The Racing Safety Edition
On regulation, racing, and safety innovation
JR Hildebrand (JRH) is a professional racing driver who’s competed in the last ten consecutive Indianapolis 500s in addition to various other forms of motorsport during his career. He is also an adjunct lecturer for the REVS Program at Stanford University where he works with—and keeps a watchful eye over—his future autonomous competition. He previously contributed The Virtual Racing Edition for WITI. -Noah (NRB)
JR here. Is it inevitable that a racing car will crash?
If you’re an organizing body within motorsport, your perspective on this question likely influences an entire system of regulations, protocols, and overall safety design. For racing drivers, corner marshals, and even fans, how robust that system is might literally be the difference between life and death.
During the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix two years ago, F1 driver Romain Grosjean spent 28 seconds engulfed in flames after his HAAS F1 car split in half upon piercing through a metal Armco track barrier on the first lap. As his helmet visor warped from the heat of the gasoline chemical fire, he had time to try to get out of the car three times, name death “Benoit,” and think about his kids while frantically searching for an escape route. In the precious seconds that clicked by as Romain finally freed himself from the confines of his car, still enveloped by fire, Dr. Ian Roberts jumped out of the F1 Medical Car driven by former professional racer Alan van der Merwe and helped a corner marshal open his fire extinguisher just in time to clear a path for Grosjean through the flames. As a racing driver, you know that fire is deadly and the amount of time you have to get away from it is finite. Wreckage scenes that looked like this in the past have claimed some of our heroes. Fortunately for all involved, Romain narrowly escaped with only burns to his hands and feet.
That he survived in this situation is a testament to innumerable safety advancements over the last several decades of motorsport and F1. The ultra-strong carbon fiber monocoque chassis (or “tub” as we know it) that makes up the safety cell Romain was surrounded by, kept his body protected during the 53G crash. The halo, a once heavily-debated addition to Formula One cars for its non-traditional effect on the cars’ aesthetic, almost certainly saved Romain’s life all by itself by shielding his head in the otherwise open-cockpit F1 car from the metal barrier as his car speared through it. The quality of his Alpinestars gloves, boots, and firesuit over fire-proof Nomex underwear and his Bell Racing helmet over a Nomex balaclava kept him from much more serious injuries during those 28 seconds. The quick and focused action of Dr. Roberts and Alan van der Merwe to dive right in are precisely the reason they’re there and they executed perfectly.
Why is this interesting?
While there is no question that F1 and motorsport as a whole have become safer over time, the fact of the matter is that Romain’s circumstances should never have been so dire. There should not have been any barrier piercing, there should not have been a fire, and there should not have been 28 seconds that held life and death in the balance. That’s because the wall should not have been an Armco barrier in the first place, and the fact that it still was reflects a more broad difference in viewpoint that the FIA (the global governing body of motorsport) and F1 hold in comparison to some other sanctioning bodies when it comes to defining the philosophy they seem to follow with regard to racing safety.
Formula One conducts its racing with a concerted effort to avoid accidents happening altogether. And it’s working—over the last decade there have been very few large accidents in F1, and frankly, very few accidents period outside of low-speed, low-consequence first corner incidents. Formula One has the power to dictate the circuits it races at with significant authority, predominantly racing at tracks that have been designed specifically for F1 with large, often paved run-off areas that give drivers ample room to correct even significant mistakes. It is not unusual when an F1 car spins off-track out of control that it never reaches a barrier despite the high speed and high cornering energies.
Through a mix of driver skill, more spread out races (few cars battling wheel-to-wheel at a given time), and circuits where you might really have to put some effort in to find something to crash into, wrecks just don’t happen all that often, when they do they tend to be in places you might anticipate, and big ones even more seldomly occur. So how likely is it that in any given place at a given track at a given time that a car will have a huge crash? The odds are very low, and in some respects, those low odds are actively designed into the sport.
Now consider IndyCar by comparison. It’s not a matter of if but when a huge accident is going to occur, and the time and place are much less apparent. Amongst its circuits, IndyCar races on oval tracks at 200+mph with no run-off. At these tracks, a little wiggle puts you off-line and you’re firing it into the outside wall a few milliseconds later. The street circuits are gritty and rough, usually constructed the week before the race. The road courses are less forgiving, more narrow, and don’t have room for big run-off areas. The cars are more evenly matched and by default race more closely together. Everything from the proximity to another car to the distance of the nearest thing to crash into is just closer together, and the speed of the cars—though not “F1 fast” on a street or road course—is still very high. The nature of the sport is such that crashes are more common, and big crashes are inevitable.
Because of all those differences, the safety systems that each sanctioning body employ is notable, from the way a driver is fit to the car to the deployment and scope of the safety car and emergency safety team, to the perspective on circuit safety design. The “seat” an IndyCar driver straps into is actually an insert that fills the entire cockpit area behind, below, and beside the driver, made of an energy-absorbent foam bead composite as an extra layer of protection against the G-forces of a hard crash. An F1 driver’s seat, while also formed to their body shape, is designed to be able to disconnect from the car to extract the driver if he or she is impaired but is made of carbon fiber and doesn’t give at all upon impact. IndyCar’s AMR Safety Team is a highly trained group of firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics who are stationed at multiple outposts around every track for rapid response, in addition to the medical car and ambulance. F1 is heavily reliant on volunteer corner marshals and the single highly-trained crew in the AMG Medical Car. The circuits IndyCar races at account for a ton of accidents due to their nature and design that wouldn’t happen at F1 tracks, but because of that they tend to give consideration to the chance of a crash happening almost anywhere.
The result of all this—in addition to the style of racing of course—is that IndyCar drivers experience far more big impacts. Romain Grosjean’s crash energy registered at 53Gs, a rare occurrence in Formula 1. IndyCar, on the other hand, might have 10 accidents a year at that energy or more. But for all that, the fatality rate of both series is remarkably low. The last two incidents at this level of consequence in F1—Romain’s piercing through a style of barrier we know to be dangerous and the untimely death of Jules Bianchi after crashing into a tractor after sliding off the track under only a local caution condition—would not have occurred at all the way they did with a few small changes to the perspective with which safety at the track is viewed.
Romain’s accident was in many ways a reminder of how far we’ve come. But it was also a reminder that innovation happens in many ways, and that continuing to develop the approach to safety itself that might make it more resilient to these kinds of harrowing scenes is just as important as creating new technology when seeking improvement. (JRH)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & JR (JRH)
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