Formula 1 | Safety in F1: the pursuit of excellence from the 2000s to the 2020s

Once seen as a pursuit at odds with motorsport’s DNA, safety has become a priority for F1 organisers. In this three-part article, we look at its history, obstacles, and successes. Here is the 3rd and final part.

After its infancy in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to a more open search for safety in Formula 1 in the following decades, Formula 1 was faced with the need to prove that it was safe from danger.

The shockwave of Ayrton Senna’s death was felt for many years, leading to phenomenal improvements in safety in the late 90s. Despite some scares, such as Pedro D’s Nürburgring crash, his Sauber’s roll bar gave. After a barrel roll, many pilots have emerged unscathed from major crashes.

Martin Brundle in Melbourne in 1996 – where his Jordan split in two – and Jacques Villeneuve and Ricardo Zonta’s two BAR crashes at Spa in 1999, a 13-car rally earlier in the year, were proof of that. Last year, all drivers came out unscathed, except for Rubens Barrichello, who suffered a slight injury to his hand when the steering wheel came back. The front end of the single seats was still considered fragile after crashes that left Olivier Panis and Michael Schumacher with broken legs.

HANS, a dazzling advance in safety

But the early 2000s were sadly marred by two fatal crashes in Formula 1, with less media exposure due to the involvement of two track marshals. The 2000 Italian Grand Prix was indeed the scene of a huge rally at the start, and the car’s wheel hit marshal Paolo Gislimberti on the side of the track in the second storm.

Six months later, Villeneuve escaped unscathed from a horrific crash in Melbourne, another reminder of the advances in active safety in single-seaters, but Graham Beveridge was killed when debris from a BAR hit him.

Ever reactive, the FIA ​​introduced reinforcements to the wheel arches from 2002, again forcing widening of the mirrors and reinforcing the deforming rear structure of single-seaters.

In 2003, it was a major breakthrough that ensured its mandatory entry into F1: the HANS system. Acronym for Arm and Neck Support, a device to protect drivers’ necks and heads that was mandated on the other side of the Atlantic two years ago in CART.

Designed in the late 1980s, it was extensively developed by General Motors and Ford by the mid-1990s, and data allowed for officially approved use by the end of the decade. Thanks to Robert Hubbard and Jim Downing, Mercedes completed the development of F1’s chosen system without a moment’s consideration of the airbag around the cockpit.

Introduced to teams in 2001, it became mandatory in NASCAR after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2002 and in F1 the following year. It is now used in all top-level motorsport and is implemented in all competitions governed by the FIA.

Accept that there is zero risk…

In 2005, after a 2004 season in which many records were broken, some of which would stand until the arrival of single-seaters under the 2017 regulations, the rear diffuser saw a reduced size to limit cornering grip and therefore transmission speed.

The height of the cockpit side guards was regularly adjusted during this period to continue progressing in safety, even when Alex Wurz came close to a very serious flat-bottomed accident on David’s car at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix. Coulthard brushes his helmet.

Robert Kubica’s major crash at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix (photo below) with a simple ankle sprain was a blessing in disguise for the FIA, as it still seems today that the driver would have been seriously injured just a few years ago. .

Again, in 2009, this eternal search for safety was marred by a serious crash in Hungary during qualifying. Felipe Massa suffered severe facial and head trauma after being hit in the head by Barrichello’s piece lost by Brawn GP and underwent life-saving emergency surgery.

A chance Henry Surtees didn’t have a week ago. The son of John Surtees died after hitting his head during a race in the new Formula 2 championship due to a burst tire of an opponent.

…but look for it anyway

The protection of drivers’ heads was little considered in all racing at the time, even in single-seaters it was not easy to implement solutions to overcome it.

Meanwhile, the circuits designed by Hermann Tilke saw new standards set, the gaps increased in size and paved more and more, while the TecPro barriers also introduced better features.

But the issue of protecting drivers’ heads will become increasingly pressing, a theme reinforced by the 2011 and 2015 IndyCar fatal crashes involving Dan Weldon and Justin Wilson following head impacts. And meanwhile, F1 was meant to remind us of the sometimes out-of-control dramas.

At the 2013 Canadian Grand Prix, death returned to the premier circuits for the first time in 12 years when a race-evening track marshal’s death caused a crane to fall that brought the single-seater back onto the track. .stables. Moreover, after several tragedies, the questionable cranes barely escaped.

We can think of the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix (photo below), where Michael Schumacher went to immobilize his damaged single-seater next to the wreckage of the towed Antonio Pizzonia, or the 2007 European Grand Prix, where a support boat was seen. the single-seater was caught in a gravel trap as it continued to exit the track, and Vitantonio Liuzzi was hit by the Toro Rosso’s rear wing at low speed.

The Bianchi drama called everything into question

Unfortunately, despite the criticism raised during such incidents, drama could not be avoided at Suzuka in 2014 when Jules Bianchi crashed into a crane that was in the process of restoring Adrian Sutil’s single-seater. The Frenchman, who was in a coma for several months, could not survive his injuries.

F1 and the FIA ​​once again faced the eternal question: how to achieve zero risk? Because while this is the ultimate goal of F1, this zero risk cannot exist in a sport where drivers drive at 360km/h on circuits surrounded by rails, wheels and walls.

However, the FIA ​​still and always refused to allow deaths in mourning accidents in the races it manages, and in the mid-2010s began research into a system to protect drivers’ heads.

Two preliminary projects were carried out, a ring system known as the Halo and an aircraft bubble called the Shield (main photo of the article). The latter was quickly abandoned after causing Sebastian Vettel to spin.

Halo, bad but undeniable

After several months of testing on Halo, it was finally approved for use from 2018. The decision caused much debate among F1 fans, especially those who championed the popular image of the modern gladiator. The racing driver decided that the safety sought was detrimental to the chivalrous aspect of motor racing.

After four years of use in Formula 1 and other FIA categories, the report is clear of several accidents where the Halo was affected and the driver survived.

The system was not developed in response to Bianchi’s crash, as such a device had been in the works for several years, and the FIA ​​made it clear that the presence of the Halo did not change anything in the car’s fate. a failed pilot considering angle, speed and impact severity.

But before the possible introduction of a real Safety Car, a virtual safety car concept was created to be able to react quickly and slow down drivers immediately. Again, this device, which is sometimes criticized for the unfairness it brings, is no more unfair than the effect of a safety car, and theoretically prevents such accidents from happening again.

Between miracles and tragedies, there is no ideal solution

In 2014, F1 decided to lower the nose height of the single-seaters, which was lowered again in 2022 with the new generation to avoid serious injury in a crash.

In 2010, Michael Schumacher and Vitantonio Liuzzi of the Italian Force India team in Abu Dhabi were unable to hit the German’s helmet, it was prevented. Unfortunately, we also discovered that the low noses used in the F1, F2 and F3 do not cover all possibilities.

Less than five years after Jules Bianchi’s crash, the death of Antoine Hubert in the first Formula 2 race at Spa-Francorchamps in 2019 was another reminder that the worst is sometimes inevitable. The FIA ​​investigates every serious incident and has confirmed that future incidents will be investigated.

However, the results of Antoine Hubert’s accident showed that it sometimes resulted in death and that the lack of gravel on the side of the track had no influence as a possible cause of the tragedy. Indeed, the failure of Juan Manuel Correa’s car to slow down was actually due to the puncture.

An inevitable part of success

Just as Antoine Hubert’s crash led to the death toll from his crash, Romain Grosjean’s crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix was the exact opposite.

After a horrific crash that saw his car go off the tracks, split in two and burst into flames, the Frenchman managed to escape the inferno that had become his single seat almost unscathed.

A miracle that once again proved the effectiveness of the Halo, but this accident again revealed the shortcomings of single seats, with the need to strengthen the attachment to the tank and chassis. Likewise, Guanyu Zhou’s horrific crash at the start of the 2022 British Grand Prix cost the Chinese a chance to overcome.

But it also allowed the single-seaters to highlight another Achilles heel, in this case their roll bar. Alfa Romeo-style “knife” type restraints, i.e. a single central post above the driver’s head, are banned. In addition, crash tests will be intensified over the next two years.

There can never be too much security

The search for safety is eternal in motorsports. We’ve seen it with the arrival of Aeroscreen in IndyCar, with NASCAR deceleration, and with the increase in boosters that saved Ryan Newman’s life in February 2020.

We have seen this in all the FIA ​​branded championships, who work year after year to strengthen single seaters and change procedures and circuits to prevent tragedies as much as possible.

The fact that other categories approach safety with the same spirit fully legitimizes F1’s position and today pushes it to go even further as a leader in the development of safety-related technologies.

Although the consequences of accidents are less serious today than in the past, the best racing drivers are still complete athletes who can withstand severe impacts.

And above all, they are athletes who are willing to expose themselves to a threat that is still present, albeit diminished over time. A risk that still makes them modern gladiators whose arena and weaponry have evolved over time.

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