Features - Technical

FEBRUARY 1, 1996

The future of Formula 1 safety


Formula 1 cars are extraordinarily safe vehicles. Years of bitter experience and deaths have led the sport to produce cars which can hit walls at high speeds without the drivers being injured. So successful were the safety measures that between the death of Elio de Angelis in testing at Paul Ricard in May 1986 no-one died in an F1 car until eight years later.

Formula 1 cars are extraordinarily safe vehicles. Years of bitter experience and deaths have led the sport to produce cars which can hit walls at high speeds without the drivers being injured. So successful were the safety measures that between the death of Elio de Angelis in testing at Paul Ricard in May 1986 no-one died in an F1 car until eight years later.

F1 was by then pretty complacent about safety but the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola forced Grand Prix racing to look at safety in a new light.

When there are fatal accidents everyone wants to find someone to blame. The governing body of the sport is always an easy target although the FIA has done a great deal to slow down the cars. The major reason that things were not done faster was because of the opposition to change from the F1 teams, protected by the Concorde Agreement, which means that changes cannot be made without unanimous agreement.

In the days after the Imola crashes FIA President Max Mosley overruled the teams and forced changes. The teams complained but in the circumstances they could do nothing but accept.

But Mosley wanted more than that. He wanted safety to be treated scientifically. He wanted it to enter the computer age. In order to do this he established the FIA Advisory Expert Group under the F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins. Its job was to investigate the use of technology to improve car and circuit safety, structural design and crash resistance of cars, airbags, crash helmets, head and lateral impact protection, seat belts and other forms of restraint, absorbent foams.

The brief extended to examining tracks with a view to what might happen in the case of driver error or a car failure at a place where accidents did not usually happen.

The AEG consists of FIA officials, an F1 engineer (Dr Harvey Postlethwaite) and an F1 driver (Gerhard Berger). They started work immediately, concentrating initially on driver safety.

A research programme into the cockpit surround was launched with the AEG asking the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) in Nuneaton, England to assist with a programme to understand the forces involved in accidents and the best size and shape for a cockpit to decrease the likelihood of drivers being injured in an accident.

McLaren provided a Formula 1 chassis for the crash-testing necessary to gather information. The problem with normal crash-testing is that it is destructive - and therefore very expensive. MIRA, however, has developed a system known as a "HyGe" test rig which enables impact testing without cars being damaged. This is done by mounting the chassis - complete with a fully-instrumented crash test dummy - on a sled and firing the sled in the opposite direction to impact being simulated. The effect on the dummy is identical. A variety of crashes are then carried out, simulating impacts at varying decelerations, speeds and durations.. This created a baseline set of results for frontal, angled frontal, side and rear impacts.

The data was then used to establish a computer programme simulating accidents. The resulting "Mathematical Dynamic Model" could then simulate a huge variety of crashes using different parameters - in a much shorter time than it would take using the traditional sled techniques. Cockpit sides, the thickness and stiffness and mounting points of seat belts could all be tested. And once the optimum results had been obtained the computer results could then be validated back on the HyGe sled.

This work led to an increase in the width of the F1 seat belts from 50mm to 75mm, which was implemented at the start of 1995. The second revelation of this programme was that energy-absorbing foam in the headrest and around the cockpit greatly reduced deceleration of the head in a frontal impact - from 192G to 83G. As a result it was decided that for 1995 headrests must be made of a material called Confor.

The studies also revealed that in angled impacts a driver's head and neck is very exposed because while the body - strapped tightly in the car - stops moving, the head does not stop and consequently drivers suffer neck, chest and head injuries as a result of the wrenching effect.

Recent crash-testing conducted for the AEG show that lateral G-forces on the driver's head in such accidents can peak at 150G, which is much more than the human body can tolerate without injury. As a result research into airbags is now well-advanced using the same computer model techniques. Similar tests are also being carried out using impact-absorbing seats to reduce rear impact injuries. There will be a new rear impact crash test for all chassis for 1997 with special impact-absorbing structures being part of the rear of the car.

Interestingly, the tests also showed that energy-absorbing materials placed between the driver's seat and the chassis produced dramatic gains in safety. Full results from these tests are only now being completed at MIRA. Ultimately, however, regulations will include such developments so that rearward impacts are less dangerous than currently.

Further computer studies have been commissioned to establish the best way to prevent injury from wheels which have become detached from a car. This is aimed to stop wheels swinging in towards a car and hitting a driver on the head - as happened with Senna - and also to prevent wheels going into crowds.

The AEG has also done a great deal of work to improve the red rear lights used by F1 cars in rainy conditions. The light intensity was increased in 1995 and the lights for 1996 will be four times as powerful - despite using the same amount of electric current. Research into laser beams and strobe lights (similar to those used by aircraft) is being carried out in an effort to make sure that a driver can see other cars in wet conditions - one of F1's most dangerous situations.

Computer simulation is also being used to analyse all the circuits used by F1 cars to identify potentially dangerous corners. This was achieved thanks to a computer simulation programme made available to the FIA by an F1 team.

The AEG studied the criteria which they felt made a corner dangerous, and then identified dangerous corners and studied them to see how they could be improved.

The three criteria used were speed, lateral acceleration and the time spent in corners. The most dangerous corners were those which scored highly in all three criteria. To check the computer analysis the AEG had Berger make a list of corners he considered to be dangerous. The resulting list consisted of 34 corners and coincided exactly with the list produced by the computers. Changes to the circuits reduced this number to 13 and these were then inspected by FIA circuit inspectors to examine how run-off could be improved. The list is now down to eight corners. As a result of these tests 11 circuits were modified to make significant improvement in run-off, kerbing, surfacing and barriers.

The study found that one area of safety which remains mysterious is the effectiveness of gravel beds. In the past some have performed well but others seem not to slow the cars at all. The AEG thus commissioned a study into the performance of sand traps from the Transport Research Laboratory to identify the characteristics of gravel beds and the dynamics of gravel taking into account such things as water and sand content.

Similar development work was going on into how tyre barriers are constructed even before the Imola crashes. This work - being done at Queensland University of Technology in Australia ascertained what was the best kind of barrier in current use and adopted this as the baseline for testing of new materials. Manufacturers proposed a wide variety of different barriers. Six companies were asked to present their products to the FIA and three were tested, taking into account not just their effectiveness but also their size, price, practicality, stability and reusability. None of the new barriers have yet proved to be an improvement on tyre barriers, although two are still being evaluated by the FIA.

In an effort to ensure the most effective fireproof suits and crash helmets, the AEG instigated testing of a selection of helmets which they impounded at the end of the 1994 French GP. All these satisfied the existing standards but the AEG felt improvements could probably be made in the standards and the Transport Research Laboratory was invited to look into ways of improving helmets taking into account rotational forces, compressions, frontal impacts and also to look at testing methods and see how they can be improved.

Five sets of overalls were impounded after the 1994 European GP and all met the necessary resistance to fire. The AEG nonetheless, has recommended a revision of the standards.

Finally, the AEG has established an information gathering system for all big accidents since 1985. Some teams are already supplying onboard data but the FIA is considering making it obligatory in the future. In this way the FIA can create a database of accidents and use this to find ways of avoiding similar crashes in the future.

"The one good thing about all the safety regulations," says Harvey Postlethwaite, "is that they are coming about as a result of studies done by a professional body appointed by the FIA. They are not panic measures. So we know when we are designing cars that the changes really will help driver safety."

The full effects of developments in F1 safety will depend on many of the studies being undertaken. In all probability the changes will be subtle - barriers may look a big different; sand traps may contain different kinds of material.

The most important thing, however, is that the FIA is now using modern techniques to collect information and is using that data to take action to save lives. Accidents are always going to happen in F1, but with more understanding of the dynamics of accidents, the effects of big crashes can be minimized.

The final article in the series will be the future of F1 team structures.