Safety at Interlagos

One cannot always draw comparisons between accidents in different formulae but there are always lessons to be learned and the death on Sunday of Brazilian stock car driver Gustavo Sondermann at Interlagos is likely to be one that will be looked at closely by the safety authorities. The crash happened in very wet conditions during a round of the Copa Chevrolet Montana, which supports the main championship. Sondermann lost control of his car in the high-speed left-handers that lead on to the pit straight and hit the wall on the outside of the circuit. The car then bounced back onto the racing line and was hit by a following driver. Sondermann suffered head injuries that proved to be fatal. The worrying thing is that accident was very similar to that which killed Rafael Sperafico in 2007. His car went off at a similar place on the circuit – where there was a big accident in F1 involving Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso in 2004 – and bounced off the tyre barriers into the path of the oncoming cars and it was then hit by Renato Russo, who had no way to avoid the impact.

This second accident will revive questions about the safety of the track which cannot be altered at this point because there is little space behind the existing barriers because the land on which the circuit is built runs alongside the main Avenida Interlagos and the track cannot be reprofiled on the inside of the corner because the land drops away to the hairpin below. The only way to alter that would be to move or remove the hairpin and then create a new area on the inside of the track, which would involve substantial earth-moving, allowing the corner to be reprofiled to create more run-off area.

If you look at the aerial shot below (courtesy of Google), you will see the problem.

51 thoughts on “Safety at Interlagos

  1. Maybe the materials used in Abu Dhabi and Singapore for to get the grandstands closer might be of help to improve the safety there?

    It would be a shame to see the circuit reprofiled like that.

  2. @Heckie,
    I guess the same steep drop that makes it complicated to move the corner inward leaves little room to do a chicane there.

  3. The Sondermann accident, and the Webber/Alonso accident both occured in extreamly wet conditions. Was the same true for Rafael Sperafico?

    maybe the circuit just needs to be careful about running races in very wet contitions?

    Drainage has always been a problem at the circuit. Did the cars all aquaplane off?

  4. Joe,

    In this link: http://tinyurl.com/3t7ttwy what is the area that I have highlighted in orange used for? Look at the aerial photo it looks like open space, but on the on-board videos it looks as if during the F1 weekend there is a grandstand there. Maybe if it is a temporary grandstand it could go, along with some of the grandstand to the south and this area could be used as additional runoff?

  5. This is not a situation that is unique, the same potential problem occurs on all tracks where there is no retardation area/surface between the track and the wall/barrier.

    Unfortunately the same problem exists for many high speed bends, where in the event of a crash there is no facility for slowing down or retaining the crashed vehicle. Gravel
    Traps are good for this but only if there is sufficient space foe them to work in, clearly not the case in this instance. Ironically the old catch fencing could have been effective here, though that always created different problems, some now solvable with modern materials.

    The only other logical way to make the bend safer is to reduce the speed of entry and to keep it lower until past the danger zone, a kink either side of the bend could do this, with the bend itself remaining intact. However the sanitisation of tracks in many eyes, equates to nannying the drivers, the very concept of which is abhorrent to those who live in the UK having been subjected non stop to that very philosophy by the thankfully now defunct regime who abolished common sense and replaced it with 1500 new laws.

  6. Ah! Forgot Interlagos was anti-clockwise for a second there! Still, remove a bit of grandstand and there’s still room for a bit of runoff?

    Very sad to hear of this incident, particularly as I watched the Grand Prix – the killer years yesterday and was happy to see that era in the past.

    Reminiscent of the fatal NASCAR crash in Mexico, the cars aren’t up to the same crash standards as the US Car of Tomorrow cars, particularly on secondary impacts.

  7. I just saw the video of the accident and sadly this was a case of very poor visibility (due to rain) combined with the track having the wall so close – the car bounced off the wall and back onto the track where in fact (by witness accounts) it got hit by 3 of the following cars that couldnt see it in the spray. I’m afraid there wasnt much that car design or the hans device could do to save the driver.

    (not sure if allowed to post link here Joe, if not appropriate please remove)

    Maybe race control should have stopped the race earlier – you could argue visibility wasnt good enough – but if the track had more run off areas he would have stood a better chance of avoiding secondary collision with following cars.

    Thoughts and prayers to Gustavo Sondermann’s family and friends for such a tragic loss.

  8. What about one of those SAFER barriers Nascar uses? I think something should be done about it, I’ve always thought the pit entry was crazy dangerous too.

  9. Please, don’t kill another track, apologies for the poor choice of phrase. Yes, I’m not the one who passed this weekend due to an accident, but I if I had the fortune to be a professional racing driver, then I wouldn’t want to compete on sanitized tracks my whole career. Life is what you make of it, and it sounds like Sondermann lived more than most. Peace, but don’t trivialize his life by turning an evocative corner into a somnambulant stroll in the park.

    1. kristian,

      I am doing nothing of the sort. Safety is important not for the people involved, who may not care, but for the sport as a whole. We have to have a responsible attitude, particularly if the accidents happen as the same place more than once…

  10. Did Stephané Sarrizan not have a similar incident at some point? (1999?) Though this was in the dry, perhaps the problem that needs looking at is the drainage at this point rather than the circuit layout. Though this in itself might be quite hard, as water naturally runs downhill which could lead to it falling to the outside of the hairpin…

  11. Sperafico’s accident was in the dry – the car veered into barriers on the right and rebounded on to the racing line where it was T-boned. Wet conditions aside it was near identical.

    There doesn’t appear to be a solution other than putting a right left chicane in prior to the gentle left hander to aim the cars directly down the pit straight.

    Which would, of course, probably remove an overtaking opportunity at the first corner.

  12. @54BasCB

    If you look at the top right of the image, there is already a chicane in the previous corner.

    Im sure that could be use, or re-profiled to make it suitable.

  13. In my opinion, the easiest, cheapest, but obviously most boring option is to lower the corner speed, by possibly adding a kink, or dare I say it, a chicane, prior to that point. Of course I could only imagine it would kill the flow of the circuit at that point, but what else would yo do in the meantime????

    PS: Joe, loved the Q & A night in Melbourne, was great. Will be back next year! I was the guy always with his hand up….. you remember!

    Cheers,

    Pat

  14. This horrible sport of ours, poor Sondermann was teammates with Sperafico when he had his near identical accident.

    There appears to be a tiny chicane on the inside of the bend anyway, it wouldn’t surprise if that was improved and utilised, the original track itself could provide some run-off. Let’s hope the spirit of Interlagos is maintained, it’s a little gem.

  15. The simplest short-term solution is to move the barriers right next to the track. This ensures that any shunt has a relatively low angle of impact, and that the car continues to slide on the barrier rather than bounce back to the middle of the track. This was done at Turn Five of Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve following a Formula Star Mazda crash in 2006 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFTgdAsrvG0). As the Interlagos and Montréal crashes show, there is much danger in having a tire wall right next to the track in a high-speed kink. Having a solid wall next to the track is not ideal, but still better.

    By the way, the issue with the last bend at Interlagos has been known in F1 for more than a decade. Remember Stéphane Sarrazin in a Minardi in 1999? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvTdm1YmT1o)

  16. There might be an opportunity to use the already existing chicane right before the bend that is visible in the picture, however, cars would approach that one with quite some speed already, as well, and especially in the kinds of conditions that appeared in the race here, abysmal visibility and all, there would also be a danger of a car missing the entry, cutting the chicane and hitting someone else further up front.

    Any further re-profiling attempts would most probably be elaborate and, thus, expensive. Building some new connection to start/finish from somewhere within the complex of hairpins in the infield would have to cover a steep incline between that level and the top of the straight.

    I think a solution lies much rather in the area of race control considering carefully which conditions are still considered acceptable to race in. The problem that seeing Sondermann’s accident immediately suggested to me was that the following drivers may not even have been able to see that a car had hit the wall in front of them.

  17. That part of the track is effectively not far different from a corner on an oval – bound in concrete to left and right. The secondary impact with a following car is one of the few remaining killers in the sport – crash structures will already have been compromised by the first impact. The accident I immediately thought of was Zanardi’s.

    That corner has been known to be dangerous for some time, not least because drivers are effectively driving end-on at the pitwall before missing it at the last moment. It’s certainly a bit of a throwback.

  18. The little chicane you see just prior to the corner was added for the MotoGP held there a few years back – and from what I could gather it was considered by the Stockcar organisers back in April 2008, but at the time they claimed it could not be used because the tarmac and rumble strips were not adequate, and the tyre barriers (to prevent the chicane being cut) would themselves pose a hazard.


    Unfortunately nothing further was done about it and it still does not get used.

    That chicane would not resolve the problem on that corner, but would at least cut down on the speed cars go through it, and while it clearly would not be suitable for F1 it would at least help prevent accidents like this one we saw during the weekend – until a proper/final solution can be found.

  19. I can’t believe anyone is blaming the track, when NASCAR has cars T-boned constantly after they bounce off the wall, and nothing happens to the drivers.

    The car and PPE failed, simple as that.
    Design the cars to race at the tracks. Not the other way around…

  20. Much as I hate chicanes, could one be added just before that corner? I know it would ruin the flow of that part of the lap, and make the approach to turn 1 slower and therefore probably a bit less spectacular, but I’d rather do that than have any more serious injuries and/or not have F1 at Interlagos.

  21. There are 2 reasons for this kind of thing.
    1. out of control cars bouncing back off the barriers onto the track.
    2. lack of timely yellow flags, or drivers failing to notice them or react appropriately.

    I can’t say about the other accidents but the Alonso accident was clearly due to ignoring the yellow.

    As for the track design, before anyone FIA dares to think about pushing the track owners into redesigning Interlagos because of this, they should take Monaco, Albert Park, Montreal, Valencia, Singapore and some other venues off the calendar. End of.

    R.I.P. Gustavo Sondermann.

  22. Maybe it is time for a rethink of the the usual tire barrier wrapped in a conveyor belt right next to the track. One of the challenging things with the SAFER barrier in the US has been creating a barrier that absorbs the crash without bouncing the vehicle back onto the track. The system has to work with light open wheel cars and 1700KG stock cars.

    By all accounts the current versions of the system work well, can be fixed quickly during a race. The system does have to be customized for every track but might this be a solution here?

  23. While all the commenters have focused on that litle chicane right before the bend, it is really the location of the solid walls being so close to the track…

    As AdamR notes, they could use the safer barriers AND move those walls back a good 10+ feet without having to re-profile the turns or even lose very much grandstand seating.

    There have been many wrecks in NASCAR where the barriers undoubtedly saved someone from a much bigger/worse problem. The ones that relate to this are actually accidents where the car gets sideways, but then grips and shoots at near full speed into the INSIDE wall when coming out of a turn at a near perpendicular, or more than 45degree, angle. There is no runoff area, and no room for it on the inside, so they angle the wall away from the track/direction of travel as much as they can and put the safer barrier there.

    Solid walls simply rebound, absorbing a fraction of the energy but returning much of it to the chassis, pushing it back onto the track. The safer barriers (basically giant foam blocks with a supporting structure) absorb a significant amount of that energy instead, transferring it to collapsible braces designed to dissipate that energy like the crash structure of your passenger car. You’ll see 180mph full-bore into the wall accidents where the car practically stops after hitting the barrier instead of bouncing back dozens of feet and the driver walks away. The older ‘tire walls’ are still in use at some locations, but they are moving away from those – we’ve all seen high-speed crashes into a tire wall where it either did little to slow the forward momentum, or literally threw the car back, rebounding that energy.

    An expensive remedy, to be sure, but not nearly as intensive as redesigning an entire section of track and not as invasive as chicanes. I hope they look into moving the walls and adding some safer barriers before tearing up another classic section/track

  24. *late addition

    And maybe, just maybe, they could move some of that grandstand. They could easily make up lost seating at another location on the track – there’s tons of empty space around the track. I’ve always wondered why Interlagos had so much open land on the inside of the circuit.

  25. I think that more thought should be put into car safety rather than track safety in this case.

    I believe the roll cages and safety features on the Brazilian cars are fairly primitive compared to other categories, such as DTM and NASCAR.

    Even if this corner is modified, there is a strong chance that there will be a similar incident somewhere else, unfortunately.

  26. We really need to stop racing in situations where it is so wet that visibility is seriously impaired. If someone suggested racing with visors that blocked 80% of a driver’s visibility people would think that was insane but every year there are hundreds if not thousands of races in conditions where it is so wet the drivers can’t see far enough to be safe.

    Racing drivers need to be protected from themselves. Drivers will always race in almost any conditions because when you are in the car it makes sense to do so. In the dim and distant past I did an FFord race where the only thing I saw was the tail light of the car in front and only then in the braking zone. On the straights at over 100mph I could see absolutely nothing that could help me drive the car. Needless to say like many others I ended the day in a barrier.

    We have to stop racing in conditions like that. When a driver can’t see it is no longer a test of skill. The best driver in the world is no better than any other driver. Many of us remember Didier Pironi’s career ending accident where he saw a ball of spray in front of him and gambled that he could find a way through it. Instead he ran straight into the back of Alain Prost’s car and trashed his legs.

  27. Amore porous, better drainging, grippier surface might help a bit, also I guess tightening the last true corner would reduce speeds for most series through that kink (F1 would still be mega quick though!) that would slow cars a bit (and losing a few mph may make all the differnece) It’s always terrible when a driver, or anyone else involved in the sport is killed, but as it says on the ticket, motorsport is dangerous. Motorsport exists to sell cars, and as a research and development area, many ways to make cars faster and safer have gone from race track to road, yet few measures from other areas transfer across. Admittedly the acres of tarmac run off wouldn’t work on the highway, but when there’s been a fatal crash on a bend on an A road, they don’t stick in a chicane! Surely racetracks should be used to try out new surface mixes to reduce spray, improve drainage and minimise the risk of aquaplaning? Malaysia next weekend will have rain (probably in the last 45 mins – as usual) and it’ll probably be too wet for the F1 cars (again) but trying out a new surface type on the racetrack wouldn’t affect the racing (same for evceryone) and could lead to safer conditions on the roads for everyone – exactly what the FIA keeps going on about!

  28. +1 Adam R

    Joe, I remember that after Senna and Wendingler there was much talk in F1 about water and foam barriers and other advanced track safety equipment. Whatever happened to all that? It seems that having _shorter_ runoff areas with shock absorbing barriers would also help punish mistakes and improve overtaking. We could end up safer AND with more exciting races. Did the interest in that technology just disappear?

    1. Leo

      There are all kinds of barriers in F1 these days, but barriers would not help in this case. What is needed is space.

  29. SAFER barriers might work to an extent on ovals, but they won’t on road courses. With this sad accident in particular it appears the car hit the barrier at an angle that caused it bounce back onto the circuit where it was unfortunately was t-boned by other cars. The only thing that would have prevented this from happening is runoff. For safe circuits, runoff is king.

  30. Joe, I think if one studies the telemetry from Nascar one would see that much harder hits do not result in significant injuries. You have chosen to focus on the circuit, but the emphasis should be on the car. The car is not designed for impacts of that magnitude.

    The solution does not require a circuit revision, but it does require a design revision on the cars. I do not think that this series has invested any money or time on impact studies or high tech telemetry.

    If I am correct, you said that HANS would not have helped? Or am I wrong? Does this series require HANS?

    The solution is in the car’s engineering, the driver’s safety equipment, and not in circuit design. Do they have safer barriers? I am not sure in spite of some posters having said so.

    You should do the donkey work and explain it to us. Not the reverse.

    Flood1

  31. Runoff may be king for safety but it encourages bad driving. And now with the importance of downforce it is dangerous to use wavy gravel as well. Engineering the car and track together is the only (partial) solution.

    I can’t comment on the adequacy of the roll cages in the Montanas but there was not a direct impact to the driver, it was just the acceleration of the impact that caused the devastaing injuries to the spine and brain stem, even though they have HANS. The driver who crashed into Sondenmann also sustained significant injuries.

    It must be said: T-boning is always going to kill drivers. People forget that last year, which was one of the best years in F1 in a long time, only wasn’t the worst in a long time because of the 15 cm that prevented Schumi literally losing his head in Abu Dhabi.

  32. I think I agree with Leo, Ed, and Flood1, in that the car and PPE must take at least some of the blame in this case.

    They are heavy but weak cars, worst possible combination. At least an F1 car has a very strong survival shell, whilst the secondary impact crash structures are incredibly good in the NASCAR Sprint Cup car ‘car of tomorrow’ the side impact structures of the main cage are literally full of foam.

    I notice that Barichello has suggested getting rid of some of the bleacher seats there after the corner to create a bit of runoff.

    All in all though, really glad to see that the question is being taken seriously, and that the Brazilian federation has asked the FIA for advice.

  33. Terry and doodzed have it right.

    There should NOT be a tire barrier there. All it does is catch the car and throw it into the track. NOT safe. There should be a bare concrete wall that the car can glance off of, or a SAFER barrier similar to NASCAR.

    The walls should stay in the same place to minimize angle of impact, and should be made smooth to deflect.

    Also, in this instance, where it seems as if the car never hit the wall, the Brazilian stock cars should have better side-impact protection. Many series around the world learned from Keith O’dor’s crash at Avus… there should be improvements made to all GT/Touring/Stock-car side-impact protection, and perhaps even make it a common set of rules.

  34. How about running interlagos clockwise?
    I’ll take my million dollar consultants fee before the race.

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