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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
How many pieces would you therefore be transporting to each event?
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.
Now thinking of the safety crews that go into the stages, when are they mainly used?
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.
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.
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).
Chris also talked about Julian Ingrassia, who suffered concussion last year at Rally Finland.
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.
One more question for you then – When the recce is completed, do you sit down with Elfyn and Dan and discuss the stages?
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.
Finally, I asked Chris if there was anything he wanted to talk about additionally.
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.