Sometimes the goal of an innovation in F1 is not the pursuit of better performance, but rather of safety. There have been plenty of examples of that and now the F1 teams and the FIA are fairly urgently and closely working together to come up with a solution to the problem of driver vulnerability in the cockpit.
F1 has been lucky in recent years with several accidents which could have harmed or killed the driver due to his exposure in an open cockpit.
We had another on Sunday.
Fernando Alonso’s point of view as Romain Grosjean’s car smashed across the top of his chassis in a violent accident at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, with the car passing less than a metre from his head, makes for terrifying viewing and has redoubled efforts to find a solution which could be engineered into the new generation F1 cars in 2014 without unbalancing the design of the F1 cars.
Alonso was relieved to escape without serious injury, as he turned his car to the right to take the corner and Grosjean’s car hit him amidships,
“I’m lucky that I can be in the car in five days at Monza because looking at the image, we were turning in so you could have a problem with your hands or even your head because the car was so close,” he said. “I think we broke everything on top of the car. It was lucky in that aspect.”
The work on driver protection began in earnest after the incidents in 2009 where Felipe Massa in F1 and Henry Surtees in F2 were struck by objects, fatally in Surtees’ case.
The breakthrough, when it comes, will be adopted across other single seater categories, as the HANS device (which protects the drivers’ next in the event of a head on impact). On Saturday there was a nasty accident in the GP3 race in Belgium, when Robert Cregan, son of Abu Dhabi circuit boss Richard Cregan, was struck on the helmet by his left rear wheel after a heavy impact with a barrier. He has been released from hospital.
Since 2009, the FIA and the F1 Technical Working Group of engineers has been looking at two main options: canopies made of polycarbonate, similar to those used on the F-16 fighter jet and more recently a forward roll structure which is now the main avenue being pursued.
The main problems with canopies are around visibility, (they get dirty), what happens if they jam and weight distribution (they add a lot of weight high up on the car, when low centre of gravity is desirable)
Canopies were extensively tested by the FIA Institute last year, “The aim was simple: to fire a Formula One wheel and tyre, together weighing 20kg, at 225km/h into, first, a polycarbonate windshield and, second, a jet fighter canopy made from aerospace-spec polycarbonate, and measure what happens (all close-up observations being recorded by strategically positioned high-speed film cameras),” said the FIA Institute’s Andy Mellor.
The subject comes up fairly regular in drivers’ meetings and they seem to be reconciled with the fact that some kind of protection will be adopted soon.
The roll structure, like the canopy, has recently been tested with loads being fired at it to simulate an impact. The main challenge for the innovators of F1 will be to produce a structure which sits forward of the driver to protect him, but which allows him unrestricted visibility
One of the leading figures in the F1 Technical Working Group is McLaren’s Paddy Lowe, “Obviously, a driver ideally wants nothing in the way but in the same way we drive a road car with pillars, you just get used to it, don’t you?,” he said after the Belgian Grand Prix weekend.
“We started the project a year ago. Personally, I think something is inevitable because it is the one big exposure we’ve got. How many times have you looked at things including today and thought, that was lucky? One day it won’t be lucky and we’ll all be sitting there going: ‘We should have done something about that.’”