The problem of safety engineering

In the wake of a motor racing incident, there are always people who look for solutions to the problems. Sebastian Vettel complains about his tyres and his supporters want to reinvent the wheel.

Usually, there is some logic in taking action, even if it is merely shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. However, knee-jerk reactions are never a good idea. Safety is a science and research and experimentation are required because rushed solutions, applied too rapidly, can create new problems that were not immediately obvious.

Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono was the result of an incredibly unlucky accident with objects with different trajectories combining to create a disaster. Suddenly, fighter jet style canopies are the discussion. Perhaps they can stop intrusive objects… but perhaps they would also create even worse problems and further tragedies.

I doubt there are many people who remember the name Lyle Kurtenbach, but for some reason I do. He was a 41-year-old cement additive salesman from Rothschild, Wisconsin, who went to the 1987 Indianapolis 500 as a spectator. The race was something of a family reunion and there were 10 relatives gathered in the top row of a grandstand in Turn 4.

On lap 130 of the race, a wheel came off Tony Bettenhausen’s car and bounced into the path of Roberto Guerrero. He was lucky as the wheel hit the nose of his car but missed his head. The impact sent the wheel high into the air, arching over the safety fences and falling back to earth on the top of the grandstand, where it hit and killed the unfortunate Kurtenbach, who became the third spectator to die after being hit by a tyre, the others having been in the 1930s.

The point that must be made here is that if there were easy solutions, they would already have been applied. The FIA has been researching canopies and doing tests for at least five years, but no safe solution has been found. Canopies protect the drivers, but they deflect flying wreckage in an almost random fashion, and that could create even worse problems, as illustrated above by Kurtenbach’s death.

In addition there are questions about whether a canopy would hinder drivers trying to get out of a car in a hurry, or impede rescuers who are needing to get quick access to help an injured driver. If the canopies are made detachable, perhaps they will fly off or be dislodged in an accident. And so it goes on…

It is the same thing with cranes. If you have a static crane to lift cars off a race track you may need to have more people on the race track to manoeuvre the car so it can be attached to a crane. Think of the number of marshals you see on the circuit in Monaco. Using tractor units may not seem logical, but they do actually reduce the number of people at risk.

Some say that tradition is important and that open cockpits should be open cockpits. I don’t hold with this. If something is dangerous and there is a solution then it is wrong not to at least consider it. However it does mean that the sport would need to be rethought in a fairly major fashion because it is not going to be easy to explain the difference between an F1 with a canopy and a sports car and this would blur the lines between the different and distinct disciplines. It is the same too with enclosed wheels. There was a time when sports cars were Grand Prix cars with mudguards, but the two disciplines quickly diverged from one another.

Some would have us believe that there should be no mortal danger in motor racing, but in my opinion this is simply naive and unrealistic. If one pushes the boundaries of speed, it is inevitable that sometimes things will fail. The laws of physics are the laws of physics and they are not going to change. We can stop some dangers, but “freak accidents” will continue to occur because these are often the result of multiple factors. So, one must accept danger – as racing drivers do – while at the same time always looking to improve standards. One should not be complacent, but at the same time, one should not allow Health and Safety despots to lead crusades that destroy an activity that has brought pleasure to the world since the dawn of time. People like competition. I’m not a great fan of athletics (how can you tell who has been cheating with what drugs, blood transfusions and so on?) but yesterday I found myself watching races from the IAAF World Championship in Beijing while I was having lunch. I enjoyed it.

Some would ban motor racing completely, yet they let people fall off mountains or yachts all the time, without a word. They do this because motor racing has a higher profile and gives them an easier target.

In the end, there have to be compromises. Races should not be started behind Safety Cars, tracks cannot be entirely encircled with debris fencing. People buy tickets that tell them that motor racing is dangerous and while slippery lawyers may win cases, arguing that no-one ever reads the back of a ticket, we all know that there are risks involved in racing – and we accept them.

99 thoughts on “The problem of safety engineering

    1. Joe,
      I will agree with your comments and especially the concerns about fighter style canopies. It is an area in which I have an extensive background. Fighter canopies are designed to bounce birds off them, rather than allow them to penetrate and impact the pilot. This is the number one design criteria.

      However in making the transparency able to bounce birds an unfortunate side effect occurs. A ripple in the laminate which is a “shock wave” caused from dissipating the energy of the impact. The downside of this is that twice to my knowledge a tall pilot has been hit on the top of the head by the shock wave, the spine compressed and them rendered unconscious and subsequently died in a crash. Sure many pilots lives have been saved by this technology on aircraft, but as you rightly pointed out we have to consider the consequences of such changes. Especially as bouncing debris towards unprotected fans could have very real and serious additional consequences.

      Please consider the height of Justin Wilson when considering the point I just made. Sure most F1 drivers are short these days. But not all drivers in open wheel racing are short. Justin Wilson makes my point here.

      It should also be considered that although a tire maybe somewhat analogous to the characteristics of a bird impact, a wheel rim, a suspension part or other metallic object are not and may still penetrate the transparency or cause it to fracture. Especially after they have been in service for sometime and subject to UV light. There are some very real engineering challenges to be considered for ANY solution to avoid making the outcome of such an incident worse.

      Also consider the issue of visibility. Drivers have tearaways on helmets. How will that work on a canopy? At what point do you have to black flag a driver for visual impairment in a race?

      Thanks Joe for starting the conversation and HOPEFULLY the FIA will include those with wider expertise in this field of impact damage and protection of pilots before making changes. We know FOM does not heed your advice. But this time the FIA needs to hear you. The fans should support you in that.

      1. Adam – I’m glad you make this point (from a position of actual expertise!). I’ve always thought that those who propose a fighter style canopy have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a canopy is actually for on a fighter.

  1. Could you be persuaded to “run” motor racing Joe as I never hear more sense anywhere else although I suppose with that much sense you wouldn’t want the job anyway. I do, however, feel this desire to make cars five seconds a lap quicker might be leading to more chance of injuries. As i have said before, all that is needed is to make them more challenging to drive not faster. “Magnatraction”, for those old enough to remember it, took away much of the joy of using a Scalextric car and that is how I see downforce and, to a greater degree, ground effect. I saw Rindt at Woodcote.

    1. Interesting thought. No, I do not have the necessary neuroses to want to the power and money that comes with the job, but on the other hand I fervently want the sport to be as successful as it can possibly be and I believe that more than anything what is required is altruistic decision-making, rather than the current atmosphere in which money and power are the only goals. The problem is that when you have people motivated to fight for money and power, it is hard to beat them unless you have similar ambitions and desires. My view is that it is all rather pointless and there is only so much money one needs in this world.

      So, in the unlikely event that someone reading this is a potential investor in the sport, willing to buy out CVC and wondering who to get to run things for you, I am available for a relatively small amount of money (enough to see me live happily ever after once the job was done). All that is really required is for the person in charge of the sport to be given sufficient power (i.e: the position) and money to move the players to where you want them to be. There must be a redistribution of funds, as this is the root of a lot of the other troubles. If the sport had a fair distribution of revenues and the promoter was less greedy then one can do a great deal. The bigger teams would not like having their advantages taken away, but I think that they get enough from the sport so I’d give extra money to everyone else and get them up to the same levels. If people did not like this I would recommend sports car racing. They would soon come round, as the big teams need F1 as much as F1 needs them. Once you have a fair playing field, then people will work together to the betterment of all concerned. They would still race like crazy, but if they all knew that they were being treated fairly they would pull together. The FIA can easily be convinced to rule properly and there are very obvious areas where the sport could be generating much more revenue and building an audience for the future.

      I could never do the kind of deals that Bernie does. He is unique in this respect, but I do believe that one can achieve more with collaborative effort than you do with dividing-and-conquering. Remember that BE’s empire was initially built on him being able to hold the teams together. He did that by getting them more money. Later he saw the opportunities for himself and took them and the sport has been in perpetual conflict since then. If one could establish a fair playing field and then generate additional revenues and get the confidence of the big players then you can do a lot. I would, for example, lighten the load on the individual race promoters and I would change the criteria for selection for the World Championship races, so that the sport would go only to places that were strategically important (i.e. three races in the US as quickly as possible and a race in Africa, as there is a large continent waiting to get excited about F1). I would have fewer useless events in less than useful bits of Asia.

      1. Joe

        It was very difficult to better your original post but you have done it.

        Your passion for the sport shows through and your innate good sense has produced, if not the complete Blue Print for the future of F1 it is as near as dammit.

        I do hope this gets a wider circulation than your superb Blog.

        Brilliant. S

  2. There are a lot of parralels between this debate, and the one now occurring regarding ‘Vintage’ Jets performing at UK Airshows, following the tragic Accident at Shoreham.

    Some people, it would seem, can never have enough ‘Safety’ . . .

    1. I’m not sure – the people killed on the road had not paid to go to a dangerous listed event. Even spectators at motor sport races get the danger spelled out from the purchase. Pilots, like drivers, accept the eternal baseline of risk. Spectators accept an extremely small risk. People driving on an A road in the vicinity don’t. So there is a major difference in these two cases.

    2. If you attend an airshow, and I have been to many including the Reno air races, I think you accept that it is a slightly dangerous thing to do. If you attend a motor race I think you accept it is a slightly dangerous thing to do.

      If you are driving down the A27, as I have done many times, I think you should reasonably expect not to have a vintage jet failing at acrobatics slam into you. That stuff needs to be done over water from now on.

      1. While I’m thinking about the similarities between F1 and air shows and air racing… part of the appeal of airshows is the sound, a fighter jet given the beans sounds fantastic. Now a silent fighter jet would be more technically accomplished, more efficient, and a better military tool, but boy wouldn’t it be more dull. And we get quiet, “efficient” F1 cars to enjoy less today.

      2. I was down the pub listening to some piano blues in Nottingham on a Sunday night. The pianist was Boris, I think, or another old mate of Sally Barker, a good singer who has re-established her career on the back of silly TV.

        Somebody announced over the PA that a Jumbo jet had landed on the M1. It wasn’t a Jumbo, it was a 737, as if that matters. See Kegworth air disaster.

        Shit had happened. A civilian airplane in trouble crashed onto a motorway. When it happened, we did not know the incidental damage. Bizarrely and thankfully, there were no cars on the M1 motorway at that time. Dead and injured people were on the plane.

        A Boeing 737, the like of which, a modern alternative, flies off every minute of the day.

        Shit happens. When the Boeing 737 landed on the M1 there were zero cars in front of it. People died or suffered from their injuries.

  3. Thanks Joe. I really look forward to seeing your blog every day. It gives me incredible insight into the background of F! and makes watching the sport so much more enjoyable.

  4. Excellent stuff as always. As a 35 year Risk Assessment engineer in Major Hazard industries I look forward to the next few articles of the FIA and Rights Organisations systematic framework on safety decision making.
    Oh that’s right, they don’t have one. So no logical, consistent, defensible changes.

    1. Martin hits the nail on the head.

      The Romans could build elegant bridges that are still standing today. Engineers build bridges that stand up, but only just. So with a limit state design, you can add a factor of safety of 1.01 (remember “give me more lightness”), or something sensible, determined by an independent engineer undertaking a risk assessment.

      I am with Joe on open cockpits. The way to reduce the Massa type of incident is to ensure that anything that can leave the car has been tethered. A 5p cable tie would probably have restrained the spring that hit him. The debris hitting poor Justin Wilson is a genuinely unforeseeable consequence, like the errant wheel Joe refers to.

      The Bianchi incident is somewhat different. I believe that someone constantly reviewing motorsport risks would have said that it is reasonably foreseeable that if one car has left the circuit, another could potentially follow. The VSC software should have been specified at the time the unified McLaren ECU was introduced. Another view on this is that if the driver is able to leave his car unassisted, then leaving the stricken car has a much smaller risk of an unknown consequence than bringing a vehicle many times the mass of another errant car onto the circuit. (Colliding with a stationary F1 car, rather than TechPro barrier will have a much smaller consequence than hitting a Manitou.)

      Pirelli suggested in 2013 that Prime tyre life should be limited to 50% race distance with Options 30%. They manufacture the tyre and so the FIA should have regulated that limit immediately. Instead it was left to teams to agree unanimously or status quo. Paul Hembery should not be left with egg all over his face, when his recommendation have been ignored. If the FIA and teams dislike those limits then they should appoint another manufacturer, who can meet their requirements, if it is actually possible – none of us know.

      As Joe says in his later response, money is ruining the sport. We need a regulator who can regulate fairly and assess risk diligently rather than having 20/20 hindsight, like the rest of us.

      The sport also needs a race promoter who believes people will still want to watch motorsport in 50 years time and not just see the world as another opportunity to skim a few £million here and there.

  5. humans seek thrill, either watching it or involved in it. Thrill involves risk. The risk of participating or the risk of observing.

    You can manage risk to a certain extent, but don’t reduce it so it doesnt exist, other wise there is the potential to reduce the thrill that people are seeking?

    1. That’s still a worry in open canopies surely? Upside down car is generally a scary proposition whatever they are driving.

        1. I find it hard to look at the TV coverage where Roger Williamson died. When I do it, I reflect on how marshals were unable to respond. They didn’t have the tools to do the job.

          When Niki Lauda crashed at the Nurburgring, some drivers got involved. Niki was saved by Arturio Merzario and others who unbuckled his safety restraint (from a bunch of flames) and lifted him from the car. I don’t known whether Art won an Italian medal for bravery. Guy Edwards won a Queen’s Gallantry Medal, Brett Lunger was previously a war hero and Harald Ertl, a decent driver, seems rarely to have been acknowledged.

          Over the last 30 years, Art and Niki have bumped into one another thousands of times. Art ran his own Merzario F1 team for a couple of seasons so there must have been a chance for Niki to hug Art, the man who saved his life. Or would they both be too embarrassed?

  6. Thank you Joe. Always good to hear a measured voice amongst the many shouting for change. Change is fine, but it needs to be the right change for the right reasons. Interesting that people are focusing on the cars and canopies again, is it maybe time to demand more from the helmets? With modern technologies, helmets are lighter than ever but still strength tested to relatively old limits. I’m sure these could be exceeded massively these days if the will was there.

    A brief note on thinking through changes. After the recent air show tragedy in Shoreham, there were calls for air displays to only occur over water to keep spectators and members of the public safe. It was refreshing to hear a pilot pointing out that, the vast majority of crashes at airshows have resulted in no deaths to members of the public and have seen the pilots walk away or have just minor injuries. Move these displays over water and many of these pilots would’ve died.

    You need to be sure you’re solving problems, not just moving them elsewhere.

    1. > the vast majority of crashes at airshows have resulted in no deaths to members of the public

      Indeed. As far as the UK goes, there haven’t been any spectator deaths since Farnborough in 1952, and Shoreham was the first EVER that has killed anybody not actually at the airshow concerned.

  7. Well measured response Joe. Unfortunately it seems that safety is now a pawn that a few players have used to gain an advantage to suit their car.

  8. All as usual, vastly sensible comment Joe. I have spent much less time at circuits over the last 15 years, than previously, because the thrills of standing in a forest, or a field, next to a WRC car at full bananas, can’t be replicated by spectating at a closed circuit race of any kind. Mostly because of the high degree of separation for spectators, from the action these days.

    Now, I’ve no desire to die or see any competitor die or see spectators die needlessly, and in truth, as long as one respects the likely trajectory of a WRC car if things go wrong, which of course they can and do from time to time, then one is just as safe as being behind a wire fence…..sometimes safer even as usually there is somewhere to run to or hide behind!

    The competitors in motorsport accept risks involved, and calculate how much risk they want to take in any given circumstance, but obviously spectators need a bit of protecting from their own crass behaviour at times. I have long expected authority to want to shut down Rallying in the UK on purely safety grounds, but so far it has mostly escaped the H&S Lobby!

    For open wheel racing, the idea of a closed cockpit as a total panacea is as you rightly point out, not sensible. It could well lead to a plethora of other injuries or deaths as a result of not using commonsense.

    The accidents costing Jules & Justin their lives, were just freak events, nothing more or less, the same applies to the Shoreham Airshow crash, in that case one might say it would be better to keep air displays in more restricted zones further away from spectators, but the cause of the crash will be some freak event or miscalculation, and nothing would prevent that other than not flying at all, the same as nothing would stop Jules or Justin being killed, except to not race at all.

    Ultimately, we are dying from the moment we are born, and it is fruitless and plain daft, to seem to think that we can live forever, at the same time one does not do stupid things designed to cause an early departure from this mortal coil… The Master said, ” We’re here for a good time, not a long time”, which sums it up superbly, and sadly, he died in a helicopter accident, having survived all manner of motorsport accidents, several of which could have killed him!

    1. I agree with you on rallying although I fear it’s only a matter of time before a big accident, involving more than one person I mean, will force the hand of the FIA and organisers to prevent spectators standings too close (what if the spectator is disabled and can’t run?).

      The tragedy of the aircraft accident last weekend in England sharpens the focus a little. I assume spectators were warned but who warns innocent motorists on an adjacent main road? But I digress….

    2. Damian: “…the thrills of standing in a forest, or a field, next to a WRC car at full bananas, can’t be replicated by spectating at a closed circuit race of any kind.”

      I don’t think we have had a 20+ grid of F5000 cars racing on open exhaust in the UK recently. That’ll shake your seat or earth bank.

      When I was 18 or 19, I went to watch the RAC Rally stage at Donington Park. One of the car tyres plucked a stone into the air and chucked it into my face. I was in one of the approved spectator areas and I probably still have the event programme. Fortunately I was wearing specs with a hard glass lens which shattered without harm to me. I was a bit startled but rode home on my push bike (Mercian). Motor sport danger is abstract and random.

      Have a look at the Northern Ireland road racing bikes on the BBC. Safety for the rider has been improved by circuit changes, removing some street furniture at the approach to corners etc but there is no run off; racers adjust to the circumstances and every new rider has to participate in the safety craft evaluation (do you know what you are doing?).

      All of this means that residents whose lives are disrupted for the weekend can stand in their front gardens in relative safety. The around town circuit tends to be Mickey Mouse, with high speeds in the country.

      1. I fully agree Phil, those were the days when track racing occupied pretty much every spare Sunday I had, and F5000 Chevy’s were great to watch, as well as Special Saloons and others like Interserie the Euro version of CanAm….not to mention Porsche 917’s at full chat! I too have been wacked by small stones on stages, last time near where I live when spectating on the Sunseeker about 5 years back, and that was a reminder that I had veered too close to the corner I was watching from…..the next car didn’t get to pepper me with gravel!

        1. Sell your car, house and partner, and go to New Zealand/Australia for the winter F5000 season, Damian. In Kiwiland they never had 20 pure F5000s on a grid for a race in 1972 but there is one forty years later.

          Note that I was not peppered by a Group 2 car at Donington. The tyre chucked a half pound rock randomly and the destination was my face. My spectacles lens saved my eye.

        2. I suppose one could argue that rallying has already been through one major H&S revamp – if anyone saw the recently repeated BBC programme on the Group B days I hope they would have cringed at the way the spectators used to pretty much block the road, only jumping out at the last possible moment as the Audi Quatros and Peugeot 205s flew past. They would literally try to touch the cars as they went by and if you should get hit and break a leg or arm – well, that was just a badge of honour … Seeing the footage from those events still makes my jaw drop! I’m glad that we have come a long way since those days.

    1. As far as I know Alex Zanardi IS still with us. He lost his legs; a canopy wouldn’t have made any difference …………..

      1. I think you may be missing the point here. The important thing in the case of Zanardi and Hinchcliffe was getting the drivers out quickly because both were losing enormous amounts of blood.

    2. BS! This is plain hysteria. Lets review: Zanardi’s car was cut in two by Tag’s Lola. Think of a carbon knife at 90 degrees to a carbon tub. Zanardi is alive and well due to great medical care both on the track and in Berlin. Hinch: He had an lower wishbone go through the side of his cockpit from impact with a wall. The design of which acted as a spear and came through the tub material to lodge in his thigh and partially into the other thigh. He is on the mend (saw him at the Toronto event) and should be back for 2016. So you are wrong on a cover over a drivers head preventing injury/death in these accidents as well as the current drivers location on top of this earth (as opposed to under it!). Could you be any more inaccurate if you tried? -:)

      1. Why can you not make a point without getting so excited and rude? If you don’t understand the point, there is not much that one can do…

  9. Previous comment should have read “I wonder if Zanardi & Hinchcliff were enclosed in canopies, they would be with us today.”

      1. I am afraid that you don’t know the full story. They both nearly died from blood loss. Thus getting them out quickly was vital

  10. Its like this. Its bloody dangerous. End of. I’m in ulster. Very close to the ulster GP. I’ve raced F1 sidecars, superkarts and now FF1600. I stopped racing sidecars as I wanted to reduce the chance of getting killed or mash potatoed from about 1-7 to about 1-5000. If I do not want to risk that level I will stop.

    You never ever hear a road racer complain about risk. Your life is in your own hands, you made the choice to be there. And, for a road racer, no money!! It actually costs money to race. We don’t get paid!

    It drives me mad when they moan about saftey. They are the footballers of the Motorsport world, the road racers are the rugby players…….

    F1 is bloody safe. Its as safe as its going to be with your throwing an object with a human in it round a track at 300k’s.

    Tyres burst the odd time. Happened to my mate at the TT along a flat out stretch. He accepted it for what it was, a blow out. Simples.

  11. I´ve been thinkig about this too. The fighter jet type canopy seems like it could cause as many injuries as it might prevent.

    Perhaps a solution could be to move to a wider cockpit design with an integrated bubble roof like LMP cars. It would be an interesting challenge for designers as the current format seems to have reached its limits and the cars all look identical.

    It could be an open wheel format so as to retain the spirit of single seaters, or indeed be closed wheel (in which case the LMP design would be a copy and paste).

    If the engine rules can be changed from V12 to turbo 6 (or 4 as was mooted) then I don´t see why the bodywork can´t.

  12. Improving standards, while not being complacent has been the part of F1 that has separated it from other forms of motor-sport. Looking to solve another series’ deficiencies is due to the unfortunate soul having once been one of their own. Indycar lacks the science of F1 and it has been clear since their introduction that the new body-work kits have not been adequately analyzed. Whereas F1 contemplates all the variables or as many that can be quantified. When new data emerges the analysis begins again. As before, it will be concluded that the unknown risks of enclosed cockpits will outweigh the risks of remaining with an open cockpit while controlling the elements of risk associated with flying parts and other potential hazards to the drivers heads.

    1. Don’t discount IndyCar (and by extension CART, Champ Car, USAC, IRL, etc.) and safety. IndyCar made the HANS device mandatory well before Formula 1 and also worked to develop the SAFER barrier system. IndyCar was also a pioneer in medical response teams and rapid care after an accident.

  13. The stick that will force greater driver head protection is the fear in the paddock that the government will step in. Racing has to fix this before the politicians start cracking their knuckles and asking for their palm greasing.

    I’ve been a spectator at Lime Rock, watching an out of control car come at me. There’s a good reason not to stand at what’s designated a ‘hot corner.’ I walked away after realizing how I had merely stood and watched the car approach. I don’t want to end up as broken furniture.

    1. I’ve been a spectator on the A10, watching an out of control car come at me (it was hit by a police car which was running a red light). Upside-down and shedding parts for which it had no further use, such as wheels. I should hope government would take more interest in reducing casualties on the roads rather than sticking its nose into the comparatively safe world of motor sport.

  14. Well said Mr Saward.
    On another note after watching the news this am , I heard Justin Wilson has donated 6 of his major organs saving others in his hour of tragedy. Another example of his selfless commitment to humanity.

  15. The thing with Canopies is that this is open cockpit & open wheel racing. You can make motorcycle racing safer by putting four wheels on them and tying the rider in. But then its no longer motorcycle racing.

  16. And what about the human factor?! Apparently we are forgetting that special skills are needed for open wheel racing. But this becomes secondary when a driver has money to bring into a team. All of a sudden a driver with a lot of money will get a seat before a driver with racing skills.
    We all know it’s a danger sport, we all know safety is important, but risk is everywhere. From a train to a space shutle.

    Everytime that i go to watch a live race most people are occupy with other things. I see families having pinics just beside the track. Seriously? How come “they don’t look farther than the tip of their nose”. I learned that frase from Jacques Villeuneuve and he was, and he is still correct about all related to this sport and beyond.

    On the track, drivers need to trust and respect each other, absolutely and unconditional to survive. Off the track, the public must be aware of their surroundings to be able to enjoy a good show.

    In a word, and this is lost in the world, not just in motorsport are: Responsibility and Respect, for themselves and others.

    Until then, accidents will still happen everywhere and with major consequences.

    I leave you with a spanish frase: “Prevenir es curar”.

    1. teamworkf1: “Apparently we are forgetting that special skills are needed for open wheel racing.”

      That’s one of the reasons why I was disconcerted when Max Verstappen was given an F1 drive. He didn’t have enough single seater experience, and apparently some people at the FIA agree; Max is allowed his F1 licence for 2015, but drivers who wish to follow him must have achieved a bit more in junior classes. Lewis Hamilton pursued four(?) seasons in junior classes which moderated his racing instincts.

      Personally, I love the fact that spectators bring a picnic to the track. My thanks to the French and Spanish fans who generously shared their butter and condiments in exchange for my bread and ham.

      1. Saw a lot of people picnicking in Canada and it added quite a bit to the “family” side of things. No problem at all, in fact it’s nice to see that food and drinks can be taken into the circuit, last year at Malaysia they were taking bottles of water off you. Not that it gets hot or anything there…

        1. No, no, no. You are not allowed to bring anything into the track with you! Not in Montreal, not in Toronto!
          The kinda picnic they do is with food buying inside the track, which is getting better, but not picnic!! Years back it was real fun though!! In Montreal the ferrari fans bringing a cooler getting drunk and talking about their love fir Mika, priceless!!! And in Toronto, the Cascar fans after the end of Indycars, was also priceless! (cooler included, yes!)
          Those days are over! 😦

      2. Oh i do agree too!! Love picnics on the track but you need to be aware when you are just metres from the track and with children around!! Keep an eye on the track could be wise. When i see them close and not paying attention to what’s going on, i get worry. I also think safety first, but also like the danger bringing to the equation. 🙂

        Exactly my point about the Super License, it’s just ridiculous. All money first, talent later. Sad.
        And then they want to changes the sourranding to accomodate the underchiever drivers. Just insane.

  17. Risk assessors and motor sport generally need to consider the two known problems identified by Joe: flying accident debris and incidents involving trackside car recovery. But the sport also has to consider less identified risks.

    Indy car racing has a problem that the cars are too equal, too adapted to the ovals such that the field bunches into packs. If the cars were more different and trickier to drive, the packs would not form: teams would develop cars with different attributes, and the ace drivers would overcome the difficulty of racing a tricky car. There’d be more incidents initially but there would be fewer huge accidents long term.

    F1 also has to remember that it shares tracks with other forms of motor sport. Some venues can afford to replace kerbs between events for F1 and everyone else, and sometimes it is the only option. We need continuing thought and research into how circuits provide appropriate run off areas for cars and bikes without pushing spectators farther from the action. With trackside screens at big events that matters less than at a Silverstone clubby day on a short circuit.

    Running off track has to penalise car drivers as much as it does to bike riders, but we don’t want to see people getting hurt. Is it the Paul Ricard circuit where the first ring off run off is significantly less grippy than the track, with an outer super grippy ring to slow down cars, bikes and riders?

    Motor sport safety today should not be a response to known, public problems. It partly worked in the 1960s and 1970s because the known problems had “easily identifiable solutions” such as less fragile cars (a primary solution which kept Jack Brabham alive), barriers between track and woodland etc (a secondary solution) and functioning medical facilities (a tertiary solution). Let’s assume that the primary and tertiary problems are more or less solved; there may be occasions when we have to revisit car design safety and medical treatment, but they will be unusual occurrences.

    I used the expression “easily identifiable solutions” with intent, because some attempts at secondary safety had dreadful consequences. “Catch fencing” was thankfully abandoned but a few drivers were seriously injured in gravel traps. Safely stopping a car/bike/rider who has gone off track is very difficult, so I’d vote for safety even it provides an opportunity for cheating.

    And let’s not forget that it is the little things that have most improved racing safety. Kitting out marshals with discarded Nomex race suits boosted their confidence to tackle fires.

  18. Hi Joe,

    I have posted previously, occasionally challenging some of your comments on safety. I do really like this peice though, having seen unintended consequences of safety inspired changes in other sectors change needs to be very carefully thought through.

    Just one query, do Indycars have equivalent wheel tethers…

    Keep up the good work, your insight is much appreciated.


  19. Justin’s accident was, as we’ve all said, a freak occurrence. A larger problematic issue is that the younger Indy car drivers have all been “trained” in spec series, for the most part. Which means their equalised equipment doesn’t prepare them for true motor sport.
    The IndyCar Series will likely perform a knee-jerk reaction to his death, in part because there is no one at the top of that heap who understands true motor sport. The sole executive with hands-on racing experience, Derrick Walker leaves the series this Monday; only Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway has true passion for racing.
    It’s a very sad situation but one that has been going on for a number of years.

  20. Excellent article.

    I feel for the engineers tasked with improving safety.

    I was thinking the other night about canopies and ease of egress in the event of a roll over. So I thought: “I wonder if there was a way to create a hatch in the floor of the car below the driver seat, so that the driver could be pulled through.

    But then this creates new issues, like reduced rigidity in the chassis, and the potential for that hatch to fail during a race and fall out of the car, possibly allowing the driver to fall though as well. That would not be ideal.

    So I totally get it. Everyone demands solutions, and suggest solutions, but don’t bother looking ahead to the new consequences that can arise as a result.

  21. As ever, a thorough and well considered post addressing a current issue. Thanks Joe, this is one of (the many) reasons why I keep reading.

  22. I am very surprised more accidents like Justin Wilson’s and Felipe Massa’s have not occurred.

    Speaking strictly from an aesthetic point of view, some of the closed-cockpit F1 concepts I’ve seen are absolutely gorgeous, specifically the ones by Andries van Overbeeke. Whether they will work in reality or not, I don’t know, but I really hope so for the sake of aesthetics and most importantly driver safety, a solution to make them work is found. As for getting rid of open-cockpits, they seem rather ancient to me at this point.

  23. Joe — Thanks for a great summation of the issue. You could recreate the circumstances of the Wilson, Bianchi, and Massa accidents 10,000 times and never replicate the exact alignment of all factors that caused these terrible injuries.

    That said it seems apparent that IndyCar — because of the number of oval tracks — is an order of magnitude more dangerous than F1. Something must be done in IndyCar, and I wish people were interviewing Mike Conway to get his thoughts on this. The complexity of an effective fix is daunting, but this needs to happen in IndyCar sooner rather than later. Then F1 and the FIA can then analyze the IndyCar solution and adjust it to fit the F1 model.

    Life with zero danger is not worth living, but my stomach turns whenever this happens. I was at Laguna Seca when Gonzalo Rodriguez went off with a stuck throttle, at the top of the Corkscrew, and it was sickening. Eerily enough, Gonzalo was Justin Wilson’s teammate in F3000. We can never stop this, but IndyCar needs to act at this point. The carnage there has been too frequent, in comparison with F1.

  24. All this talk about the pros and cons of canopies, but nothing about a simple, reinforced windscreen. Hell, you could even leave the screen part off, and just have a roll bar ahead of the driver.

    This would deflect objects, allow for easy egress, and have the added benefit of helping the rear roll bar in a roll over. Canopies aren’t the only solution.

    If they did go for canopies, they could make the opening mechanism strong enough to at least roll the car onto its side. Then instead of the existing architecture impeding the driver’s egress, the canopy opening system would improve egress.

      1. All a matter of angles? I couldn’t agree more, Joe.

        That said, it would vastly reduce the risk of the worst angles. Even if something is falling from above, it’s falling at maybe 10 mph, compared to a vehicle speed of 100 mph or more.

        That means, when you look at it relative to the driver, it’s approaching at a very shallow angle. If it doesn’t hit the windscreen, it won’t likely hit the driver.

  25. Thanks Joe. Excellent post.

    I’m reminded of a similarly fine and level headed article by DT in GP+ last year (issue 156) looking at closed cockpits in the wake of the Bianchi accident. That didn’t get into the deflection risks you mention, although the picture on page 25 of that issue does illustrate them rather well, with the 200 mph tyre being sent up in to the air.

  26. I’m undecided on canopies. There is the point about getting drivers out of the car quicker without a canopy, and I get that. But why is nobody making that point in BTCC WTCC WRC ERC NASCAR V8 Supercars DTM VLN GT USC? LMP1 switched from open or closed cockpits to closed cockpits only recently, for safety reasons. I tend to imagine that in most big accidents, there’d be more of the driver left to try and get out of the car with closed cars. If one adds onboard fire extinguishers, the only issue I can see is the Zanardi-type accident of severe leg injuries and blood loss. So if that’s the only real problem, maybe another rethink is needed about the whole formula / open wheel concept of sticking a driver into a tube that’s only marginally wider than his legs. I already hear the answer of the traditionalists: it’s always been like that, therefore we need cars where you can have a side-on impact only centimetres away from the drivers skin.

    1. I find myself wondering if the term ‘closed cockpit’ is something of a misnomer – road car style racing cars like BTCC, WRC, etc. (and most WEC type cars) don’t really have a cockpit as such and might be more accurately called ‘closed body’ vehicles. They have a roof and doors at one or both sides to provide the normal access. With an ‘open wheeler’ the access is only from the top so it’s really a different problem to solve.

      With regards to quick access to closed body vehicles I have seen some fitted with removable hinge pins – the top of the pin is a loop or ‘T’ handle so to remove the door they are just pulled upwards and the whole door pops out (but only on things which have a big roll cage so the doors are less important structurally and thus the doors tend to be a little more flimsy). On the other hand in some ‘full contact’ branches of motorsport they weld the doors shut as (a safety feature!) and climb in and out through the window hole!

      I read somewhere that the term cockpit was originally a kind of WW1 pilot dark humour joke name because it represented a hole you climb down into before getting into a fight.

  27. I was thinking about your comment Joe concerning tires into grandstands: I think there has actually been quite a few over the years other then the one you mentioned at Indy. I clearly recall three deaths at the US500 at MIS back in the CART era. I was at pit out and saw Adrian Fernandez’s wheel go into the crowd. They didn’t stop the race but after I got home I found out three people were killed and six injured. We knew it was bad as we could see the medical response and still the race continued… The IRL had three spectators killed and nine injured in Charlotte in 1999 from tires into the crowd. NASCAR has come really close – almost putting an engine into the crowd, (three feet from the seats). We had a F Ford wheel hit a spectator in the head at corner two one year at Mosport, (he survived with some disabilities). All of these incidents occurred because we haven’t figured out how to build a one mile high fence. Of course when we do – the fence will fall over and kill far more people. There are far greater odds that some fool whom cannot drive his car properly will kill you on the way home from an auto race then the risk of some object from a race car hitting you. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t try all reasonable attempts to prevent this – wheel tethers come to mind – but there truly ARE things that can be defined as unforeseen. There are probably more wives whom have killed their husbands in a one year period then race car tires killing fans over the 100+ history of racing. -:)

  28. Joe,

    Good article. I thought, maybe wrong, but after the Massa incident, didn’t the FIA bring in a law about the helmets the drivers now wear?
    I have mine from 1978 – when I did some races in the Townsend Thorsen British Formula Ford – 1600 series and god it is heavy. Last year I was a guess with a F1 team at a race, and was able to hold a current helmet. They are extremely light. I doubt that my old helmet would withstand a spring coil hitting it, but how good are these new helmets?

    Surely that is an area that can be improved upon? But yes Motor racing is a sport and yes it is dangerous, but then so is downhill skiing, and other types of sports.

    1. The current helmets are astonishingly strong. One company ran its helmet over with a tank and it remained intact.

      1. Well, that is mighty impressive and is a video I would love to see. 🙂 That said, there is a big difference between distributed load and point load. I’ve seen a man jump from one tray of eggs onto another tray of eggs but he wasn’t wearing spikey shoes!

  29. The real issue is that open wheel racing on high speed ovals is far more dangerous than road courses. The question we should ask is not whether we need closed cockpits but whether we should stop racing open wheelers on high speed ovals.

    1. Or we just let people accept the risks and get on with it. I don’t see people banning mountain climbing or yachting because they are dangerous.

  30. If canopies save lives and reduce injuries, then I am in favor of them. I will leave it to people far more qualified to decide if they do.

    1. I think you’re missing the point Titus. Not withstanding every effort to make cars safe for drivers, keeping open cockpits, it’s up to them to get in it. I haven’t because a) I don’t have the skill b) the balls c) it’s too bloody dangerous (to name but three))! Who’s actually qualified to say whether a spectacle would be spoiled or not?

  31. Joe

    It all comes down to risk appetite doesn’t it? Tyre failures have been part of motor racing since day one, however with the exception of Silverstone 2013 F1 has been blessed with fewer over the years. I’m surprised Vettel attacked Pirelli so vociferously given his supposed knowledge of F1 history. Surely he has seen video of Villeneuve’s exploits at Zandvoort in 1979? Does Sebastian really believe that his high salary is really solely due to his skills and completely disregards the risk element of his chosen profession?

    Risk is involved in everyday life, we assume risk every day in every activity. I don’t mean we should go back to the ’60s’s and ’70s’s, but today’s drivers need to be aware that our sport can occasionally bite. I am sure Sebastian must have weighed in his mind the risk/reward relationship when attacking those kerbs on tyres that were well past their “sell by” date.

    Re canopies one wouldn’t have saved Bianchi whose death was caused by having a dirty great big tractor being brought next to the track. Hopefully the VSC will ensure that such a tragedy will never reoccur.

    1. “Does Sebastian really believe that his high salary is really solely due to his skills and completely disregards the risk element of his chosen profession?”

      Since every driver accepts the same risk, and some even pay to drive… yes, his salary is down to his skill which defines his worth to those willing to pay.

      Engaging in risky activities that you love and would do for fun is different than doing a hazardous job that you do because you have bills.

      So I don’t think his salary is high because of “hazard pay”.

  32. “I’m not a great fan of athletics (how can you tell who has been cheating with what drugs, blood transfusions and so on?)” But how can you tell which car as illegal fuel to boost power (didn’t Brabham/Piquet win a world championahip doing this?) who has traction control (schumacher won using illegal traction control), flex floors, movable wings etc etc.

    1. But drivers are controlled, comparing like for like. No one banned yet. The items you refer to are largely alleged after all and engineers will always push the boundaries, this being a mechanical sport. The FIA seem to be better at sniffing out rule bending these days.

  33. Reading all the comments it occurs to me that the discussions and opinions serve to reinforce the points Joe made in original piece.

    Safety Engineering is a science which needs to carefully evaluate and test the solutions in order to understand the unknown and unintended consequences.

  34. I suppose the most important word here is “choice”. Racing and attending races – or air shows for that matter – are choices that entail risk (like you said after Bianchi’s death, “tragic” in the true sense of the word). The decision here is whether you want to deny people that choice because you think (probably rightly) that they cannot oversee the possible consequences, or whether you want to treat them as adults capable of dealing with the consequences of their decisions, whether they foresaw them or not.

    To quote Leslie Nielsen in Police Squad! (the tv series that spawned the Naked Gun films) “you take a risk getting up in the morning, taking the bus or sticking your head in a fan.”

    No disrespect intended: the deaths of people like Justin Wilson and Jules Bianchi is terrible but it is, ultimately, a consequence of the choice they made.

  35. I agree we need to be measured in how we respond to accidents, but the number of fatal or near-fatal head impacts are starting to rack up: Massa, Surtees, and Wilson were in similar types of accidents, and any measures taken would have helped Alonso if his near-miss had gone any worse. Bianchi and de Villota too, though their accidents are better and more easily addressed by removing hazards from the cars’ paths.

    I’m not saying the risk has become unacceptable, only that a pattern is forming.

    1. If we are worried about numbers, then we should be working on national level rallying, which is far far more dangerous than F1.

  36. Interesting thoughts Joe.

    Sparked by your comment about the Beijing World Championships, the question of performance-enhancing drugs etc in other sports, including F1, crossed my mind.

    Are there any precautions taken in F1? And have there been any cases/issues around performance-enhancing drugs etc in F1 in the past?

  37. Hello everyone,

    I honestly do not like the idea of having a canopy, however, I also do not want to see anymore injuries. I am in the military and in 20 years, I have only heard of one canopy shattering and that was a result of the refueling hose braking and a metal weight in the remains of the hose beating up on it at 300-400 knots. Point being, they are very safe. This was an F/A-18C over Iraq about 10-12 years ago.

    Besides this, other racing series have windshields and they seems to have as safe a record as F1.

    Lastly, about things bouncing away from the canopy, they are going to bounce anyway, whether from a canopy, a halo type deal, the roll hoop, the bodywork…you name it.

    I am sure our friends the engineers can come up with some super slippery coating to keep the canopies clean too.

  38. “Canopies protect the drivers, but they deflect flying wreckage in an almost random fashion, and that could create even worse problems, as illustrated above by Kurtenbach’s death.”

    Am I the only one not seeing the logic in choosing almost certain driver’s death over a random chance of object being deflected somewhere, just like it would be deflected off any other part such as nosecone, engine cover, sidepod etc. Also, in some types of racing cars have roofs. ‘I wish cars were open so that drivers could give their lives to avoid random deflection of debris’, said nobody ever.

    I do see how driver extraction from a very tight enclosed cockpit presents a safety engineering problem. But the above argument is so nonsensical it undermines the entire post.

      1. True. But the likelihood of the two risks compared shouldn’t even… it almost like suggesting that drivers should leave helmets at home and instead sport some large afro hair to absorb any energy of the debris that might otherwise bounce in a random direction.

        I do agree with the rest of the post.

        In my view, it is a matter of time until a canopy-like solution is engineered properly and adopted in top racing formulae with open-cockpit cars. But there are propably a few sound reasons why it hasn’t been yet.

      2. Remember that a wheel and tire could just as easily deflect off a combination of helmet, side impact protection and roll bar, and then launch upward. When Tom Pryce was killed, the fire extinguisher cleared the grandstand, and that was simply a helmet and a roll bar deflecting a heavy metal object. My point is that, at the speeds we’re discussing, objects can deflect off of just about everything and travel great distances at great speeds. Whether there is a canopy or a completely open cockpit, deflection is a risk in both scenarios.

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