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.

Learning the hard way // A closer look at crash structures and marshal requirements

Published

Each column that I have written in this series so far has been about a single subject. Unlike those this one covers multiple subjects. There have been two safety related issues that I felt I should comment on and a Safety Matters column is the obvious place to do it.

An unusual accident

Some of us live commented the Rolex 24 hours race at Daytona. During this race there was a huge impact when Memo Gidley ran into the almost stationary car of Matteo Maucelli. This was one of the hardest impacts I have ever seen and like everyone else immediately after the accident I was very worried about the drivers. Malucelli's car had a technical problem and was almost static when Gidley pulled out to pass another car only to find what amounted to a parked car in his path.

If anyone hasn't seen the accident I suggest you watch it before you read on. I should say that both drivers survived and are out of hospital.

I am sure that you will agree there was a lot of luck involved in the drivers survival. Our initial comments on the accident show the impact it had on us and how concerned we were for the drivers.

The cars stood up to the accident in the way that we have become used to seeing. Modern cars and drivers survive what a few years ago would have been fatal crashes. I have not yet seen a g-force number for the deceleration that Gidley and his car sustained but it has to have been substantial and it resulted in some very serious although fortunately not life-threatening injuries. Indeed so well did he survive the crash that he is already out of hospital but not before he had multiple surgeries.

When the commentators announced that both were going to hospital rather than the circuit medical centre we were worried. Then we found out how close the hospital was and we relaxed a little. After the initial shock of the crash and having heard that both drivers had been dispatched to the hospital my thoughts turned to the cause of the accident.

It was obviously an unusual accident because it is not normal for a car to pull out to find a static car in its path. If you watch motor racing you will be used to seeing accidents and used to what constitutes a 'normal' accident and this wasn't normal.

If you watch motor racing you will be used to seeing accidents and used to what constitutes a 'normal' accident and this wasn't normal

Having initially been baffled as to what was odd about it I realised why this kind of accident doesn't happen often. Flag marshals. On a conventional race track there are numerous marshals posts which display a range of flags to cover the different conditions that can exist at various times on a race track. Had the race been in Europe, at the marshals post before the accident there would have been a white flag displayed to indicate that there was a slow moving vehicle on the track. There would also have been a yellow flag displayed to indicate that overtaking was not allowed. In a situation this hazardous, there would undoubtedly have been double waved yellows.

Daytona is an oval track with an infield section added to make it a road track much as happened at Indianapolis to allow that track to host F1 races. Whereas Indianapolis had to put marshal posts all round the track to comply with F1 rules Daytona seems only to have one signalling post at the start/finish line. This is fine for an oval but it simply shouldn't be allowed on a course with corners going both right and left. Had the race been on a track outside of America or run to international rules there would have been flag marshals at the corner entry and in the area before the accident.

The accident may still have happened with flag marshall because Gidley was right up behind another car and may not have seen them. We need to progress to the point where all cars in all classes of professional racing have flag lights on the dash or steering wheel as F1 does.

Hopefully this accident will be properly investigated and the necessary lessons learned from it. Then the appropriate actions need to be taken to prevent a repeat ever occurring. Those of us who remember Nelson Piquet hitting the wall at Tamburello and walking away know what happens when you don't learn from accidents. After that Gerhard Berger hit the same wall in a Ferrari which burst into flames with him unconscious in it. No lessons were learned from that and unbelievable as it seems twenty years ago we lost Senna in what was the most predictable accident in the history of motor racing.

Impossibly small crash structures

As everyone will be aware by now the noses of the 2014 cars are radically different to anything we have ever seen before. From a safety point of view I am very pleased to see the end of high noses. They were a ridiculous idea that created an unnecessary hazard in a sport that is already hazardous by its very nature. I still think it is wrong that the drivers feet are so high up and I would like to see the rules changed so that the feet are the lowest part of the body.

Like everyone else I am used to seeing the rear crash structures and nothing ever struck me as odd about it. For some reason though as soon as the new noses appeared I realised that something about them did not make sense. It seems very odd to me that a car that is 1800 mm wide requires a crash structure that only has an area of 9000mm². That equates to a square with sides just under 95mm or less than 4 inches. This means that if the crash structure is a square it is a little over 5% of the width of the car.

Caterham CT05 nose detail
Credit: Creative Commons/Staley/LAT

This to me seems ridiculously small. If the car hits something solid it should not matter whether the area is large or small as long as it is capable of taking the load. However if the object it hits is not single solid object then things may be different. Imagine as an example the car going head on into a tyre barrier and the 4 inch crash structure going between two tyres. At that point it is doing absolutely nothing to help the driver. Now if it is only a tyre barrier the driver should be protected by the compliance of the tyres.

Those of us who remember Luciano Burti disappearing under the tyre barrier at Spa in an extremely scary manner would prefer something more substantial at the front (and rear) of the cars.

Now imagine what would happen if the two objects the crash structure went between were something a lot more solid than tyres.

To me front and rear crash structures should be at least 60% of the width of the car. If the front of one car hits the rear of another I think it is reasonable to expect that a large part of the contact should be between the crash structures. It seems odd that anyone would design the rules so that it is almost impossible for the crash structures of the two cars to come into contact with each other. Why would anyone mandate an item on a car whose whole function is to withstand a crash then make it impossibly small?

The other side of this coin is that the smaller the area of the crash structure the more pressure it exerts on anything it hits. The smaller the area the more chance that it will punch a hole in an object it hits. This to me seems to suggest that having such a small crash structure is a very bad idea.