Fire protection

Fire in racing cars was very common in the 1960's. None of the cars racing on Formula One carried any type of fire extinguisher. The fuel tanks were mostly aluminium panels riveted together and sealed , although later these were encased in fibreglass resin cloth. The fibreglass prevented high flow rates of fuel in the event of a fuel tank rupture, but did little to prevent the tank rupturing in the first place. The vent inlet to the fuel tanks, to allow fuel to flow to the engine freely, often drained fuel from the tank when the car was overturned. The fuel lines themselves, although strong steel braided lines, could rip out of connections and also spill fuel. There was little effort made to prevent spilled fuel from contacting hot surfaces such as the exhaust, which was usually the primary ignition point in an accident.

The use of in car fire extinguishers was not seen as necessary for a long time due to the added weight of the system, when cars had to be as light as possible. When in car systems were introduced, they relied on the driver to activate them, which rarely happened in an accident situation. This meant that some fires which took a while to become obvious, such as carburetor fires, often remained unnoticed until too late. The introduction of flame sensors, allowed in car fire extinguishers to automatically deploy. Oil filed tubes were developed, which activated electrical switches as the oil expanded due to heat. These switches could then in turn activate a fire system well before fire marshals could reach the vehicle.

The development of fire resistant material for use as clothing also started in the late 1960's, firstly with asbestos, which few driver's wore because it was itchy, then with heat resistant polymers. The problem with these new age materials, such as NOMEX (still in use today) was that although the fabric did not burn for a period of time, the heat below the fabric was still enough to severely burn the drivers. This led to the use of multi-layered fabrics, the outside layers withstanding the flames and protecting the inner layers which in turn protected the skin. The suits were combined with gloves and shoes of the same material for all over protection. Many drivers owe their lives to these fire resistant suits.

The accident in 1976 which almost killed Nikki Lauda, highlighted yet another problem with fire. Lauda inhaled flames and severely scorched his lungs. He was not expected to live, but was racing again within 4 months. The problem of the drivers inhaling flames was been solved by airlines to the helmet from within the fire resistant suit, and later to oxygen bottles, allowing drivers to breathe whilst exiting the vehicle in flames. These two fire measures have saved countless drivers worldwide from horrific injuries, allowing many to walk out of a raging inferno unscathed.

Fuel tank design was being investigated very heavily in the 1960's, mainly for the aviation industry. Much of this technology could be implemented in Formula One cars, but the costs were extremely high. The first fuel tank modification from a safety perspective was filling the tanks with a special foam, which had the effect of stopping the fuel sloshing around and also stopping high flow rate in the event of a rupture. The development of 'fuel cells' around this time, was a huge advance in reducing fire in accidents. The fuel was contained in a bladder of nylon fabric laminated with polyester resin and coated with urethane inside and out. The inside of the bladder was filled with the same special foam, which reduced the volume of the cell by 10%. These cells were tested full of fuel by a drop test from 6 metres onto a sharp steel cone, without rupturing. Another advantage was that if penetrated, the nylon fabric would stretch around the object and seal as long as the object remained in place. The fuel cells were then placed inside aluminium or steel containers for added impact protection. The idea of replacing used fuel in the fuel cells with non-flammable nitrogen from a bottle of compressed gas was considered but never actually implemented. These fuel cells continue today, although Kevlar is used instead of nylon. Fuels lines remain braided, but now must incorporate self-sealing breakaway joints to prevent fuel loss in the event of an accident. The breakaway sections must be at the join with the fuel tank and also at the engine. Its is not uncommon for a fuel cell for an Australian touring car to cost over $10,000.

Refueling during races has been reintroduced into Formula One recently to avoid cars starting races with over 200 litres of fuel around the driver. Banning refueling was a way of slowing the cars down while racing. It was used to limit the state of tune of the engines, thus slowing the cars down. This was especially important in the days of the 1200 horse power turbo engines. If a car only had a certain amount of fuel, then it could not be driven at its maximum for the whole race. This safety argument was counter balanced by the fact that these drivers were surrounded by huge quantities of fuel for the first half of the race, which was a major fire hazard in the event of an accident. It became clear that the sport was losing some of its public image due to the races turning into "a car nursing contest, albeit at high speed,, we should be able to fill up a car with fuel without setting fire to it", (Australian Motor Racing, 1996). Refueling was brought back in to add some more excitement for the spectators. It is not without its hazards though. Last year an Indy car driver left the pits with the fuel line still attached, triggering a massive methanol fire in the pit lane. A methanol flame is almost invisible in daylight, which has led Indy car to introduce flame colouring additives to the fuel. Formula One has banned the highly volatile and highly toxic 'Jungle Juice' fuels of the turbo era, which also burned without visible flame. Instead, Formula One cars must all use the same approved fuel.

Safety factors whih are less obvious.

While things such as harnesses and roll-cages are the most obvious safety feature in a car, other features were brought in, often unnoticed by the public. As speeds became higher, power increased and tyre technology improved the grip, the standard vehicle components were being placed under incredible stresses. As rear axles and wheel studs started to snap from the loads being applied, safety hubs were introduced to stop the wheels flying into the spectators, which has happened many times worldwide.

A major influence on safety advances was the issue of public liability. If people are injured while watching a motor sport event, they may well sue the race organisers for failing to take appropriate measures to protect them. This also concerned the drivers, who may be blamed for taking a risk which resulted in spectator injury or death. "People are driven by litigation concerns as much as by the fact that they are going to spear off the road"(Brock 1998). Moving spectators back from the track, sand traps and debris fencing are not there to protect the drivers, who are fully aware of the danger to themselves, but to protect the race organisers from expensive legal issues with regard to spectators.

Another major influence on safety in motor sport is not the cars themselves, but the attitudes of the drivers involved. Thirty years ago, when the tracks were very unforgiving and the cars were very basic, you drove with this in mind and drove accordingly, "you knew that if you went wide or speared off the track, there was not much to stop you"(Brock 1998). As a driver, Peter Brock has noticed a change over time in general attitudes, especially with less experienced drivers. The cars and tracks have become much safer, which has led to drivers taking much greater risks. The drivers feel much safer in the cars and if they do lose it, 'so what?' This attitude appears to be "based on the assumption that there are no real consequences. When you have consequences, you drive accordingly". He says that over time, "the attitudes have always adjusted themselves to 'what you can get away with'"(Brock 1998), with regard to safety.

Ford GT Mark IV.

"Without a doubt, the safest car ever built [before 1970] was the 1967 Le Mans winning 7 litre Ford G.T. Mark IV."(Henderson 1968) This car utilised the best safety equipment money could buy, cost being one of the major factors limiting safety equipment in privately owned vehicles. Driver restraint was an aircraft style 5 point nylon harness, with crutch strap, capable of withstanding 8000 pounds of force, yet also able to be released quickly. The harness mounting points were more than strong enough, being bonded and bolted to the chassis itself. The full roll cage was the first ever to be incorporated into the vehicles basic structure, adding both strength and rigidity. There were two on-board fire extinguishing systems, one manually operated dry chemical type, for use when stationary, and one automatically operated 'Freon' gas system, discharged by either a set of infra-red flame sensors, a 7 'g' impact switch or by manual override, which could be used at speed. The drivers of these cars were required to wear 'NOMEX' underwear, overalls, gloves and socks. The cars all had nylon and rubber fuel cells, as described above. Many drivers of these vehicles escaped high-speed crashes without injury. It became clear that with sufficient funds, drivers could perform at their absolute best in great safety.

Track Safety Developments

Over the last thirty years, there have also been huge advances in track safety. These have not always been to the driver's liking, but have prevented many serious injuries. The biggest problem facing track designers, with regard to safety, is using measures appropriate for the class of vehicle racing. Many of the so called 'safety' measures taken have actually caused accidents to occur, which is not the desired effect. In an effort to slow the cars down, tracks worldwide have been modified in many ways, for both spectator and driver safety. One major modification was the change to Monza in the 1970's that led to the death of Ronnie Peterson, see case studies.

The decision to protect spectators has led to most of the track modifications. Moving them back from the edge of the track and putting them behind debris fences, has resulted in plenty of room along the edge of circuits. This gives the drivers more time to recover an errant vehicle, or more time to slow down, while staying away from spectators.

Thirty years ago, the drivers and spectators were totally unconcerned about the consequences, actually standing on the edge of the track as the cars drove by. This still occurs in rallying where it is difficult to avoid. There was very little by way of protection for the drivers where there were trees along the sides of the track. If you left the road, it often meant that you would hit a tree. This killed quite a few people all over the world. Here in Australia, at Bathurst they had the same problem. Peter Brock told a story about a group of trees near the edge of the road at Bathurst that had killed a number of drivers. Instead of just removing the trees and creating a smooth runoff, they put in a bridge for advertising, and lots of steel ARMCO barrier. This was described as "planting a concrete tree"(Brock 1998), that people went and hit.

One area of track safety that many drivers dislike, is the unnecessary introduction of corners and chicanes. Caltex chase at Bathurst is a prime example. Instead of leaving the straight uninterrupted, race officials were concerned about the speeds down the straight of over 300kph. Instead of simply constructing a suitable runoff area at the end of the straight, they built a kink into the straight. The entry to the kink is taken at top speed. Peter Brock, as well as expressing his displeasure with the kink, said that "you enter the corner flat out at about 305kph. At that speed you are committed, the car is using all the road and you are sliding around. If you come around the corner and find a slower car in front of you, wavering around, someone who doesn't know quite what to do, you can have an almighty shunt. We have seen a couple of major crashes just because the corner is there."(Brock 1998). He also said that none of the drivers he knows have been happy about the introduction of Caltex Chase.

A huge problem with Australian motor racing circuits is the international influence. Something may well need to be done on a track, but looking overseas is not the answer. The FIA has many rules and regulations, many of which have been designed for Formula One. Over the last 15-20 years, many Australian tracks have been made 'safer' using Formula One style runoff areas and barriers. "This would be fine if we predominantly ran open wheel style cars, but we don't. Our main local form of motor sport is the V8 Supercars. These are much heavier and much higher than Formula One cars. Sand traps are very good for Formula One cars, which slide to a halt, but unless a Touring car hits them straight on, they very easily dig in and flip over, which is not exactly safe."(Brock 1998)

The introduction of tyre barriers in the 1970's was a major breakthrough for safety. Tyre barriers are very good at absorbing energy, and are also very safe for Australian touring cars, not tripping them up. A car can also hit a tyre barrier quite hard, yet still be able to rejoin the race, depending on the damage, whereas a rollover is almost guaranteed to end a race, unless you are rallying. Unless you are most likely to just slide along a concrete barrier, Peter Brock says that he thinks "all concrete barriers should be lined with tyres", because the concrete is so unforgiving.

International circuits, while under the FIA, still have huge variations in safety levels. Take a comparison between the Albert Park circuit here in Melbourne, and the Monaco circuit in Monte Carlo to see the variation. Albert park, being very new, has long runoff areas, deep sand traps, tyre barriers and is a very forgiving and safe circuit. Monaco, on the other hand, is very tight and narrow and is lined along almost its entire length with steel ARMCO or concrete barriers. One slip in Monaco will end your race, whereas in Melbourne, unless you get bogged, a driver can often rejoin the race and continue. The reason for this variation is the fact that it is Monaco. There has been a race there for so long and it is considered the pinnacle of Formula One, 'the' race to win. There is not the room for changes on the track. "These safety standards, to a large degree, depend on the country you go to and the ability of the country to comply"(Brock 1998).