Six years ago, Robert Kubica had a huge accident at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, crashing into a wall at 180mph while trying to overtake Jarno Trulli in the Canadian Grand Prix. Incredibly, the Pole escaped serious injury, emerging with only a slight concussion and a sprained ankle, thanks to the work of the FIA to improve safety standards in Formula 1.
The sport’s approach to safety has changed dramatically since the death of Ayrton Senna in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix with the FIA’s crash tests for Formula 1 cars becoming more and more stringent. The FIA’s technical delegate Jo Bauer, who is an observer at crash tests, believes Kubica’s accident at the hairpin remains the benchmark for why the FIA’s crash-testing continues to be an important process.
“Kubica’s crash really showed that it is absolutely worth going through this whole process, doing all this testing,” he told the FIA’s AUTO Magazine. ”It was a massive accident and for sure I believe the changes to crash testing over the past two decades absolutely saved his life that day.”
FIA race director Charlie Whiting added: “The developments we’ve seen over the last 15 years have without doubt prevented quite a lot of injury. Certainly when you look at the roll-hoop tests, in Robert Kubica’s accident that element was subject to a huge impact and yet retained its integrity.
“Yes, the tests are quite stringent and I’m sure quite a lot of engineers at teams have sleepless nights. But the bottom line is that these tests are not done to frustrate them. If we didn’t do them we’d undoubtedly see more injuries and more compromised racing cars.”
The latest accidents to be analysed are ones where the cars are impacted at oblique angles beyond the 90 degrees the tests currently conflict. “That test will be introduced for 2014,” said Whiting. “In Montreal, Robert hit the wall at something approaching a 30-degree angle, and while there isn’t much evidence that there was any great compromise, if we can make everything function that little bit better then it will be a step forward. Sometimes all it takes is being aware that a particular outcome is possible, which was the case there, and that provokes a response.”
The first crash test was introduced in 1985 and was described by Whiting as a “pretty simple frontal impact test”. Initially, teams just had to provide a nose and part of the chassis for testing, but in 1998, a complete chassis was required. At the same time, the first static load test was introduced, followed by roll-hoop and then side and rear impact structure tests.
Bauer added: “Currently we have eight static tests on the chassis and three push-off tests on the impact structure: front, side and rear. We also have two front impact tests, one side and one rear, and a steering column impact test. There are also side penetration tests, so the teams supply a test panel and the chassis must be built with this construction. The tests have become much tougher over the past 15 years.”
Each time an accident occurs, the FIA conducts a detailed analysis to learn from it. For example, in the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, Takuma Sato was involved in huge accident when Nick Heidfeld’s Sauber hit the side of his Jordan.
Whiting said: “As a result [of that crash] we did a lot of research into penetration resistance. So-called ‘T-bone’ accidents are a very real possibility, so you have to make sure that the side of the chassis is compatible with the thing that’s likely to hit it. We did a lot of testing on that and came up with different tests to cover that and different chassis constructions to make sure they were compatible with that.”
And after Timo Glock crashed in the 2009 Japanese Grand Prix, when the front wing was pushed back through the chassis, injuring the German’s leg, the FIA introduced another floor deflection test while cockpit rim heights were raised after a 2007 accident when David Coulthard’s Red Bull became airborne and flew across the front of Alex Wurz’s cockpit.
Whiting said: “It is the job of Formula 1 teams to make their cars go as fast as possible, and it is our job to make sure that at the speeds they go the cars and the drivers are as safe as we can possibly make them.”