How are F1 drivers protected in the event of a serious accident?
How are F1 drivers protected should the worst occur?
With Sunday's accident for Romain Grosjean proving all too much that F1 is still a very dangerous sport, there is no denying the lengths that have been achieved in order to ramp up safety across the board in F1 and general motorsport and protect drivers as much as possible. Multiple techniques and features have been added to the cars and the circuit themselves to ensure the best protection to drivers, marshals and spectators which nowadays can make even the harshest of incidents produce unhurt drivers. In recognition of the marshals and staff that keep drivers safe weekend in, weekend out, let's take a look at a few.
1. The Circuits
Like the majority of things I am going to include on this list, the circuits themselves in recent years have seen vast improvements, with numerous regulations and additions implemented in order to allow a Formula One Grand Prix to take place. Before a race can be held at a certain circuit, the circuit must hold a “Grade 1” licence from the FIA, which can be awarded to a circuit after investigations are held by the governing body to ensure all the necessary features are in place in order to allow a race to occur in a safe manner.
The features include the use of such safety implementations such as run-offs at the end of long straights, the use of TechPro and Armco barriers, the size of the pits and how many spaces it can hold, all the way across to the side of the media and hospitality areas, to ensure that a full Grand Prix weekend can go unhitched without any issues. In terms of on-track protection, things such as those mentioned as well as track length, track surface, corner speeds, marshal posts and marshal capacities, as well at the on-site medical centre all come into play here.
Literally no stone gets unturned in the quest for a grade one licence. Some circuits can be awarded a “Grade 1T” licence, which allows for teams to test F1 cars there, but not essentially race. A recent example would be Imola, which held a Grade 1T licence before being able to upgrade back to the Grade 1 licence, thus allowing the running of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in November.
It is also worth noting that sessions can be delayed or even cancelled if the circuit is not deemed suitable over the course of the weekend due to weather conditions, track conditions, or if barriers or fences need to be repaired. Such an example would have been this year's Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, which saw the cancellation of the entire Friday practice due to wet and foggy conditions.
Another example would be FP1 from the 2017 Chinese Grand Prix, where conditions deemed it unsafe for the medical helicopter to fly in the event of an emergency, and thus it was deemed unsafe to allow cars on track. Sessions can be delayed as we have seen in Japan on a number of occasions, where rain and stormy conditions have seen the usual Saturday evening qualifying moved to Sunday morning before the start of the race itself. These are usually decisions taken by race control and the FIA race director, Michael Masi and not by circuit officials.
Every circuit you see on the F1 calendar holds a Grade 1 licence, while circuits such as Moscow Raceway in Russia, Kymi Ring in Finland and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the USA all hold Grade 1 licences but are not currently hosting F1 Grands Prix.
2. The Cars
Probably the most impressive in terms of just how far they've come along in the seventy years of Formula 1 so far, the cars themselves are incredibly special when it comes to safety. To start, each chassis is constructed using mostly carbon fibre, a light yet very strong composite that ensures the ultimate safety in the event of an accident as well as keeping the car as light as possible. Before each F1 season starts, every team is mandated to produce the new chassis to the FIA for rigorous crash testing, which all teams must pass before the complete cars hit the circuit.
Other safety features include LED lights on the rear of each car to show when the car is recharging energy or is off the throttle, a specially tailored seat for each driver which can come out as one in the event of a quick extraction by medical staff, five-point safety harnesses, the safety cell with cocoons the driver to stop any debris or impacts from hitting or penetrating their body, a special headrest surrounding the driver's head as well as the controversial HALO device system around the driver cockpit, which I believe proved it's worth more than enough after Sunday's race.
3. Drivers' Safety Equipment
Something else that more than proved it's worth last Sunday was the equipment of the driver. Constant updates to the regulations relating to the helmets mandated in F1 has seen helmets constructed using seventeen layers using aluminium, carbon fibre and fireproof aramide, which like the chassis themselves, is subject to a number of different tests and regulations to ensure helmets that are fire-resistant as well as virtually impenetrable. The introduction of the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device in 2003 has significantly lowered neck and head injuries in the sport, a device so effective that the majority of motorsports have now made it mandatory.
Race suits are constructed from Nomex, which new regulations allow for protection from 800-degree flames for roughly 20 seconds, while drivers also wear underwear, pants, long-sleeved shirt and balaclava underneath their suits, all fireproof as well. Gloves are also constructed from Nomex, and in recent years now include biometrics inside the glove, which can provide instant data from a driver to the medical crew in the event of an accident, such as pulse, heart rate and level of oxygen in the blood at any given moment.
Shoes are also made from Nomex, but have a harder sole to allow the drivers to feel the pedals as they race. There is no doubt that along with the HALO, these various items of clothing definitely contributed to Grosjean surviving his incident.
4. The Medical Crew
If you have ever watched the beginning of a Grand Prix, you will notice a silver Mercedes estate that follows the cars around the first lap, this is the Mercedes AMG C-63 Medical Car, which contains its driver, 2003 British F3 Champion Alan van der Merwe and the official FIA medical delegate, Dr Ian Roberts. These guys follow the cars on the first lap due to the high risk of a collision with all the cars together, and will often be deployed to the circuit if an accident occurs and the G-Force reading exceeds the safe measurements. Usually and very thankfully, we only really see the Medical Car giving drivers a lift back to the pits after any first lap mishaps, but we were reminded of their incredible abilities when both van der Merwe and Dr Roberts rushed to rescue Grosjean from the blazing Haas.
This is different from the safety car, which is currently a Mercedes AMG GT-S, and is driven by former Mercedes DTM driver Bernd Maylander. The role of the safety car is to come out in the event of an on-track hazard, such as a crashed car or debris on track, to slow the field down and keep them at a reasonable and safe speed, while marshals tend to the issue. Maylander's job is quite a tough one, as he is tasked with driving fast enough to ensure the drivers behind can keep their brake and tyre temperatures at a safe number, but slow enough to ensure any marshals or on-track personnel are not put at risk by the F1 drivers on the circuit.
There is also the marshals themselves, who are more often than not the first responders to an accident or problem, and they work effortlessly to ensure the safety of everyone as well as the quick recovery of a driver or car to allow the race or session to be resumed as safely and as quickly as possible. You might have seen around your typical F1 circuit a number of orange sections around the barriers, this is to show drivers where to go in the event of a fire on their car, as these orange sections highlight marshals with fire extinguishers to get a fire out as quickly as possible.
Worth mentioning also is the medical centre, a state-of-the-art facility which each circuit must have to give drivers and other personnel medical access upon an accident. If it is deemed necessary to send a person to hospital by medical centre staff, helicopters are constantly on standby and the nearest hospital is delegated to ensure rapid medical access to whoever may require it.
I think this weekend has really brought into light just how lucky we are to be so fortunate in terms of the medical aid and personnel available to drivers in F1, and for that, we must say thank you to each and everyone for their efforts. Having heard Dr Roberts speak and meeting Bernd Maylander in person in Barcelona two years ago, it is clear how passionate these people are and how dedicated they are to allow these drivers to race in the safest way possible. It is truly inspiring. Learning about the safety and what has been done, as well as what is continually developing, fascinates me.
It can't be forgotten how we got here today, through decades of work and advocacy from people like Sir Jackie Stewart, Professor Sid Wakins, Charlie Whiting and so many more. Such a dangerous sport as F1 will never be completely safe, but the race for safety must and will go on.