Motorsport attendees receive a notification when buying a ticket – and that notification reads “Motorsport is Dangerous.” That’s true, however, in real terms motorsport is one of the safest sports around. That’s why it’s such a big shock on the all too rare, and thankfully all too rare, occasion when a driver, in F1, rallying, club level, passes away.
It’s been a quarter of a century already since that horrible, horrible, day at Imola, and the driver that was already legend, Ayrton Senna, died. There were many investigations, and the head of the Williams Racing Team, Sir Frank Williams, was charged with manslaughter, and would later be cleared of all charges. Tragically, the exact cause has never been determined or released.
In recent years, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile has been looking at various aspects of safety for motorsport, including and especially at the top tier. This includes a change to lighting systems, chassis impact structures, and the anchorage of parts and wheels to the cars themselves.
The FIA investigated 28 circuit based accidents, and recently released recommendations. One of these is a lighting system that would reflect the track conditions, and not merely, for example, show yellow for yellow flag conditions. A range of colors, such as green for a clean circuit, red (or as it’s known by trackside officials, that blood orange color) for a serious incident, blue for a car being warned of an oncoming car preparing to overtake, would be added to the cluster that currently shows the rain light on current cars. Another color or perhaps a series of flashes could indicate a car slowing for a yellow flagged zone.
The FIA’s statement reads that “although further testing and research are required, this adaptation of the rain light usage could reduce driver notification time, improve the reliability of driver notification and better allow drivers to make an appropriate and proportionate reaction in the case of yellow flag deployment”.
The American based IndyCars have a whole new look and it includes thicker side-impact pods and a “proper” windscreen. F1 cars moved to a halo design and so far, although having met pockets of resistance, have also proven their worth when it comes to upended cars. Incidents such as that of the tragic death of Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert at the Spa-Francorchamps, after the 2018 GP3 champion was caught in a high-speed impact on the exit of the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex, have shown a path for the FIA.
Some crashes have shown significant “deformation” of the chassis and body, with the worst cases seeing a car torn in two. This makes for two rather large impact sites plus the associated detritus from the carbon-fiber and metal components. The FIA has suggested extra tethering which would go further in holding chassis sections together as much as feasibly possible. At the moment, it’s a system for tethering the wheels only, and for the most part, the tethers have worked.
The nature of motorsport when it comes to impacts does tend to depend on the level of motorsport. The NASCAR design has super strong roll cages due to the fragility of the cars when it comes to aerodynamic stability, as the cars get unsettled easily with just a minor shove. F1 cars have reasonable side impact protection due to the style of racing however the FIA and F1 are already working on further improvements for side impacts. Formula E is looking at the same and F2 & F3 will investigate improvements at a later date. A key part is the level of energy that can be absorbed.
Smaller improvements such as debris reduction, a redesigned front wing to try and minimize shattering, and possibly engineer breakpoints to have impacts break along predetermined lines. There are also changes being considered to the composite structure of smaller items to reduce debris shedding, along with a front wing design review to reduce the entire assembly’s propensity to break. The pressure monitoring for the tires is also being investigated.
Although a seemingly small number of incidents to source from, 28 incidents could also be seen as a statistically suitable number given the number of events held. The area of safety in motorsport tends to flow down to the automotive and indeed that has been seen in areas such as tire pressure monitoring, paddle shifting, and kinetic energy recovery.