Racing Article

Formula One: Safety at the Helm

Formula One has always had loads of glamour, break-neck speeds and the cutting edge in technology. The thrill has attracted millions of people from all over the world who have watched the drivers get younger and the machines hit the highest limits of precision. With the growing speeds and improved technology, all aimed at making lap-times shorter, leads to growing concerns over the safety of those directly involved in the sport as well as people viewing it from the stand.

 The Crash that killed Senna>During the earlier years of Formula One, crashes and deaths were considered to be a part & parcel of the sport but nowadays, strict regulations by the FIA, countless testing of materials and safety measures by teams, and scientific track development methods by event organizers ensures that the highest possible safety standards are maintained at each race weekend. The unification of these regulations, the dedicated personnel on call and the latest advancements in technology combine to ensure that the biggest concern on a race weekend is the race itself.

Carbon, Zylon & Nomex

• Fires can break out at any time and drivers are draped in Nomex-3 overalls that can ensure survival in scorching heat for 11 seconds, enough time for the driver to get out, or be pulled out of a wreckage. The suit can withstand up to 840 degree Celsius. To put it into perspective, the lava in a volcanic eruption reaches temperatures between 750 degree and 1000 degree Celsius.

• From 2007, the nose and rear structures of the car have been designed to crumple-up more softly. A 6mm thick layer of Carbon and Zylon, used in bullet-proof vests, protects the safety cell, and the cockpit, from splinters.

• Formula One tyres are filled with Nitrogen, unlike normal air that is used in street cars. Under extreme pressure and load, nitrogen maintains a constant pressure that removes many safety concerns as a change of 0.05 bar in the tyre pressure can reduce steering ability by unimaginable proportions.

• Each driver has an additional Head and Neck Support (HANS) system, an addition made in 2003. The system requires helmets to be fastened to a frame worn over the drivers’ shoulders, by two elastic straps.

• All Formula One tyres undergo rigorous testing and quality checks in a factory where the checking process involves 130 different checking items. The slightest bit of discrepancy means that the entire batch / series of tyres need to be disposed off immediately.

• At least 5 fire engines, each manned by four trained firemen, are on continuous standby during the entire race weekend.

• FIA technicians check each vehicle thoroughly to ensure that teams are abiding by the regulations set out for each car. Checking starts on Thursday and continue till the final checks made at the starting grid, on raceday.

• The safety car is an important feature introduced in 1973, at the Canadian Grand Prix. It helps keep control over the speeds of the race cars when there is a stoppage due to a problem on the track that can be hazardous to speeding race cars.

• At Albert Park, in Australia, the safety fences around the circuit measure 3.80 metres in height to ensure that no debris flies over the fence to harm spectators. This move to raise the height was made after the a marshal was killed by a stray, flying wheel that had come off in an accident during the 2001 Australian Grand Prix.

Black Boxes & Barriers

• Each Formula One driver’s helmet is made up of a special T-800 high performance fibre that is about 1/15th the thickness of a human hair. Each fibre strand has about 12,000 micro-threads and the total length of all the threads used in one helmet stretches to about 16,000 kilometers.

• Pit-lane speed limiters ensure that no car can travel above 80kmph in the pit-lane, during a race. The limit is 60kmph during practice sessions. There is a Euro 200.00 penalty for each kilometer over-sped in the pit-lane during practice and qualifying. During the race, there is the slow and frustrating drive-through penalty.

• A special high speed barrier ensures safety at fast tracks in corners with limited run-off areas. This adds to the impact protection of the conventional tyre stacks already in place. These new barriers can withstand impact at up to 200 kmph.

• The Nurburgring, in Germany was stated to be one of the more dangerous tracks to drive on in the early days of Formula One. The organizers have spent something in the region of 50 million Euros to improve driver and spectator safety measures in recent years.

• About 30 square metres of carbon-fibre mats are used to create the monocoque. Each individual sheet of fibre is about 1/5th the thickness of a human hair.

• Every Formula One car, since 1999, has been fitted with an accident recorder that is similar to the Black Box of an airplane. The device records the speed and deceleration data to help improve accident prevention techniques.

• Each track has a state-of-the-art medical centre that has all the necessary medical instruments and is manned 24-hours a day. Each of the three shifts includes an orthopaedic surgeon, an anaesthesiologist and six paramedics.

Hospitals & Helicopters

• FIA President Max Mosley spearheaded the foundation of the FIA’s Institute for Safety in Motor Sport. This institute came into being after the disastrous spring of 1994 and is headed by Professor Sid Watkins, the Formula One Medical Director.

• For the Monaco Grand Prix, 5,500 crash barriers are added to the streets of Monte Carlo.

• About 15 hospitals, including a dentist, are on high alert during the entire race weekend.

• Gravel traps are more scientific than just throwing gravel beside the track. Each trap is about 25cm deep and has special spherical stones between 5mm and 16mm in diameter. Each stone is shaped and designed to generate high friction levels, like scattering sand on ice.

• Safety belts in Formula One cars are much more complex than those in street cars. Belts for the shoulders, pelvis and legs are controlled from a single point and allow the driver to get out of the vehicle within 5 seconds.

• Around 150 security officials, along with 130 medics and doctors, are on call to ensure safety for the spectators.

• Two ambulances and a helicopter, manned by a doctor, two paramedics and a pilot are on standby for the entire race weekend. There is a second helicopter outside the circuit, with four more ambulances stationed around the track, on standby as well.

Tunnels, Tests & Training

• The Pit-lane actually has two lanes, one for cars to drive on, known as the fast lane; and another to stop the car for pit-stops, retirements and any other reason, known as the inner lane.

• Lighting at the 400m long tunnel in Monaco has been increased as the change in light blinded the drivers as soon as they emerged from the long dark tunnel. An optical system was installed in 2001 that ensured that natural light entered the tunnel and created almost day-like conditions inside it.

• The modern Formula One helmet weighs about 1, 250gm and is made of Carbon Fibre, for rigidness; Aramide, for fire resistance and Polyethylene, to make the helmet impenetrable.

• Since 1985, crash tests have been introduced to Formula One and each car must pass through 3 dynamic and 12 static tests before they are considered race-worthy. In each test, the survival cell must remain completely intact.

• Mobile response teams include 4 salvage cars along with 2 rescue cars aided by 2 extrication teams. The Salvage cars have a rescue cutter & various extinguishing agents and can also tow a damaged car if required. Each Salvage car is managed by two experienced and trained helpers. The Rescue cars are manned by emergency doctors along with 4 paramedics and a driver. These cars are positioned to be able to reach any point on the race track within 30 seconds.

Since Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994, Formula One racing has yet to suffer a fatality. The world champion’s death shook the motoring world and the safety measures put into place since, have proven that there has been considerable progress in terms of concern for the safety of the drivers as well as the crew & spectators.

Anjali nambissan
Anjali Nambissan Sports Pundit member

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