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Autosport Show - Sid Watkins Motorsport Safety Fund Lecture

Nigel Bland reports from the NEC on FIA Safety Thoughts

My highlight from visiting the Autosport Show recently was attending the annual Sid Watkins Lecture, organised by the Motor Sport Safety Fund; the lecture was given by Laurent Mekies, FIA safety chief, who proved to be a good and informative speaker, and whose pedigree has been proven in F1 having worked with Minardi/ Toro Rosso as an engineer for the 10 years prior to his FIA appointment in 2014.

The lecture was centred on two significant F1 accidents which have occurred over the last 18 months and the safety implications. In analysing the accidents the FIA have two prime tools available to them, being the ADR (Accident Data Recorder), effectively the car equivalent of an aircraft’s black box, and a driver facing camera which records images at 4000 images per second! The latter allows information on brain impact to be analysed as it was explained that with recent improvements in the car safety cells, and neck support by mandatory use of the HANS device that brain injury is now the major weak spot in protecting the driver.

The information gathered in the Alonso accident at Melborne in 2016 was analysed, and detailed in graphical form (below) in Laurent/FIA's graphic.

It showed:

  • He withstood two impacts of 45 g load, one when he initially hit the wall and secondly when the car hit the ground after its initial flight. For information all drivers experiencing a force of 15g in an incident must now be medically examined before they are allowed to race again, and marshals at the accident site are made aware by a warning light in the vehicle cockpit.
  • That his head compressed the whole of the side impact of the cockpit shell on initially hitting the wall

From questioning, the FIA consider that for car racing gravel trap or tarmac run off areas are equally valid, although if a car has wheels after an accident then tarmac is preferred, in opposition to Moto GP requirements. Following the Alonso incident tests have been carried out to see if a driver could have removed themselves from the car if the halo had been fitted, and such tests have been a success; drivers have expressed scepticism and want to do a simulated release from such an incident!. Laurent confirmed all the necessary safety tests on the halo are complete, it now being a ‘political’ decision over whether single seater racing should incorporate the halo; he believed if the halo were introduced into F1,it would be required by the FIA for their F4 car by 2020.

The second accident analysed was that of Carlos Sainz at Sochi in 2015. It may be remembered that although Carlos was uninjured the technical foam barrers effectively fell on top of the car following the accident, making his extraction very difficult, particularly if he had been injured. In commencing the analysis Laurent highlighted the car had stopped from 155kph to zero in 4m, as little speed had been scrubbed off before he hit the barrier. Analysis of the accident showed the technical foam barriers had done their job, but they fell back onto the car because the nose of the car effectively buckled the Armco behind them, which effectively created energy waves which moved the technical foam over the car. Subsequent simulated testing recreated the exact situation, and has resulted in improved barrier requirement at circuits, dependent on the anticipated incident speed. On questioning, tyre barriers are still acceptable, but only on their own for incidents up to 100kph, after which technical foam must be fitted.  Another interesting statistic that Laurent mentioned after questioning is that F1 teams believe cornering speeds could improve by 40kph as a result of the new 2017 regulations, so most circuits with F1 safety certificates will be required by the FIA to update their barrier protection. 

Finally, Laurent mentioned some recent FIA safety work connected to seat belts; as a result of Formula E car changes, and driver changes in pit stops in long distance races becoming more time critical, the FIA have introduced a system to measure the belt tension on safety belts being worn by drivers in the cars; if the tension is not correct this is reported to race control so action can be taken.

It was good to hear the work being carried out by the FIA, and emphasises the amazing progress made on driver safety since the Jackie Stewart campaign commenced in the late 1960’s.

Nigel Bland

Copyright notes

All information presented by Laurent Mekies remains copyright of him and or FIA Motorsport Safety Fund. Pictures, and unknown, plus Nigel Bland. We are also informed that although Laurent referred to Recticel foam barriers, the make at Sochi is believed by Startline's Foam expert to be Tecpro.

Medical Addendum

Steven Griffin has very kindly added the following information: "Drivers are now so well bolted down that the only bits of us that that aren't are our brains and our aortae.  The brain is essentially floating in fluid inside the skull.  Blunt head trauma is the main issue, penetrating is not a problem as nobody survives it - Senna is the most famous example.  The brain rattles around in the skull causing diffuse injury.  Generally the patient recovers but not always.  As for the aorta, the only death that I know was Ricardo Paletti.  He ran into Pironi from behind after Pironi had stalled on the grid. 

The heart is another organ that is not attached firmly to anything.  It kind just "swings" on the aorta and during these massive acceleration or deceleration events it swings like a bell clapper and twists the aorta until it breaks and the patient bleeds out.  This is the cause of death from most aircraft accidents, often the passengers are all seated in their rows with ruptured aortae. It takes less than five minutes to empty the whole of one's circulating volume into the chest cavity. 

Another thing we neglect at club level are arm restraints.  I was at the 24 Hours in Dubai and all the drivers who didn't use NASCAR style window nets had to use arm restraints to stop the arms being damaged by hanging out the window during a roll over. A very good idea."


Laurent Mekies

Alonso at Melbourne

Sainz at Sochi

Stewart's BRM at Spa, the initial spur for Jackie's lifelong safety crusade.