MAY 24, 2002

FIA highlights sports car problem

The FIA has announced that it has discovered a serious problem with the current sports car and sports prototype designs - and that could have a dramatic effect on the sport in the months ahead.

THE FIA has announced that it has discovered a serious problem with the current sports car and sports prototype designs - and that could have a dramatic effect on the sport in the months ahead.

The problem - discovered in a research program funded by the new FIA Foundation - is that the current generation of sports cars have a tendency to flip if they have a yaw angle of more than 30-degrees. The yaw angle is the angle of the airflow relative to the direction in which the car is travelling and as sports cars normally run with yaw angles less than 10-degrees there is only a problem if a driver loses control and starts to spin. The effect can be seen at speeds as low as 95mph.

The research was promoted by the death in April last year of Michele Alboreto in a testing accident at the Lausitzring. In recent months there have been two other accidents one of which killed GrandAm driver Jeff Clinton at the Homestead Miami Speedway. In both cases the driver was killed when the rollover bars broke. A third accident occurred during a recent test at Paul Ricard and resulted in Bentley driver Eric Van de Poele emerging unhurt after his car flipped.

The phenomenon which the FIA has discovered has been confirmed by two separate windtunnel investigations, one by a manufacturer and the other by FIA engineers in the Imperial College windtunnel in London. It is a completely different problem to the one suffered by Mercedes-Benz at Le Mans in 1999. Following those incidents, the FIA instigated changes to the Sports Car Technical Regulations.

Further research is now being done to eliminate the phenomenon but pending the results of that the FIA has advised all teams and race organizers that extra precautions are needed. Organizers should ensure that all spectators are sufficiently far from the circuit at any given point to be in no danger from an airborne car, they should ensure that all marshals and race personnel have sufficient protection and that they should, if necessary, take measures to slow the cars down in areas were a car might become airborne.

The federation also informed teams that they should reinforce the roll-over structures of the cars so that they conform to the rules which are due to be introduced at the start of next year.

The announcement is likely to have a number of effects in the short and longer term. In the short term there is a big question over what will happen with this year's Le Mans 24 Hours as the Automobile Club de l'Ouest must now decide whether it feels confident that the race can go ahead as planned or whether they need to close off certain areas to spectators.

In the longer term it will mean that the sport car regulations will have to be revamped and that may help the various different series to come up with a rule to suit all of them, thus helping to build a stronger base for sports car racing in the future.

The other point worth mentioning is that it is the first major project to come from the FIA Foundation and a sign that the organization is planning to use the money it has made from Formula 1 to improve racing safety. The Foundation is currently funding another program to look at ways of improving the F1 wheel tethers to ensure that the wheels stay on cars when there is an accident.

The work of the foundation is being welcomed in the F1 paddock.

"When you are designing a car you do not look at what the car does if its going backwards or sideways," says Williams's Patrick Head. "You are just trying to make it go as quickly as possible in the direction it was intended to go."