So over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend there was talk of testing a new head protection system screen at Silverstone, and test it they did. Vettel tested the new screen “Shield” for a whole lap in FP1 and declared it dangerous, vision impairing and worse than the Halo system tested last season. As the FIA is pushing for new safety in the light of Justin Wilson’s accident at Pocono (Indycar), Henry Surtees in the F2 at Brands Hatch, Felipe Massa’s accident at the Hungaroring, and of course the death of Jules Bianchi in Japan, let’s take a look at these, the analysis of them and look at the history of the striving of safety in Grand Prix racing and Formula One.
To explain, the screen is a system that would result in any debris being diverted away from the driver’s head at speed and take a solid impact, but is it necessary? Let’s take a look:
Felipe Massa – Accident caused by a broken suspension spring from Rubens Barrichello’s car, The screen may have cracked, bent and bounced the spring away, thus Massa could have driven back to the pits, new screen, and go on again. In this case, the screen could have saved him from injury.
Justin Wilson – Accident caused by debris from another car, large piece of nose cone, hit on the top of the helmet, would the screen have saved him? Probably not, as it is still an “open cockpit” formula, the helmet is not covered over and any pieces “by fluke” can still hit the driver on top of the helmet. The screen might have cushioned the blow, but it may still have killed him.
Henry Surtees – Accident caused by a wheel detached from another car, hit square on top of the helmet, a tyre and wheel is a BIG heavy piece, flying at speed is a dangerous projectile, would the screen have saved him? Not a chance, the force of the impact would have crushed the screen, he still would have succumbed from injury.
Jules Bianchi – Accident caused by loss of grip, crashed into a trackside vehicle – Even with the screen, this was not survivable. It sadly would not have saved Jules.
So all in all, 1 in 4 accidents above that the screen could have saved the driver from injury, and maybe, just maybe have stopped 1 other fatal accident. The screen is new, and at the moment, it is a difficulty for the drivers to adapt to it, it will need refining, but it is a much better sight than the awful looking screen that Red Bull tested, the Halo has potential, but vision is an issue. Do we need head protection in Formula One? We are pushing the limits of safety, faster cars, lap times falling, cornering speeds getting higher, safety is paramount, but maybe, just maybe, are we getting to the point where safety goes too far?
Let’s have a brief look back on the safety advancements of Formula One.
Before the War, Grand Prix racing was entered into by cars of all engine sizes, types, weights, the limitations were almost endless, some of the contraptions were crazy and some even drove with a mechanic on board, in case the car broke down half way around a lap! Safety was an afterthought, dusty roads, trees and poles lined the roads, some races were point to point, some were large, town circling roads. People lined the tracks and it is amazing that more people didn’t die in the days gone by.
Formula racing started in 1950 in order to strive towards limited close racing for manufacturers and racing fanatics to prove which of the drivers were the best behind the wheel.
Formula Racing was an agreed set of rules to limit costs and to give people a form of entertainment after the War, the first was held at our very own Silverstone, won by an Italian driver and an Italian car, Giuseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo. Again, safety was of little concern, the cars didn’t have seat belts as it was felt that it was safer for a driver to be flung away from a crashing, rolling car, no head protection, usually only a leather cap, and a t-shirt and jeans for a driver, and a pair of leather driving gloves. Yes, that was really it! Though sometimes, some tracks had a few hay bales, just in case a driver went off towards the crowd…
Slowly things did change, in the 60s at least there was some kind of head protection, in the case of a roll hoop on top of the car, though it didn’t clear the drivers helmet, so this again was an afterthought, the cars were nicknamed “Coffins with wheels” in due to their shape with light aluminium body panels, fuel and pipes used as ballast, which during any session rubbed against the drivers legs, could rupture and cause injury or worse, they were hot, noisy and dangerous. Jackie Stewart campaigned during and after his career for safety in Grand Prix racing, he is even quoted as saying “You had a 1 in 3 chance of death, I lost most of my friends during my racing career” – The problem here being not so much the cars, but the circuits. The cars had gotten so much faster, capable of 160-180mph on straights, but drum brakes meant long braking distances, and if you missed that going into the corner, the run off area could be a bush, trees, brick walls or anything else you might encounter on the side of the road.
The 70s and 80s begand to improve the safety of the cars, Roll hoops were bigger and better, cars were made to be heavier in order to make stronger “armour” but they were still aluminium and did not fold up on impact. Eventually in the 80s McLaren built the first Carbon Fibre monocoque chassis and survival cell that we know today. Lighter and stronger and could take a big impact, suddenly the driver protection was nearly there! And up until this point, driver deaths were high. Twenty Four deaths in a Grand Prix weekend happened before 1980, Just 5 since, and what did we learn from these 5?
Gilles Villeneuve’s death was a complete accident, not a lot could have been learned from that.
Riccardo Paletti’s death was caused by a ruptured fuel tank, and the Marshalls not reacting quick enough. Training was given to the marshalls by the FIA before every race after this.
Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna’s deaths was the start of a huge safety reaction for the FIA. Big lessons learned, cars made slower, driver cockpit protection increased dramatically, the sides were raised, cushioning was introduced for the drivers headrests, and eventually the use of the HANS (Head And Neck Safety) device. The legacy of Ayrton Senna’s death has made the sport incredibly safe, but as I have said before, and I will continue to say it, Grand Prix racing will never be 100% safe, the drivers skills are going up, the risks they are taking are calculated and can still be risky, and newer, younger, more ballsy drivers are showing the older hands that risks can equal rewards, just look at Max Verstappen. No fear! And that brings the crowds to the circuits.
Safety, is paramount. Do we want the sport to be 100% safe? The old term “Do or Die” has been used by Martin Brundle during commentary, but no, we do not want to see drivers killed in their sport, but we do love to see them risk it all, and when they pull it off, they’re talked about as heroes for years to come.
In short, the screen safety is the start of new protection, but do we need it? In my opinion, it has always been an open cockpit formula, and I for one would not want to see that lost.