The Safe Game: How F1 Protects Its Drivers
As we all know, Formula One is one of the most dangerous motorsports out there, purely down to the raw speed and nature of the cars involved, but in the last two decades, extremely significant features, rules and equipment have been put in place to ensure drivers are as safe as ever when they go out onto the track. I look at some of these important features and what they do to protect the drivers we eagerly watch every Grand Prix weekend.
1. The Helmets
Sure, you’re going to say that this is obviously a very apparent one as these are regulated in all forms of motorsport, but the compulsory gear goes far beyond what you’d be given at your local go-kart track. Compulsory in the sport since 1953, the helmets have gradually evolved into the carbon fibre high tech lids of today. Current helmets are made using several layers of Carbon Fibre, polyethylene and aramide, a fire proof material, with the outer shell being consisted of Carbon Fibre and Kevlar, the same material used in bulletproof vests.
The visor is made of a special polycarbonate, since strengthened due to Felipe Massa’s accident in 2009. Several transparent tear off strips are included in each visor to stop the visor from getting dirty and hindering the drivers view, while many different tinted visors are used by drivers to suit the conditions in each Grand Prix. From 2019 on, updated regulations will include a new helmet specification seeing increased energy absorption and advanced ballistic protection added as well as the lowering of the top of the visor opening to further prevent impact from debris.
2. HANS And Clothing
Made compulsory in F1 in 2003, the Head and Neck Support (HANS) system is a Carbon Fibre collar that sits on a driver’s shoulders and around their neck, attaching to each side of the driver’s helmet via two elastic straps, and secured to the driver by their safety harnesses inside the car. The HANS device absorbs and redistributes the forces a driver’s head and neck undergoes in the event of a bad accident thus stopping the head from moving by an estimated 44%, and further stopping the force applied to the neck by 86%. Now, the HANS device is compulsory in all FIA sanctioned events, with independent organisations also taking the decision to make the HANS device compulsory for their participants.
Driver’s overalls and gloves are made of Nomex, a fire-resistant lightweight material which can withstand 300 degrees Celsius of fire. This special suit is also made mandatory to pit crew during the race. The drivers suit has two handles, one on each shoulder, capable of supporting the weight of the driver and seat in the event of a driver having to be quickly removed by emergency staff in the event of a serious accident. Underneath the suit, drivers also wear a layer of fireproof underwear, leggings and long sleeve shirt, and under the helmet a fireproof balaclava must be worn. Driver’s race boots made of soft leather and rubber soles to ensure no slipping on the pedals.
3. The Car
Despite its small cramped cockpit and extremely tight space, the cockpit, or monocoque as it’s known, is one of the safest places for a driver to be. It is constructed of around 60 layers of Carbon Fibre. All cars are equipped with onboard fire extinguishers, six-point harnesses, a master switch to immediately deactivate all electronics and fuel pumps and removable seats with can be removed with the driver still strapped inside in the event of a needed extraction strapped inside in the event of a needed driver extraction by medical staff. Drivers must be able to exit the car within five seconds (seven now with the HALO device) in the event of a fire or other reason for a quick exit.
The most recent addition to the structure of the monocoque is the controversial HALO device, a bar going around the outside of the cockpit joining to the main car in front of the driver, estimating being able to resist forces the same weight as that of a double decker bus. Despite not being very nice too look at, the HALO was introduced in 2018 with the intention to deflect debris and other cars away from a driver in the event of an accident and has already contributed to protecting Tadasuke Makino in a Formula 2 accident earlier in Barcelona, as well as new Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc after his dramatic accident with Fernando Alonso at this year’s Belgian Grand Prix.
4. The Circuits
Many circuits are renowned across the world for hosting their round of the championship each year, but only tracks with a “Grade 1” licence commissioned by the Federation Internationale d’Automobile. (FIA, F1’s Governing Body.) are deemed safe enough to hold a round of the F1 World Championship. All circuits must include a required number of run off areas, marshal posts, tec pro barriers and other major safety features to ensure the ultimate safety to drivers and spectators at each event. Circuits such as Suzuka and Spa have been known to take a year break from the championship in order to improve their venues and bring them up to current regulation standards.
Considering it is a sport where it can become very dangerous very quickly, and of course sadly we’ve seen some great names sadly perish in the name of the sport, it is interesting to see the massive and amazing developments in safety and the never-ending quest to keep drivers and spectators as safe as possible. Of course, implemented ideas such as the HALO were never generally well received but still it is paramount that the safety aspect of the sport is one that can never be turned away.