The time human met limits
Firestone Firehawk 600, a race weekend where real human limits were found for the first time in motorsport history
Every motorsport fan loves talking about drivers finding their limits. We all love to talk about how drivers are able to know where exactly these limits are and then drive within them for a full race or that one special qualifying lap.
However, we rarely or almost never talk about human limits. The first thing that probably comes to your mind as “human limit” is seeing a driver passing out after a race, or like Senna, not being able to lift the trophy above his head after exhausting race. You could say that it was their “human limit” but in reality it wasn’t really a limit as they could still be trained better. The “human limit” I will be talking about is something completely different, simply because it was the limit of the human body and no one could affect it.
Ayrton Senna, Monaco
CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) was an American open-wheeler championship series (known as Indycar today) that in 2001 used a Dallara and G Force chassis with a 3.5 liter turbocharged V8 engines producing around 700 horsepower.
The race was going to be held at the Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5 mile oval with turns banked at 24 degrees. This combination of a low downforce, high horsepower open-wheeler and a high-banked oval was something that raised safety concerns extremely high from early on. To confirm these concerns, officials organised a test, however they seemed to forget how tests go. Obviously no one showed their real potential on track, some of the drivers were even told to not go above 95% of throttle. After tests were done, drivers confirmed that the track can be run on full throttle without a problem. Many also said that the track is real fun and some even suggested that race could have great two-wide battles. Officials marked tests as successful and the race weekend was made official even though safety concerns kept raising higher.
Bryan Herta, 2001
Coming to race weekend, first practice confirmed that tests were indeed pointless as almost everyone went a full second quicker than test times and at an average of 233.539 mph (375.845 kph). After a short practice runs the safety concerns were raised even higher, and they escalated completely when someone almost paid their life. Thanks to the life-saving device HANS, Mauricio Gugelmin could walk away after his scary two-part crash. He lost control of his car exiting turn two where he hit the inside wall at 66.2G, however after that his foot became stuck between the pedals and his car accelerated into the outside wall of turn three where he hit the wall at 113.1G.
What was about to follow was unexpected and the fun started slowly fading away. Officials also knew about the dangerously high speeds, and these started showing up as records were broken. The Swede Kenny Bräck set the fastest time of 22.821 seconds at an average speed of 233.785 mph (376.240 kph). Dario Franchitti however set the unofficial trap speed record at the start/finish line at 238.936 mph (384.530 kph). The fun faded away once drivers started reporting that the track was a “rollercoaster”, “very fast” or “physical”. They started reporting dizziness and disorientation, some said they could not control their car after constantly running at 230 mph (370 kph). Max Papis couldn’t differentiate frontstretch from the backstretch when his crew told him to pit. As practice went on, everyone started pushing and finding limits in time for qualifying. The record was broken once again, unofficial track record of 22.542 seconds at 236.678 mph (380.896 kph) average. In qualifying speeds were slightly lower than everyone expected. Kenny Bräck qualified first and broke the official track record of 22.854 seconds at 233.447 mph (375.696 kph).
After qualifying it was reported that drivers were experiencing 5G loads for 14 to 18 seconds during a 23 second lap meaning they had less than 9 seconds to relax during one lap, around 4 seconds per frontstretch and backstretch. It was all made clear in drivers meeting where 21 of 25 drivers reported that they were suffering from disorientation, vision problems or vertigo-like symptoms. Patrick Carpentier said he could not walk in a straight line after getting out of his car. They also mentioned that they had virtually no peripheral vision and a very limited reaction times. All that after only 10 laps.
It was confirmed by a former NASA flight director and professor of aviation medicine, Dr. Richard Jennings that the human body can not tolerate sustained loads of more than 4Gs. The G-loads that drivers would experience were almost double what most people can endure - 5.5G, very close to what jet pilots would experience in short time intervals.
As the safety concerns over G-force induced loss of consciousness were extremely high it was decided that the race would be cancelled.
This was a race weekend when human body met real limits for the first time in motorsport history. It was also a race weekend where race car drivers were separated from regular people even further, because they were ready to race and win whether the race would be cancelled or not.