Safety in F1 - an ever-moving target
SEPTEMBER 12, 2000
BY DAVID TREMAYNE
FIA president Max Mosley's avowed intent to exorcise the spectre of death from Formula One racing received a tragic setback during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, following the accident that took the life of a fire marshal.
Just as the sport was celebrating another deliverance when Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello, David Coulthard and Pedro de la Rosa had all escaped without a scratch from the carnage at the second chicane during the opening lap, television cameras captured trackside medics trying to resuscitate the unfortunate Paolo Ghislimberti.
In one of those supreme moments of fate which can separate tragedy from a narrow escape, the 33 year-old volunteer fireman, who received a £20 subsistence payment for each day's work at the Grand Prix, had just paused
momentarily after running back to double-check his fire-fighting equipment as the cars approached. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time as debris from the initial four-car tangle rained down. Nothing more cruelly demonstrates the summary on any race ticket - 'Motor racing is dangerous' - nor the random manner in which such events may occur no matter what safety measures are adopted.
One very significant safety breakthrough occurred without fanfare in 1997, when it became mandatory for all cars to carry Accident Data Recorders (ADRs). Mosley was always disturbed by the fact that up until then little empirical data existed by which to analyse serious accidents.
"It's very, very rare to have a big accident where you actually know what the forces are," he said. "The biggest accidents outside F1 involve trains or planes, and often there are few survivors. Now we get an awful lot of basic information that we never had before."
The first thing former Lotus technical director Peter Wright did upon joining the FIA as a technical delegate in 1995 was to inform Mosley that some form of data recording was essential. "I just didn't believe that we had no data on Senna's accident," he says. "We had to do something about that, so I laid down the specification of what I wanted to know: Everything from the point at which the driver loses control, to the point where the dust settles."
By being in a position to examine every accident from beginning to end, while also taking into account data from the previous, problem-free lap, the FIA technicians can compare situations and learn more. "I have seen accidents that aren't necessarily predictable," Wright says, "and you can see that the car has bottomed on that lap and that the driver has lost control as a result. You can see the difference between what the driver does and what the car does, and say that that is the cause of the loss of control."
This sort of data would have made an immeasurable difference in the investigation into Ayrton Senna's accident, the precise cause of which remains a mystery all these years later. And it will undoubtedly help in the investigation that will be conducted after the Monza tragedy.
"What I really found unacceptable was that we couldn't just go into it all and say, 'Right, that's what happened.'" Wright says of the Senna accident. "At least we could have had an affect on the legal process, set people's minds at rest. In this day and age we should be able to do that. And now we have that in place. We can get a lot of data, and it is enough to start doing a statistical analysis."
At the San Marino GP at Imola in which Senna was killed, an accident on the startline between the cars of Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto resulted in a wheel from one car being thrown right over the grandstand by the pit straight. Senna's accident set in train a long-term FIA investigation into means of ensuring that wheels sheared off in accidents rather than being retained by one link and thus swinging back dangerously into the cockpit. But at the same time the Lamy/Lehto accident indicated that once wheels had sheared off they nevertheless had to be retained with the car. On the opening lap of the rainy Belgian GP in 1998, David Coulthard spun his McLaren exiting the La Source hairpin and triggered multi-car carnage on the run down to Eau Rouge. As a result of the numerous collisions, errant wheels flew everywhere and only pure luck prevented anyone from being seriously injured.
By 1999 the FIA had introduced a mandatory system of wheel tethers to obviate the problem, and Wright rates this as the biggest safety step of the last 10 years. But as recent events have shown, even that is not a complete answer. "It was just pure statistics with the amount of wheels bouncing around, that sooner or later one was going to hit something or someone," Wright says. "Up until Monza the last person to be killed in F1, Senna, was because of a wheel and suspension component. It's not unlucky, it's just statistical inevitability. If you look at a wheel separately, and the amount of energy stored in it, they are going to end up in places you can't stop them going unless you put a lid on it.
"We were incredibly lucky at Spa in 1998, because somebody was killed by an errant wheel in a minor race there a year later. It happens. You've only got to look at La Source that time; the number of wheels flying around. It was pure luck that somebody didn't get hit."
At Monza the luck ran out. FIA safety delegate Charlie Whiting was unable to confirm that it was a wheel that hit Ghislimberti, but certainly it was debris from the accident. And the wheels that flew into the air presented potentially lethal weapons with minds of their own.
Single tethers were introduced in 1999, and but the problem was that they were occasionally doing serious damage to the monocoques. Later, when wheels started coming off again during impacts, the FIA's engineers were obliged to have another look.
"The thing is, the tethers have 5000 kg (11023 lb) breaking strain, and you can generate forces greater than that, never mind any cutting action or what have you," Wright explains. "So under certain circumstances they are going to fail, and there's not much you can do about that. If you trap a wheel against a barrier or something, and then drag it, you are basically not going to stop the car from tearing it off itself. I really like the use of two tethers. That makes lots of sense, so that's what we did for 2000.
"The trouble is deciding where the tethers should yield. Where the American CART and IRL series are going is putting one at 50 kiloNewtons, and the other at 100. So you have a belt and braces thing. The great thing is that when you break the first one it absorbs a lot of energy, so the second one, which is stronger in any case, has a much better chance of hanging on."
The future holds promise of even better safety facilities, but life has a way of throwing out warnings, and motor racing is nothing if not a microcosm of life. Monza was another warning that nobody in F1 can ever relax in the search for even greater safety standards. It is a further tribute to the far-reaching investigations instigated by the FIA in 1994 that all of the drivers at Monza walked away unhurt. But Ghislimberti's death was another alarm call to the designers and safety delegates never to lose sight of the fact that motor racing is still a knife-edge sport. For every step forward that they take, the progress brings in its wake a different set of problems.
Ghislimberti is not the first volunteer to suffer for the sport he loved. At Monaco in 1962 a marshal was killed after being hit by Richie Ginther's BRM. In the 1977 South African GP at Kyalami the rash decision of 19 year-old Jan Smuts ticket clerk Jansen van Vuuren resulted not only in his own death as he ran across the track to tend to a smoking car, but that of the young Welsh driver Tom Pryce who was hit full in the face at 170 mph by the fire extinguisher that van Vuuren had been carrying. At Suzuka in 1994 a marshal had an amazing escape and emerged with only a broken leg after being hit by Martin Brundle's McLaren.
In the American CART ChampCar series a marshal was killed in Vancouver when he fell beneath the wheels of Willy T. Ribbs' car when he was trying to push it to a place of safety. When Jeff Krosnoff's car took off after striking another in a race in Toronto in 1996, both Krosnoff and a marshal were killed.
As Rubens Barrichello called for a 10-race ban on Heinz-Harald Frentzen, whom he blamed for triggering the accident at Monza, Max Mosley took a measured stance. "The view of the stewards was that this was a racing accident," he said. "Unless something new emerges there will be no action taken against Frentzen or anybody else.
"But inevitably when you have a multiple pile-up you will find that one or more of the drivers will be very clear in their minds who was to blame. All one can say is that the stewards are completely independent and if there was someone to blame they certainly would have penalised him.
"There is a certain onus on the drivers but, having said that, when the cars are bunched up together at the beginning of the race it only takes a very small mistake to trigger something.
"What stops me being triumphal about the safety measures that have been introduced is that it comes back and bites. We have had some huge accidents and people have walked away. That is very satisfying. But we lost a race marshal and that is very sad."
Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA medical delegate who tended to Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola, and was again trackside with the unfortunate Ghislimberti on Sunday afternoon, is wise in the cruel ways of the world of motorsport. "Safety standards in F1 are higher than they have ever been," he stresses, "but you can never get complacent. Whenever you make a change there is a consequence as a result, which you may not have predicted. Anything to do with safety soon makes you aware that you are aiming for a moving target."