The latest safety advances and proposals.
While motor racing is safer than it has ever been, there is always a need for improvement. Almost every major accident reveals further shortcomings in regulations. The process of defining a problem and formulating a solution is a long and costly one. It took three years for Formula one regulations to change as a result of the death of Ayrton Senna. Millions of dollars is spent every year on developing safety regulations. The president of the FIA, Max Mosely, is very concerned about the safety standards in motorsport and has focussed many studies on the issue. He is very aware of the need both to do something about safety, but more importantly "to be seen by the public as doing something about it". (Motor Racing Australia, may/june 1996 pp42-46) There are a number of separate safety issues that can be looked at independently of each other. These are track safety, vehicle safety and emergency response.
The issue of track safety has been covered in many sections of this report. Even with all the changes that occurred, usually as a result of death, there is much more to do. The biggest hurdle race organisers face is the publicity of a race. It would be possible to design a racetrack with virtually no chance of a driver being injured, regardless of the accident, but in the interests of spectators and television this cannot happen. Spectators will not pay to go to a race if they cannot feel that they are part of the action, likewise, television stations will not pay the huge sums to broadcast the events if they cannot get good coverage. The drivers also would not enjoy racing on a flat featureless track that held no challenge. The other issue, especially with Formula One, is the tradition. There are races such as Monaco, which have been held for many years. There would be outrage if Formula One stopped racing there for safety reasons. Thus safety at tracks must always get better.
On oval tracks like many in the US, or the Thunderdome here in Australia, there is no easy way to make the tracks safer. Most of these tracks were designed many years ago and with the nature of the sport, the walls have been concrete. Concrete is a very unforgiving substance to hit a high speed. There have been many injuries on oval tracks from hitting the outside walls at high angles and speeds, see Mark Blundell case study. The problems with these tracks stem from the fact that a wall that can be scraped with minor damage to the vehicle is essential with vehicles such as NASCAR. Also with Indy cars, if a driver runs high and touches the wall, although the suspension will be destroyed, the cars, often travelling above 300kph, simply slide around the wall until they come to rest. This is fine if the vehicles hit the wall at a slight angle, where the component of their velocity perpendicular to the wall is low. Problems arise when the cars hit at higher angles, as did Mark Blundell. The peak deceleration of the cars and drivers is extremely high and dangerous, but how do you make concrete softer for those impacts?. An article found on the internet, written by Mark Cipolloni, see appendix 5, has come up with a possible solution. The problem he addressed is how to make walls safer and the need to retro fit all existing oval tracks without too much loss of racing surface. His solution is to place a single row of tyres around the walls of the track, filled with an energy absorbing gel. To prevent the cars snagging on the tyres, he proposes a hard plastic surface facing that the cars can slide on. If a car does happen to hit at a higher angle, the plastic will deflect and the tyre/gel combination will absorb some of the energy of the impact. He proposes that all existing track be fitted like this, and all new tracks be made larger for the accommodation of perhaps two or even three rows of tyres. The only question mark is the durability of the plastic facing. Perhaps continuous smooth steel facing about 4-6mm thick could provide the hard smooth durable yet flexible facing required, especially if the tyres are stacked like bricks to give an even base for the steel, although permanent deformation would occur as a result of a heavy impact. The gel bladders inside the tyres can be softer and less viscous for lighter car such as Formula One and Indy cars, or thicker for heavier NASCARS and Touring cars. This idea was mentioned to Peter Brock during his interview. He thought this was a very good idea which would also be relatively cheap to implement, depending on the cost of the gel bladders. While he personally liked tyre barriers as a means of stopping cars safely, he found the idea of a hard facing over tyres to be very appealing. A similar suggestion was found also on the internet and involved the same principle of hard facing with energy absorbing units behind which could be implemented on both road and oval circuits, see figure on right. It used steel armco as the hard surface, with deforming supports behind it.
The issue of gravel traps and runoff areas is currently under investigation by the FIA. Sometimes cars dig into the gravel and stop quickly or even roll, while other times the cars skate across the top of the gravel. A study is in place to determine whether this is a function of gravel size and/or moisture content. This is especially relevant to Australian racing where the higher touring cars are very prone to rolling over when they slide into a Formula One style gravel trap, see history and development. Tyre barriers are also under scrutiny to determine if three rows of tyres are necessarily better than two, given the extra space they take up. These two safety issues are being investigated with the 'black box' technology which has been used by teams for a number of years for development purposes. The use of black boxes is a contentious issue with teams being worried about the data which will go to the FIA about their cars. Getting the teams to put them in is not the problem, but getting the information out is. This data is required to determine exactly how much a car slows while skidding on the track, grass, gravel and tyres. Motor cycle races often have single low rows of tyres or hay bales to slow skidding riders, why can't cars? Perhaps low 'cushions' filled with sand would be equally effective, see figure on right, although the cars would be damaged and unable to rejoin the race.
While the cars are safer than ever, more is being done all the time, almost always as a result of an accident.
In NASCAR, new nets on the drivers side, supplementary to the usual nets over the windows, aim to reduce the chance of head injury. The usual nets only prevented any part of the driver from protruding outside the car. The new nets are set back from the side and a very well tensioned to provide a cushion for the drivers head if it moves out of the protection of the seat, which wraps around the head to the sides, figure right top. This is much better than the Australian NASCARS that have no support for the head at all, although the seats wrap around the body to support the shoulders. See figure on right bottom.
The use of airbags has been considered in great detail for motor sport by the FIA in conjunction with Mercedes Benz. While these are still under heavy investigation, the problems faced by racing air bag design are still very large. The cockpit in an existing Formula One car is very small, as is the steering wheel, leaving very little space for an airbag. It must also fire many times faster than conventional airbags due to the high speeds involved. The high speed of detonation is not so much of a problem in a racing car as the drivers head and face is protected by a helmet at all times. It is likely that a racing airbag will be developed and introduced within the next few years. The designs of the first racing airbags will possibly be similar to the new tube style airbags from BMW, which are made from thicker material and stay inflated once activated. These would be the easiest to introduce in Formula One as they can be installed in a long thin section and pop out as needed, probably to the sides of the drivers head, or in a strip around the top of the dash board, over the steering wheel. The mount points could be designed so the bag popped out then down as it filled, covering the likely impact points.
A couple of ideas for better seat design came from an American crash barrier designer. In one concept, the seat enclosed to driver's legs to protect them from intrusion into the cockpit. In the other concept, the driver could be strapped into the seat in such a way that they were almost immobile, and the seat could be easily removed so that injured drivers could be extracted from the cars still strapped to the seats without being moved around in any way. Other seats are being custom made for drivers by chiropractors following accidents. The new seats give support and comfort where ordinary racing seats do not. Many drivers are now getting these seats made any way, simply due to the comfort provided over a long race. The addition of energy absorbing seat linings is relatively new. The seats are now being lined in a similar way to crash helmets, with a layer of polystyrene and a soft fire proof trim over the top. These are especially effective for rear impacts. The density of the polystyrene can be varied depending on how much it should compress for different sections of the spine.
A new impact attenuation device attached to the cars in Indy car is made from the same material used to transport nuclear weapons. It is designed to absorb up to 50 g's of force instead of transmitting it to the driver. In a real test of the device in 1997, an Indy driver slammed into a concrete wall at high speed and suffered no ill effects at all, even though the impact shattered the car's gearbox.
Chassis diapers have been introduced on Indy Racing League cars in the US (not PPG-CART) to absorb oil dumped by engines as they fail. The problem has been that when an engine fails, the cars have been spinning in their own oil, causing unnecessary accidents. The diapers are large, highly absorbent cloth pads placed where oil is most likely to be ejected.
NASCAR have been heavily developing a carbon monoxide scrubber which prevents a dangerous build up of the gas. Carbon monoxide has been a problem for NASCAR drivers for many years, with studies showing that most drivers will experience levels of carbon monoxide high enough to cause serious poisoning at some time in their career. The new scrubbers are based on similar units in the Space Shuttle, only smaller.
A more recent NASCAR innovation, which will surely catch on to other form of enclosed motor sport is the use of the peel off windscreens. Using the same idea as the tear off visor for motor cycles, speedway and Formula One, one or two removable layers of Mylar are attached to the screen in the same way as window tinting. The Mylar protects the screen from pitting and can be simply peeled off during a pit stop to reveal a clean surface underneath. Not only does it provide better visibility for the drivers, but it also saves thousands of dollars in windscreen replacement costs.The problem of NASCAR drivers finishing races with burnt and blistered feet from heat, is now solved. The floors of the cars were reaching 160° f during races. Insulated shoes now protect the drivers feet, and a new light weight fire proof insulation shields the floor pan of the cars from the exhaust. The introduction of insulated shoes came from one driver who used to cut a styrofoam drink cup and fit it to the heels of his driving shoes.