Safety beltsDespite the breathtaking rate of development in Formula 1, it has taken a while for the news to spread through the sport that safety belts can save lives. Although helmets and overalls were stipulated by Formula 1's governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), as far back as the early '60s, safety belts have only been compulsory features in a Formula 1 car since 1972.
Formula 1 drivers are strapped into the cockpit by a six point harness, similar to that found in a fighter jet. Two shoulder straps, two pelvic straps and two leg straps allow them just enough freedom of movement to be able to steer and reach the various switches and buttons in their field of vision. This is not the only situation where safety is more important than comfort.
In everyday traffic, too, the safety belt is still the number one lifesaver, in spite of the airbag. "The belt is the prerequisite for ensuring that the airbag can protect effectively. Without a belt, the airbags would be nowhere near as effective," says Dr. Hartmuth Wolff from the Allianz Centre for Technology (AZT). However, in contrast to Formula 1 drivers, the driver in a passenger car is buckled up much more comfortably. Of course, they need much more freedom of movement, for instance to be able to turn round or to operate the radio. "That makes it all the more important to choose the right sitting position using the various adjustment levels and to make sure the belt is positioned well on the body," says Wolff. "Also, you should always pull the pelvic belt tight by pulling on the shoulder belt, because otherwise you will not have full protection."
In a Formula 1 car, the drivers are pushed as tightly into their seat, so they need the help of a mechanic to fasten the belts. However, in an emergency, they are able to leave the car from the normal buckled position within the five seconds stipulated by the regulations, because all the individual belts can be released with a single twist of the hand. The task of the belts is clear: in the case of an accident, they should work with the compulsory Head And Neck Support (HANS) to protect the driver from smashing against the steering wheel, and at the same time they absorb some of the impact energy.
"On the one hand, the belts must be strong enough to protect the driver from an impact," says Frank Dernie from WilliamsF1. "On the other hand, they also have to give enough to make sure that the driver isn't injured by the belts themselves in an emergency."
The manufacturers of the safety belts and the teams solve this dilemma with the help of extensive experiments that test the strength and the elasticity of the material. Generally, the belts are made of the textile fibre polyester, and sometimes have special monofibres woven laterally into them. They act as small laminated springs and keep the belt strap flat. In this way, the load is distributed better over the entire width of the belt strap. The fittings and tabs are generally made of titanium. After an accident, it must be possible to rescue the driver together with the seat from the car if the emergency services think it necessary.
According to the FIA standard 8853/98, every fastening point of the belts must be able to withstand a load of 14.7 kilonewtons, the equivalent of roughly 1,470 kilograms. The belt widths must be between 44 and 76 millimetres (shoulders and legs) and between 50 and 76 millimetres (pelvis), depending on the most comfortable setting for the driver. The idea of comfort is always relative, at least if you believe Martin Brundle: "If the belts don't hurt," the former Formula 1 driver once said, "then they aren't tightened hard enough."
Allianz Safety Check: Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari
Mark Webber "As a result of some serious accidents, the circuit was made safer several years ago with the introduction of chicanes. But those chicanes put a huge strain on the brakes. The persistent changes in speed also make it difficult for us drivers to get into a good rhythm. The track is going to be re-developed in the autumn, and the chicane before the start/finish line will be replaced with a straight. The pit lane will be enlarged at the same time, which will bring more safety for the drivers and the pit crews."
Special thanks to Allianz