Fernando Alonso climbs out of his McLaren Honda after a crash

Formula One 2017: new cars, new rules - speed or safety?

Image credit: Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety, getty images

The 2017 Formula One season promises to be faster and more exciting than ever, but how do you keep the thrill of racing at over 300km/h without endangering the drivers?

The 2017 Formula One (F1) season starts with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on 26 March.

In last year’s season-opening Melbourne race, Spain’s former world champion Fernando Alonso was involved in a horrific crash. It was lap 19 and Alonso, in his McLaren-Honda, was just behind Esteban Gutierrez in the Haas as the two cars entered the braking zone between turns two and three. Alonso clipped the rear of the car in front, destroying his vehicle’s front-right suspension. He slammed into the left-hand wall, careered into the air, flipping over and over before stopping against the tyre wall at the back of the gravel trap. Gutierrez managed to stop his car on the track.

Alonso was travelling at 313km/h when he tried to overtake Gutierrez. Impact took place at 305km/h and the Spaniard’s car hit the wall with a peak lateral deceleration of 45G, rising to 46G during one of the flips. Alonso’s car rolled through 540 degrees, was airborne for 0.9 seconds and the driver struck his head twice against his headrest. When the vehicle finally landed, the car recorded a longitudinal acceleration of 20G. Despite all this, the driver walked away with only minor injuries.

There have been many other high-speed Formula One crashes, but this was the first from which race organisers could gather so much information about what was happening and why.

For the 2016 season, the FIA, Formula One’s governing body, had stipulated that each car must be fitted with a rear-facing high-speed camera. Regulations also required an accelerometer in the driver’s earpiece to measure the forces on their head, and an accident data recorder to measure external forces. With this data, the FIA was able to work out what was going on during each millisecond of Alonso’s accident from the moment he lost control until his car stopped moving.

Alonso missed the Bahrain Grand Prix two weeks later, but was back in the seat for the third race of the season and ended up 10th in the World Drivers’ Championship. In the past, F1 drivers weren’t so lucky when they crashed their cars.

Between 1950, when the first World Championship for drivers took place, and 1986, when Italian driver Elio de Angelis died after crashing his Brabham BT55 at the Paul Ricard circuit in France, 36 Formula One drivers lost their lives. This was either during races or while testing cars. Other drivers like Nikki Lauda and Jackie Stewart survived high-speed crashes, but only just.

It took the deaths of three-time world champion Ayrton Senna and Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger during the 1994 Italian Grand Prix to force the FIA to improve safety standards.

New rules saw restrictions to dimensions of the front and rear wing, modifications to the airbox to reduce engine power and a 10mm wooden plank fixed under each car to make sure they weren’t too low. Cockpit openings were made longer and narrower and the sides raised over drivers’ shoulders. The chassis was extended further in front of the driver’s feet and had to withstand more force. Side headrests were extended to the steering wheel. Crash tests were introduced for the side structures and roll bars.

There were still accidents, but there wasn’t another death on an F1 race track for 20 years.

Modern Formula One cars can withstand enormous forces during a crash. In the main, this is down to the ‘monocoque’: a reinforced, composite chassis that incorporates the driver’s survival cell and cockpit. It consists of 12 layers of carbon-fibre mats, with individual threads five times thinner than human hair, and a honeycombed aluminium layer between the mats for increased rigidity. A 6mm layer of carbon and Zylon stops carbon-fibre splinters from injuring the driver during a crash. The first inside layer is made of Kevlar, to protect the monocoque against penetration.

F1 cars have other physical safety features. Deformable structures absorb energy during a crash and a driver-activated fire-suppression system fills the engine and chassis with retardant. The driver’s fire-​resistant suit can withstand temperatures of 600-800°C for 11 seconds without warming the inside of the suit beyond 41°C.

Drivers wear lightweight carbon-fibre helmets and a head and neck support device (HANS) that prevents whiplash and potentially fatal basal skull fractures. This collar absorbs and redistributes force. Drivers are also strapped into the cockpit by a six-point harness that pushes them tightly into their seat to limit movement, but they can still escape in an emergency.

Despite all this safety technology, Formula One cars do travel at 300km/h and there are risks involved. In October 2014, there was a tragic accident at the Japanese Grand Prix that none of the high-tech safety equipment could have stopped.

French driver Jules Bianchi, in a Marussia, skidded off the track in wet weather and collided with a heavy recovery vehicle on the grass verge, trackside. It was there to remove another car that had crashed in that spot on a previous lap. Bianchi’s head hit the crane at 123km/h. He suffered severe brain damage, was rushed to hospital, placed in an induced coma, but never regained conscious­ness and died nine months later.

An FIA investigation decided that no amount of cockpit technology could have protected Bianchi from a head-on collision with such a heavy vehicle. The recovery crane weighed 6,500kg and Bianchi’s car only 700kg.

With its new data-gathering technology, the FIA is trying to gain a deeper insight into what happens to a driver’s head, neck and spine during a high-​speed crash and how their body interacts with other things in the cockpit. By understanding the forces involved, the FIA hopes to design cockpits with even more effective safety features.

FIA safety director Laurent Meikes believes the lessons from Alonso’s accident, particularly the video footage, will contribute to future improvements. “Safety research will never stop and we will continue to push boundaries to gain a deeper understanding,” he says. “You could imagine a million things tomorrow – you could imagine us trying to estimate the loads on the actual upper body of drivers through the safety belts, for instance.”

Meikes has spoken of FIA plans to use biometric cameras to gather data about a driver’s health and fitness during races, their heart rate, body heat and sweat levels. This, he believes, will help analysts better assess the driver’s condition before, during and after a crash.

At the 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix, the FIA used sensors to monitor track limits and catch drivers who illegally drove wide on the kerbs around corners. Some drivers, including Sebastian Vettel and Danni Kvyat, said they would prefer the FIA to look at track and kerb design so drivers don’t need to drive off the track to go faster.

Despite all the money spent on safety over the years, there’s still one glaring anomaly. An F1 driver’s head sticks out of the car, protected only by a helmet.

The FIA is now considering a ‘halo’ device that could deflect flying objects away from the driver. The titanium structure, developed from a Mercedes concept, is secured to the car above the driver’s head. FIA research shows the halo would have reduced risk of injury in almost every accident in the last 20 years where the driver’s head was vulnerable, or at least done no harm.

Despite this, many in the sport don’t like the halo. They say it’s ugly, goes against the open cockpit spirit of F1, interferes with visibility or even gives an advantage to Mercedes.

No decision has yet been made for 2018. Let’s hope the sport gets its act together before a driver suffers a serious injury, or worse, that could have been prevented.


Recording accident data

According to the 2017 FIA Technical regulations, accident data recorders (ADRs) must be fitted to a car during an event and at all tests. ADRs capture data about the performance of a car during a crash. The data can then be used to study how the car’s safety devices reacted and the driver’s tolerance to injury.

The ADR sits symmetrically around the car centre line, with its top facing upwards and each of its 12 edges parallel to an axis of the car. It must be accessible at all times from within the cockpit without the need to remove the plank or floor. The download connector also has to be accessible when the driver is seated normally, without the need to remove bodywork.

Regulations also state the recorder must be connected to two external 500G accelerometers that are bolted to the survival cell. One of these must be as close to the car’s centre of gravity as practical, and the other as far forward as possible inside the survival cell. The recorder must be powered from a 12V supply so that its battery can be recharged when the car’s electronic systems are switched off.

The driver’s personal accelerometer is housed in their earpiece with a wire running straight into the car’s electronic control unit (ECU), alongside the cable from the accident data recorder. It measures accelerations of a driver’s head in the event of a crash. These accelerometers contain adapted low-G sensors found in smartphones or tablets, which have been miniaturised to fit the ear-canal shape of the driver.

The high-speed camera is hidden in the cockpit behind the steering wheel. Data is recorded twice on the car – on the camera itself and also transmitted to the ECU. The camera films the driver at up to 400 frames per second, recording images in real time onto the memory of the car’s black box device. This data can help inform medical officials of any injuries.

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