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Spa-Francorchamps crash wake-up call for Formula One

By Berthold Bouman

Fernando Alonso was incredibly lucky yesterday when the cars of Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton flew over the cockpit of his Ferrari, just a few inches closer and the outcome would have been a true disaster for the Spanish driver.

Fernando Alonso escaped serious injuries at Spa

Something similar happened with Michael Schumacher during the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix when Vitantonio Liuzzi torpedoed Schumacher’s car and also missed his head by inches when his car landed on top of the Mercedes. A similar crash yesterday now means these kind of accidents are no longer a coincidence but something that can occur again in the future, perhaps even with lethal consequences.

After Felipe Massa’s accident in Hungary in 2009, engineers have been talking about a jetfighter-style closed canopy, the FIA has tested such a canopy and also a forward roll-hoop (see videos) after the death of Henry Surtees, son of former Formula One driver and 1964 World Champion John Surtees, who was killed by a flying wheel during a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch just one week before Massa’s accident.

Yesterday, Ferrari’s Team Principal Stefano Domenicali was relieved to hear his driver who visited the medical centre for a thorough check-up, was okay. “Having a car flying almost over his head could have been really dangerous,” he said. Technical Director Pat Fry agreed, “It was a very risky situation and seeing one car fly over his, a few centimetres above his helmet, left us with our hearts in our mouths for a few tenths of a second.”

McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh was also shocked. “It looked scary, didn’t it?” he told Reuters. “It just reminds us … we become slightly nonchalant. We see so many big enormous shunts and we are just used to the driver hopping out. Fortunately on this occasion he did.”

He said this accident was a wake-up call for Formula One, “You realise that they come inches away from not hopping out of the car on those incidents so … fortunate for him and the sport that we got away with a big accident.”

The accident yesterday re-ignited the discussion about cockpit safety, since the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994 there have not been any fatal accidents in Formula One, but in motorsport disaster is always lurking around the corner.

Many are not a fan of a closed cockpit, while it can protect drivers from flying debris, there are also plenty of scenarios thinkable in which a closed cockpit could actually make things worse.

Domenicali commented, “We are working with the Federation [FIA] to try to work on the right system of protection. With what we have tested or are working on there are also some problems that you may have. We need to be very careful on all these devices. We are still working with the federation to find a possible solution … we are working very hard.”

Whitmarsh agreed and said, “I think people underestimate what a [closed] cockpit would have to be and how it could make the situation worse. You put this glass bubble over the driver, but you can’t assume that they’re safer. There’s all sorts of other incidents with cars overturning or fires in the cockpit [that could make it worse].”

In the US IndyCar series the new 2012 cars have a rear ‘bumper’ right behind the rear wheels which should on paper prevent that cars are catapulted into the air when they run into the back of another car. This happened last year with IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon who was tragically killed during a multiple car pile-up during the last race of the season at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The rear bumper so far did its job, but there is of course no guarantee it will stop every car in any situation from taking off into the air.

Nothing is easy in Formula One, adapting a similar concept for Formula One would mean a complete overhaul of the technical regulations as without a doubt clever engineers would find a way to use the bumper as an aerodynamic device to reduce drag or to generate more downforce.

But something has to be done, also the nose of a modern Formula One car is way too high up in the air and is also a reason why cars tend to get airborne when hitting the back of another car, something Mark Webber found out after he hit the (then) Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen during the 2010 European Grand Prix at Valencia.

The pointy nose is almost a guillotine and cuts though tyres and bodywork with ease, a rear bumper could solve a lot of problems. The canopy poses a lot of other problems that have to be solved first, there is no point in installing a canopy on all cars and then later find out it makes the problem even worse.

There are also people who are concerned about the aesthetic aspects of such devices, but as the FIA said in a publication about cockpit safety, “A radical aesthetic change would be a price well worth paying to save drivers’ lives and achieve a game-changing safety breakthrough.”

F1 Roll-Hoop Test (Video FIA Institute)

As part of the FIA Institute’s latest investigation into cockpit protection in open-wheel race cars, its research team tested the safety benefits of a forward roll-hoop.

Jet Fighter Canopy Test  (Video FIA Institute)

FIA Institute researchers recently tested the protective powers of a jet-fighter canopy for potential application in open-cockpit racing cars.


One response

  1. Excellent article thanks. So apt as Spa was scary stuff.

    September 3, 2012 at 14:24

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