Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Safety Matters
Steven Roy

Steven has been obsessed by motor racing in general, and Formula One in particular, for as long as he can remember. He can always be called upon for informed opinion on any aspect of F1, be it the sport, technology, business and politics or its history.

F1 designs nose forward - Could the increasing trend for thin noses cause a safety issue?


Close up of STR8 and CT03 noses

There is one design trend in F1 that I am not at all happy about because it increases the chance of someone being hurt in the event of an accident. The noses of the current F1 cars are far too small. The frontal area in event of an accident should be increased to a sensible minimum size so that the load of any accident is dispersed over a wider area.

Unfortunate but lucky

What got me thinking about noses was the accident involving the Force India front jack operator in the recent test at Jerez. It goes without saying that someone being hit by a Formula One car in any conditions is not something anyone wants to happen but I believe the current noses increase the chance of serious injury resulting.

We have grown used to the sight of mechanics occasionally being hit by cars and where once the idea was appalling now it is just something that happens from time to time.

It was totally my fault. We were doing some aero runs and everything was cold. The brakes were too cold, the tyres were too cold and I came in too fast.

There are no reset buttons in real life like there is in the simulator - and there are no mechanics standing in front of the car in the simulator either! It was quite unfortunate but luckily he is okay.

- James Rossiter, test driver, Force India

I don't want to bore you with a physics lesson that most of you already understand anyway but it is necessary so sit up and pay attention. That includes you at the back of the class reading Autosport. The force or momentum of an accident is the same regardless whether the nose is flat or pointed as both are functions of the mass of the car and either its acceleration or velocity. However the pressure on the mechanics leg or potentially some other body part like a head in a more serious accident increases inversely proportionally with the area of the item that hits him. So the smaller the area the greater the pressure on, for example, a bone.

Of course as with most things you don't really need to know the physics or the formulae involved to understand this. Imagine the difference between a woman standing on your foot in a flat shoe and then with a stiletto heel. Ouch! She still weighs the same so the force and momentum are the same but the pressure on your foot is greatly increased with the stiletto. There is a reason we cut meat with a knife rather than a plate.

Bigger, fatter, better

While it was the risk to mechanics that got me thinking about the noses their design also increases the risk to other drivers either through the nose coming into direct contact with a head or by increasing the damage to another car in a collision. It is now very difficult for a car to come into contact with another driver's head but the possibility still exists. It goes without saying that the smaller and pointier the nose the greater that chance is because a bigger, fatter nose is more likely to come in contact with part of the car and dissipate some energy or be deflected away from the head completely.

As ever there is more than one way to skin a cat. While it would be a good idea to make noses more bulbous it would also be a good idea not to have someone standing in front of them with a little plastic sign and a jack handle to protect him against three-quarters of a ton of carbon, metal, petrol and driver that is aiming at 2 square inches of his lower leg. It seems odd that the most technically advanced sport in the world has not been able to solve that when NASCAR did years ago. In NASCAR no mechanic is allowed over the wall until his car has stopped. The stopping is achieved by a mechanic holding a sign with the driver's number on a long pole where he wants the driver to stop.

NASCAR pit stop with poles
Credit: Jay Williams / Creative Commons

The other way to tackle this problem and not change the nature of F1 pit stops is to have what in essence is a remote controlled front jack with the operator standing to the side of the stopped car level with the front wing. It is perfectly possible to design a jack that lies flat on the ground and is activated by pneumatics or hydraulics to raise once the car is in position and to drop to let the car go when the stop is completed. It would mean that drivers would be penalised more for not positioning their car accurately in their pit box or overshooting but there could be a reserve jack operator with a conventional jack standing by ready to deal with that. Or we could just go back to onboard jacks and have someone plug a hose in to activate them.

As with many of the things that concern me about F1 there are numerous easy solutions but the odds are nothing will be done until someone is seriously hurt. I wonder how pointed the authorities will let the noses get before they act.