the roll cage can be damaged and repaired during an event. We can change parts of the roll cage if we need to, but if we do that it has to be with a piece that’s already been pre-inspected at the start of the homologation process to the car, we will present pieces of roll cage that aren’t assembled to the FIA and they will fit seals to them and those will be the only parts we can fit into the car.

W.N

How many pieces would you therefore be transporting to each event?

C.R

Well, I think we carry three full kits to each event, actually and they take up a lot of space. Certainly, since this new generation of car that came in at the start of last year (2017) we’ve never had impacts there, we’ve not needed to replace roll cage parts, but we’ve only had one large accident, which was with Elfyn in Mexico, and in that case the shell had to be completely rebuilt and that car hasn’t come back into circulation yet, so when that does come back in we’ll have to get it re-inspected and sealed again.

W.N

Now thinking of the safety crews that go into the stages, when are they mainly used?

C.R

They are mainly for tarmac events, and each crew has a safety crew and they don’t have to be a qualified person, but they tend to be. Obviously in Elfyn’s respect, it’s his dad, ex-WRC driver Gywndaf and Phil Mills and these guys have a timetable they have to follow when they go through the stages and that can be as close as forty minutes before the stage actually goes live and those guys would call back to the crews and engineering as well and then if they correct the notes they will pass those through the team back to the rally crew.

W.N

Of course, we saw Phil Mills sit in alongside Elfyn after Dan’s concussion which was caused by that high-speed roll during Mexico, so I asked Chris about this.

C.R

It’s something that I feel quite strongly about, I have strong views personally. The issue with the crews, when they get concussion is it maybe that they feel okay within themselves, or they may not feel they have concussion, but say in Dan’s case, he felt ill, he wasn’t sure if he could continue, so in that case the first point of contact between the team and the crew is myself or the car engineer, so it’s possible if you don’t have immediate medical assistance to basically diagnose possible concussion, you can end up with the crew speaking directly to the engineer, I don’t know if we can continue, and for me I think someone who has not qualified and should not have an opinion on medical issues and it shouldn’t really fall to the team or the engineer to make a decision if they should continue or not.

With Dan, it was a case that he felt a bit ill, and obviously didn’t know he was concussed, and we took a view that he had to seek medical assistance, but he did one more stage after the accident, a little super special before coming into service – so he actually went through another stage, a small stage, and the kind that you wouldn’t expect them to have another accident, but because there hadn’t been any kind of medical assistance where he was checked out, it’s possible they could have had another accident there, so for me I think that was a bit of a failing there in the safety system. I think that’s something that needs to be looked at. (Chris made it clear this was his own personal opinion).

M-Sport mechanics hard at work. Photo credit Anna Rudd, M-Sport Ford

 

Chris also talked about Julian Ingrassia, who suffered concussion last year at Rally Finland.

C.R

They were both side impacts, which were between the head and the seat, which is an area the FIA are looking at, going forward and next year they are bringing in a new helmet standard for Formula One which is supposed to improve safety. We’ve not seen a rally version yet, but the intention of the FIA is back to the safety road map is that will be introduced next year. Hopefully that will reduce these concussions.

W.N

One more question for you then – When the recce is completed, do you sit down with Elfyn and Dan and discuss the stages?

C.R

Yes, we have a team debrief, and debrief just after the event with all the crews together, go through aspects of the cars performance, team performance as well. We’ll also give feedback to the team manager about how the event has been run, tend to do that as soon as possible after the event, so we’ll do that at four or five o’clock, Sunday afternoon.

Then after that we’ll conduct our test for the next event which tends to be a about a week later. Now with Elfyn in the UK, he sometimes comes up to the factory and we’ll sit down in the office and we’ll look at things in more detail, so in that respect it’s quite good that he’s only a few hours down the road, and we can get together and look at some things. Obviously, the relationship between the engineer and the crew is a close one. We are always in constant contact.

W.N

Finally, I asked Chris if there was anything he wanted to talk about additionally.

C.R

Well, we’ve got a few more safety things coming in the pipeline. Things being brought forward by the FIA. One area we’re working on with the FIA is the seat rails, integrating the seats into the bodyshell. We’re looking how these can bend and deform to take some of the impact away from the crew, and this is something which will be introduced for 2020 – that’s the seats themselves, the way they’re anchored into the shell.

For next year we’ll start using the Formula One biometric gloves, so basically the crew will wear these, and they’ll send real time data, actually measure blood oxygen levels, that will be sent to the FIA and the medical crew and if there’s been an accident, particularly an accident where the car has gone off the road and they can’t quite reach the crew, the medical crews will be able to assess the crew without being with the crew and this will be a good advancement.

One final thing which is being brought in is a high-speed camera, which is fitted into the cockpit and this means we can see the impacts and how the body is moving inside the car and that’s something that’s started being used in Formula One and we started testing that, with the intention to bring that in next year.

 

These are all good steps indeed to look after the crews and Chris said,

Rallying is a living environment, rather than a circuit, so has different safety requirements.

 

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Anna at M-Sport for being so helpful in arranging this and to Chris a massive thank you for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions.

Look out during this week for more articles from my colleagues about safety in motorsport.