Staying safe in Formula One

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Formula 1 is justly famous for high technology, speed and excitement, but it is arguably the progress made in the field of safety which has been the sport's most remarkable achievement in recent decades.

Accidents will happen, that is an inevitable aspect of motorsport, but in the past 15 years a concerted effort from teams and the FIA has drastically improved the protection offered to drivers and bystanders when those accidents happen.

Compare a car from the early 1990s to the current TF108 and two things stand out: the astonishing progress made in aerodynamics since then, and the apparent vulnerability of drivers in that earlier era.

Safety is top priority at Panasonic Toyota Racing and drivers Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock know their protection will not be compromised.

For example, after his accident in Hockenheim, Timo Glock was at home a day later suffering no ill-effects - and he underlined that by finishing second in Hungary just two weeks later. So it is no wonder he says: "I feel safe when I am in the car. I don't worry about having any problems if I have an incident; I jump in the car every time with a good, safe feeling."

That safe feeling is no coincidence; it is a result of painstaking research into the effect of impacts on a car and its driver and that research has seen new devices introduced to increase protection.

One example is the Head and Neck Safety - or HANS - device, which sits on a driver's shoulders and attaches to his helmet, limiting head movement in an impact and therefore hugely reducing the risk of injury.

It has been compulsory in Formula 1 since 2003 and Panasonic Toyota Racing team doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli says: "The HANS device was developed in order to prevent any cervical trauma, in case of a frontal accident. It reduces the risk of critical damage on the neck, spinal area and we have to say that HANS has done a good job."

Another new development to protect the head and neck are the padded cockpit sides, which serve two functions: to absorb energy if struck by the helmet and protect debris from striking the driver from the side.

"This cockpit padding is made of very special foam," says Senior General Manager Chassis Pascal Vasselon. "The characteristic of this foam is temperature dependent. So, according to the ambient temperature one hour before either a test session or a race, we are informed by the FIA about the type of foam we have to use."

The need to absorb energy is a common thread through many recent safety advancements. If energy can be absorbed or dissipated, it does not reach the driver and cause him harm.

The challenge of protecting a Formula 1 driver in the event of a heavy impact should not be underestimated, and the data testifies to this. Dr Ceccarelli explains: "We have seen that in some accidents there are peaks of deceleration of over 50G, which is amazing. In very exceptional circumstances they show even 60 or 70G, which is obviously for just a few milliseconds because otherwise it's impossible to survive.

"In terms of deceleration, we have seen data from some accidents that suggest the forces are greater than what a normal human body should be able to resist. So I believe the crash structures on the cars, the HANS device and the head rest have done a truly amazing job."

Much of the energy involved in an impact is dissipated through crash structures - external parts such as the nose and sidepods which are designed to break free from the monocoque in a heavy impact, thereby taking energy with them.

When the external parts of the car are removed, the monocoque remains and this is the protective shell which prevents objects striking a driver. "It's a structure that has to be the strongest in the car," adds Pascal.

A further protection built into the monocoque design protects the driver's head if the car rolls - the roll hoop must be high enough to ensure the driver's helmet does not touch the ground if the car is flipped upside down.

But even though safety is impressive in this era, the evolution of these structures has not stopped and Toyota Motor Corporation is working with the FIA Institute in the search for further improvement.

The Total Human Model for Safety (THUMS) digitally simulates the effect of an impact on the human body, predicting areas for concern. The FIA Institute has used THUMS to carry out simulated rear impact collisions with the aim of improving crash structure design in racing cars.

Toyota plays another part in the FIA Institute's safety work after a specially-modified TF105 was donated to improve techniques of driver extrication following an accident. The car features a jig so it can be rolled upside down, allowing track workers to practice removing a driver.

For Panasonic Toyota Racing, protecting its drivers now and in the future is top priority, so whenever a new car is designed, this is given special attention, above and beyond the levels demanded by Formula 1 rules.

Pascal explains: "Safety is obviously our first criteria, and it leads us to add safety procedures to our part design and operation process. It means that on top of the FIA-imposed criteria, we have added our own criteria. So if we satisfy the FIA tests and if we guarantee the reliability of the major safety components of the car, we guarantee maximum safety for our drivers."

Even safety devices which have existed for several decades are constantly being refined and improved.

Helmets, made from carbon fibre, aramine and polyethylene, now weigh just 1.25kg but offer more protection. Alpinestars provide fireproof overalls, underwear and gloves which can withstand flames for up to 11 seconds while Takata six-point seat belts are able to withstand a load of 1.5tonnes.

So, no stone is left unturned in the constant search for safety improvements. Formula 1 may appear to be a win-at-all-costs competition, but safety really does come first for Panasonic Toyota Racing.


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