Atlas F1 The Concrete Barrier

  by David Attard, Australia

Despite almost NASA like advances in cockpit design and construction, a host of safety regulations introduced by the FIA and even the barbaric removal of many high speed corners, the past decade has seen the death of the following drivers in major international motorsport categories:

  • 1994: Three time world champion Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed during the Formula One San Marino Grad Prix at Imola.

  • 1995: Bathurst 1,000 champion Greg Hansford was killed during a 2-litre touring car round at Philip Island in Australia.

  • 1996: Indycar (CART) driver Jeff Krosnoff was killed at the Toronto street circuit in Canada.

  • 1999: Penske driver Gonzalo Rodriguez was killed during practice at Laguna Seca raceway and Greg Moore lost his life crashing in the early laps of the CART season finale on the super speedway in Monterey California.

    Any untimely death is tragic and should be avoidable, but of all these incidents it seems as though the death of Greg Moore and Jeff Krosnoff's accident were the most futile. The link between the two was that the object which caused both drivers' deaths should never have been there in the first place.

    Jeff Krosnoff struck a street lamp post and Greg Moore an infield retaining wall. The key question that has to be asked is why were these objects either there in the first place or not sufficiently padded to save a driver's life? It is perhaps not reasonable to expect that a lamp post be removed for a street race each year but why was it not sufficiently padded? And the decision to build a concrete wall in the middle of a slippery grassed infield when it is known that cars will be circulating at almost 400 km/h leaves one aghast at the incompetence of race circuit designers.

    One has to wonder why has there been so very little time and money spent on developing improved safety devices for drivers to hit when they loose control. The attitude of the motorsport fraternity since its very early days is quite chilling. The response from everyone concerned is "it's terrible, horrible... But it is a part of racing." In other words, these men take the risks and sometimes it does not pay off. This flippant and somewhat careless attitude, that motorsport is inherently dangerous and that death is to be expected, breeds complacency in the area of safety innovations and regulation.

    The FIA is to partly be commended on its actions after the tragic weekend that was Imola 1994, whereby it added safety features on Formula One cars - such as ultra thick padding around the drivers' head and neck, further reinforcement of the monocouque, wheels which remain fixed to the car in an accident (this is still a problem), larger run off and sand trap areas and the compulsion that a driver must be able to exit the car in under 5 seconds.

    Despite this, Michael Schumacher suffered a broken leg at Silverstone this year and Olivier Panis badly broke both his legs in Canada in 1997 to never return as the same driver, leading to his inability to find a seat in next year's championship. It is obvious for all to see that since that incident, Olivier has 'lost the edge'.

    In 1995 Mika Hakkinen had a tracheotomy performed on him trackside after a sickening crash during the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, yet another serious accident. Again this year, Ricardo Zonta suffered a badly broken foot after an accident at Interlagos in Brazil.

    From touring cars to CART to Formula One, the vast majority of serious crashes involve the car slamming into a stationary object. A driver's safety is determined by three basic factors. The design of the car and the monocoque in particular, the ability of run off areas to slow the car down and finally the ability of whatever the car is hitting to "absorb" the impact.

    The first two areas have been the subject of excellent development in the past few years, yet for some mind boggling reason the field of hopefuls who line up at the Michigan and Monterey super speedways twice a year during the CART series know that if they lose control the only thing to slow them down from almost 400 Km/h to a stationary position is a thick concrete wall with an absorption factor of zero. There must be something better to hit at that speed than a concrete wall!

    So what is the answer?

    Looking at both Formula One and CART they seem to have taken a different approach to safety. Whilst both have improved car design, Formula One has decided to remove many of the high speed corners and replace them with infuriating chicanes. Tamborello curve is not even a shadow of its former self, Monza and Austria are other standout examples where sweeping turns were transformed into "bottle neck" chicanes. To the motorsport purist these changes are contrary to the traditions and philosophy behind racing, throughout history the greatest challenge for a driver has been a fast sweeping bend that can be taken at full throttle... If you get it just right.

    This direction by the FIA not only enrages the true fans and the drivers themselves but is extremely inconsistent. What about Spa's Blanchimont curve? What about the blindingly quick 130R at Suzuka, not to mention the portion of race-track which has arguably proven to be the most dangerous piece of tarmac in Grand Prix history - Eau Rouge? Every year we see huge accidents at this most challenging of turns yet it remains largely unchanged. Both BAR drivers walked away from yet another massive accident this year at Eau Rouge, the tyre wall and supporting rubber materials are stacked deep into the corner in the event of an accident, no doubt assisting in the result of both drivers simply walking away. Why can't this theory be applied to Tamburello to regain some character to the Imola tack?

    The FIA's other major "safety" policy is to slow the cars down. Much has been written on this topic but it does appear that the decision to make the cars narrower and therefore faster in a straight line yet reduce the grip through grooved tyres has resulted in a more dangerous vehicle to drive. The cars are very nervous under braking and unstable through high speed bends resulting in many cars spinning off the track in the last two years. Yet again, this has reduced the chances of "real" racing as drivers simply do not trust the car underneath them.

    CART has spent much of its energy in developing a safer monocoque for the drivers, yet very little in terms of track alterations have occurred in the past few seasons. Similar to F1, CART have tried to slow the cars down through the use of regular sized (rather than smaller) wings on the super speedways. This has kept the cars at a similar speed to the previous season rather than actually slowing them down and has resulted in amazing racing as the extra drag the cars create can be used as a tow by the car behind.

    The level of development has made it a necessity that regulators try to keep the cars from circulating at ridiculous speed. But in the case of F1 in particular, is it not against the very essence of the sport to try and reduce the speed? One option is to reduce the size of the wings and allow the cars to once again have some mechanical grip, though this will reduce the sport's advertising appeal and we can't have that...

    After Michael Schumacher's accident at Silverstone, the FIA decided to look closely at sand trap design as the number three Ferrari did not appear to adequately wash off speed as it should have. After Ayrton Senna's death, sweeping curves were closely looked at and often altered. Now, after Greg Moore's death, CART are "looking into" the construction of oval infield areas. Firstly, why does it take a death or near death to spark some action from the governing bodies, and again, why is no one looking at something better for the drivers to run into in the event of an impact?

    Looking at Formula One, a few rows of old tyres is apparently the best thing to stop a driver from being injured in the event of a high speed accident. Whilst the design, layout and other factors involving the tyres is probably carefully considered by safety officials, it seems perplexing that in what is the most highly developed and technically advanced sport, the best the FIA can come up with is a few rows of old tyres. Keep in mind that most team technical directors would not be out of place working on a space shuttle mission.

    CART have a slightly more complicated problem. On oval tracks the cars tend to hit the wall almost side on rather than head on. If, for example, a row of tyres were placed in front of the wall it would have the effect of "catching" the car and tossing it back onto the track and the oncoming traffic. Again, though, a concrete wall cannot be the best thing for the drivers to hit.

    On local tracks officials have used a one foot thick heavy duty sponge on notorious corners to cushion the impact. Perhaps the idea could be developed in conjunction with new materials to reduce the risk of injury? Mark Blundell showed us in Rio that at times things do go wrong and a Champcar will hit the wall at 90 degrees, an even stronger argument that concrete walls are unacceptable.

    Concrete barriers have always been the impact surface for serious accidents, and in approximately 100 years very little has changed. When other developments, such as engine power and aerodynamic design, are taken into consideration, the very low level of relative progress in impact absorption suddenly dawns on the observer.

    Motorsport is dangerous and unfortunately if a vehicle loses control at almost 400 km/h there is very little one can do to stop the driver from being seriously injured, but keep in mind that Greg Moore did not die instantly, he may not have been that far from surviving what was admittedly one of the most violent crash witnessed lately.

    There is inherent danger in the sport we love, but are all measures being taken to ensure the risk is at its absolute minimum?

  • David Attard© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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