JANUARY 27, 2003

Jacques Villeneuve attacks HANS

This year Formula 1 drivers will be wearing the HANS (Head And Neck Support system) in all races. The system is being opposed by Jacques Villeneuve who claims that it might be more dangerous to wear it. Villeneuve has made some fairly inflammatory remarks about HANS in recent days, claiming that the system would have killed Pedro Diniz when his Sauber flipped at the Nurburgring in 1999.

Such comments are irritating for those who have spent years developing, perfecting and testing the system. They say that science does not back up Villeneuve's claims.

The HANS system was developed by American sports car driver Jim Downing and his brother-in-law Dr. Bob Hubbard, Director of the Biomechanical Design Research Laboratory at Michigan State University, beginning in 1985. The system they developed uses a Kevlar collar which fits over a driver's shoulders to which his helmet is then tethered to reduce loadings on the neck during accidents. Mercedes-Benz invested more than $1m in testing the device before giving it a full seal of approval.

There have been more than 50 high-speed sled tests carried out by researchers in the United States and by Mercedes-Benz in recent years and none of them have identified anything that HANS did which would have made an accident worse. CART's Chief Orthopedic Consultant, Dr. Terry Trammell, recently made a presentation to the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis showing the success of the HANS device in CART accidents, including evidence that the device helps drivers when the car is upside-down.

But it is the drivers who will eventually convince their peers that HANS is a big step forward. For many years only a few hundred HANS devices were built but in the last few years production has boomed to several thousand. Many drivers in the United States who now use the system say that they will not race without it, just as they would not consider racing without a helmet or without flameproof overalls. There remain one or two detractors.

"If you see a crash test with and without HANS, you don't need to be a rocket scientist or know anything about motor racing to see that you ought to be wearing this thing," says former CART star Christian Fittipaldi.

NASCAR driver Kyle Petty is also glowing in his praise for the system. He says that drivers who complain about discomfort, restricted head movement and limitations on peripheral vision are just making "weak excuses for not wanting to try something."