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.

Visibility - The simplest hazard, most often overlooked // From rain delays to washing up liquid solutions, visibility cannot be forgotten

Published

There are many aspects that have to be considered when looking at motor racing safety. There are obvious things like the use of best possible barriers at the track edge, the structure of the car being designed to stand certain loads and the clothing and helmets worn by the drivers meeting the appropriate standards. One factor often overlooked though is visibility. It should go without saying that if a driver can't see clearly it is not safe for him to race. It should but experience tells us that often drivers choose to race or are put in a situation where they have no choice but race when visibility is horrendous.

Water filter

Spot the Formula 1 car through the race
Credit: Paul Gilham

I have long believed that F1 should not race in heavy rain. I have no problem with racing on a slippery track. It is up to the drivers to cope with the lack of grip but when visibility is compromised that is a different matter. It doesn't matter how good a driver is if he cannot see. Fortunately now sanity seems to prevail where in the past racing continued regardless of the conditions. I am relieved that we no longer hear drivers in post race interviews saying they entered a ball of spray not knowing how many cars were in it or where they were. Drivers at close to 200mph used to enter these balls of spray listening for the other engines in the hope that they would get some indication of where the car causing the spray was.

Pironi had the kind of year that can't be imagined

Possibly the most famous example of the kind of accident that can result from this was Didier Pironi's career ending accident at Hockenheim in 1982. Pironi had the kind of year that can't be imagined in 1982. First his team mate Gilles Villeneuve refused to speak to him ever again after a dispute over team orders at Imola. At the next race at Zolder in Belgium Villeneuve was killed leaving Pironi as the villain. Then in Canada Pironi stalled his Ferrari's engine on the grid and was hit in by the young Italian driver Riccardo Paletti who died as a result of his injuries. Then in practise at Hockenheim when he was favourite for the world championship, Pironi charged into a ball of spray and hit Prost's Renault and suffered very serious leg injuries. He never raced in F1 again and eventually died in a power boat racing accident.

A good example of what it is like to have a car appear in the middle of a ball of spray happened at Adelaide. Nelson Piquet in a Lotus pulled out of the slipstream of Martin Brundle's Brabham just as Ayrton Senna in a McLaren tried to overtake Piquet. The rear facing camera in Brundle's car shows the McLaren coming out of the mist and smashing into the back of the Brabham. If even Senna can do nothing in that situation I don't see how anyone can justify racing in those conditions.

The waiting game

While it is understandable that people get annoyed at apparently never ending red flag periods like we suffered in Canada last year it is important to remember that the alternative to stopping the race for two hours was to put drivers in a situation where we could have had a repeat of Pironi's accident. Given the amount of concrete around the Montreal track any accident resulting from poor visibility has the potential to be very serious. While we lament the ever expanding asphalt runoffs of the Tilkedromes the one thing they do achieve is that they let any car leaving the track get a long way from those still racing rather than bouncing from barrier to barrier across the track.

Putting piquet in the shade
Credit: LAT Photographic

While rain is a natural phenomenon that cannot be avoided, recently we have seen races deliberately scheduled at times when visibility is poor. It used to be the case that all races started at 2pm local time . It has now become normal to have seen races scheduled at different times supposedly to suit European TV audiences. This has resulted in races starting in daylight and running into near darkness. The visibility in the first part of the race is fine but as it progresses drivers have to cope with a low sun then low light. We have even seen races like Malaysia scheduled at a time of day where it is almost guaranteed to rain. While this 'adds to the show' it is reckless and presents a totally unnecessary level of risk. In sportscars and the like there are 24 hour races where it is inevitable that drivers have to cope with these conditions but there is not only a big difference between that kind of racing and F1 there is also a big difference in the cars.

Visor advisor

Like all equipment used in F1 crash helmets are constantly evolving. A modern crash helmet can survive loads that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. After Felipe Massa's Hungarian accident we saw a band of material added just above the driver's eyes to help the helmet withstand an impact better. Visors have also changed hugely over time both for structural and visibility reasons. Since helmets were first worn all sorts of things have been done to make rain and misting less of a problem.

Misting of the visor occurs when the water from the driver's breath condenses

In karting, turbo visors that are strapped to the helmet and sit in front of the normal visor are used to deal with rain for example. Misting of the visor occurs when the water from the driver's breath condenses on the visor rendering it opaque. All sorts of things have been done to improve this. At Monaco one year, we even saw David Coulthard racing in a Michael Schumacher helmet because Coulthard's visor was misting badly where Schumacher's was not. In the past the solution to the problem was to spit on the inside of the visor and rub it in. Alternatively washing up liquid could be used in the same manner. More recent higher tech solutions have included heated and double glazed visors.

The other issue the visor has to deal with is the debris it collects over the course of a race. The debris can be a combination of oil, tyre rubber, water etc. Martin Brundle made a comment in the past about packing away a helmet after a race and after he returned home putting it on and being absolutely shocked at how little visibility he had. He said there was no way he would choose to or be allowed to start a race with a visor in that condition.

Movie stars

We often watch races and assume what we see from the onboard camera is what the driver sees from the cockpit but it is rare that they have as good a view as we do. We have all seen the film in front of the camera scroll along to remove something that is blocking our view. While the cameras have a few feet of clear film that amounts to a dozen or two screen cleanings each driver probably has no more than four tear offs on his helmet which he has to make sure he does not remove too early or his race could be ruined. At least now we no longer have cars that leak vast amounts of oil and other fluids either as a result of poor engineering or the engine blowing up because it was pushed beyond its limit.

So while HANS devices, crash tests, run offs and SAFER barriers grab all the safety headlines it is important to remember that something as simple as oil on a driver's visor or heavy rain can still greatly increase the risk he faces.