Will Gray

Tech Talk: Does F1 need more safety focus?

Will Gray

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The recent deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli have made Formula One evaluate its own safety record - so after 17 years without a driver fatality what areas are there to improve?

Formula One has not experienced a driver fatality since Ayrton Senna died in 1994 but the two recent tragedies in IndyCar and MotoGP made motorsport as a whole look at its safety record and the mechanisms that are in place to keep things improving.

In all categories, many of the dangerous elements that can be minimised or eliminated have been, thanks to ingenious design or manufacture and a commitment to safety improvements from motorsport's governing body, the FIA.

In F1's case, the survival cell monocoque has given drivers an almost indestructible cocoon, fuel 'bag' technology and a ban on refuelling has reduced the risk of fire to virtually zero, wheel tethers have limited the chances of rogue tyre impacts, crash structures have become increasingly complex in absorbing loads, and HANS devices and cockpit surrounds have dramatically reduced the risk of neck or head injuries.

That work has also been matched by developments in track technology, including 'Tecpro' barriers that absorb impact much more predictably than traditional tyre barriers, high-friction run-off areas in place of the gravel traps that risked pitching a car into a roll, and general layout design that reduces risks in high-speed areas.

The problem, as demonstrated by the recent tragic events, is that as much as you can design out the danger, the outcome of an incident can be affected by the tiniest of circumstances.

The last three seasons have seen four major accidents in F1 races - Felipe Massa in Hungary in 2009, Mark Webber in Valencia in 2010, Michael Schumacher and Vitantonio Liuzzi in Abu Dhabi in 2010 and Sergio Perez in Monaco this year.

Massa's incident was caused by freak circumstances when a rogue spring fell off Barrichello's Brawn GP car when travelling at over 160mph and found its way through the gap between his visor and helmet. He ended in the barriers, but it was the spring that caused the life-threatening injuries from which he was lucky to recover.

Webber's crash happened when he collided with the slow-moving Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen, pitching him up into the air and clipping an advertising hoarding before landing back down on the track upside down and hitting the barriers at around 80mph. He walked away, but given the presence of the hoarding it could have easily been much worse.

Schumacher's incident also involved a lucky escape when he spun and was hit by Vitantonio Liuzzi's Force India, which rode up and over the German's Mercedes and narrowly missed his crash helmet. A few inches different and it would have hit his helmet square on.

Perez was lucky to escape an 80g impact in an accident that saw him hit the barriers at the end of the tunnel in Monaco at around 60mph - but had the car impacted at a different angle, the consequences could have been very different.

Every incident offers a lesson for the future, and Massa's has already led to improvements in car and driver safety, with the introduction of Zylon strips that drivers now wear to overlap the helmet and visor gap that allowed the spring through.

Indeed, that Perez escaped his incident was down to lessons learned from previous crashes that occurred in exactly the same place. Back in 1994, Karl Wendlinger ended up a coma after a very similar incident while Jenson Button was stretchered away after crashing there in 2003. The introduction of cockpit padding and the presence of Tecpro barriers instead of tyres undoubtedly contributed to Perez's escape.

The FIA is continually looking at new safety developments on cars and circuits, and the latest investigation is into the potential use of canopies over the cars - but these are highly controversial.

There is no denying they would offer the ultimate in head protection from projectiles but there are concerns that a driver could end up being trapped and unable to get out of the car - although fighter jets have explosive charges that can release the cockpit in the event of an ejection and there is no reason F1 could not have that too.

For many, however, the issue is that the nature of F1 is for a driver to be clearly visible while he is racing - unlike rallying, touring cars and most Le Mans cars - and cockpit canopies could change the feel completely.

It then becomes an issue of safety over tradition, but if tests prove it adds safety value then surely that overrides the other issues. For instance, people complained about cockpit surrounds hiding the drivers when they first came in, but many lives have since been saved by their introduction.

With track safety, the challenge is ensuring similar standards are applied across the board. New tracks can be designed with the latest safety designs as standard but improving other circuits is a costly and time-consuming process.

The Grand Prix Drivers Association plays an important part in this, and their constant vigilance is a regular source of improvement - there are often alterations to circuit kerbing, layout or barrier positions after drivers have had a walk around the track themselves.

Now Rubens Barrichello, currently the head of the GPDA, wants the drivers to have a presence on the Technical Working Group too, so that they have the chance to directly influence car development from a safety perspective. That makes absolute sense.

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict or prevent a freak accident - but while F1 may have escaped the ultimate tragedy for 17 years it would be foolish to think it has reached its safety limit.

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