Will Gray

Abu Dhabi: A new barrier to overtaking?

Will Gray

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The integration of a new wave of safety barriers has turned the spectacular new Yas Marina track into a tight, twisty and unforgiving street-style circuit - but will it be good for the racing?

The increasing desire for improved safety over the last 20 years has made circuit designers focus on creating larger and larger run-off areas and introducing chicanes to slow cars down in dangerous places, moving fans at the track away from the action and altering places like the historic Eau Rouge corner to tame their danger.

At the same time, in some cases there has been a transition from the use of old-school gravel traps to 'super-sticky' tarmac run-off areas. Gravel traps, usually around 25cm deep, contain round gravel stones between 5-16mm in diameter to create frictional resistance as the car interacts with them, but they have often failed to scrub off the speed as flat bottom cars slide over them and they can also cause cars to flip.

The tarmac run-off, instead, is made of coarser material than the main circuit and provides more grip for braking, helping the driver to slow the car if he makes a mistake and goes off course, but also gives more of a chance to come back on once he has corrected his error.

While these changes have come in, work on barrier design has also been going on in a bid to create a safer solution.

For acute impacts of less than 30-degrees, the FIA has generally recommended a standard metal safety barrier, which creates a continuous surface on which the car can scrub off speed as it slides along.

For impacts of more than 30 degrees, tyre barriers, made of between two and six rows of ordinary car tyres bolted together and reinforced by a 12mm rubber strip wrapped around the front, have been the traditional solution, absorbing 80 per cent of the impact energy, while tighter circuits like Monaco, which do not have the space to fit in so many rows of tyres, have used water tanks to do a similar job.

The IRL and University of Nebraska began working on a solution for impact-absorbing barriers in 1988 and quickly developed the SAFER system for US Oval racing and F1 races at Indianapolis.

It used a series of rectangular steel tubes welded together and placed a metre or so away from the concrete outer wall, with the space between partially filled with bundled sheets of polystyrene. The barrier was laid out in connected sections and had great success.

But since 1999, when Michael Schumacher broke his leg after crashing head-on into a tyre barrier at Silverstone (a crash in which his car became wedged in the barrier itself), the FIA Institute has been doing its own research into the design of impact-absorbing barriers, resulting in the new TECPRO Barriers that have been taken up by several F1 tracks over the last few years.

They have already been used on a variety of corners at F1 tracks in Spain, Monaco, Europe, Italy and Singapore as well as in the annual Race of Champions event - but the Yas Marina circuit, which is expected to make a name for itself as the most luxurious and spectacular venue on the calendar, probably has the first track layout designed with this revolutionary barrier solution in mind.

The rotational moulded flexible polyethylene barrier is filled with injected foam and reinforced by a metallic sheet at the centre. Measuring 1.2m high, it comes in 1.5m sections which fit together like a jigsaw and are designed to offer maximum energy absorption and reduced G-force while not collapsing, exploding or allowing cars to over-ride them or get stuck in them on impact.

Crucially, the barrier provides similar protection to the tyre and belt system but with a depth reduction of 50 per cent - meaning the Abu Dhabi track can be tight and twisty with fast corners but still have maximum protection.

Comments from former F1 drivers Martin Brundle and David Coulthard and several GP2 Asia drivers who have sampled the circuit all point to the surprisingly narrow street circuit style of the track, with a mix of slow and fast corners, but Coulthard also pointed out the significant effect the barriers could have on this weekend's race.

"I think there will be a few of the drivers saying, 'this looks a bit tight'," Coulthard said. "But there has to be a penalty for going off a circuit.

"It should not be a big crash that ends up hurting you, but there has to be a price to pay - and I think this track has redefined the FIA safety standards because of the safety barriers."

But with a track which punishes those who go off it, the race could be in danger of becoming a procession.

Circuits with large tarmac run-off areas give drivers the chance to be a risky without suffering the consequences, but in Abu Dhabi any mistake will put them into the wall - and with comments already made about the desert dust creating a slippery track off line, it remains to be seen whether the tight circuit will be able to provide the entertainment worthy of the stage.

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