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

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.