News and views on motorsports

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Safety and Gravel Traps

Several years ago, a friend of mine was practising for a saloon car race at Sepang. Rain was pouring down that day and of course he wanted to have a go and get the feel of the car in the wet. Now, my friend has been accused of dubious sanity at times and so it was that day. Coming into turn 12, normally one would stay in third and power out of the turn in the wet. But not he. He decided it to try it in fourth and hope for the best. Well, the tail went and went really fast and he sat there hapless in the driver's seat whilst the car decided it was time to say hello to the gravel.

Now, anyone who's ever built sandcastles would know that a little moisture on the sand will compact the stuff. Well, the gravel on the run off for turn 12 was very wet which made it pretty firm. The car hit the gravel which then sent it rolling over. Thankfully, the roll cage did its job and he was able to walk out and back home to him pregnant wife. No sign of distress or shock, his only complaint was the roof had caved a little and touched his helmet. Incidentally, my friend holds the dubious honour of being the first ever driver to roll over his car at Sepang. Way to go mate! But the point is gravel can indeed be a little dangerous in the wet.

In the dry, it stops a saloon car dead in its tracks with no way out. And formula one cars as well. But sometimes its not unknown for a smooth and relatively flat bottomed single seater to skip over the gravel and plunge directly into the wall. Flipping over can also happen. Wings can break send shards into the cockpit and god knows what other effects incidental to the laws of physics. Which was the argument made by the driver's represented by the Grand Prix Drivers Association for Sunday's race at Monza.

The Monza officials, the FIA and even Bernie jumped in and argued that the high speed safety barriers were state of the art being able to absorb the impact of a Formula 1 travelling at 125mph and yet still be able to keep deceleration forces to tolerable levels for the driver. The Monza officials said that they had no duty to the drivers and only to the FIA. The FIA concurred and said that local officials were under orders to ignore everyone else (including the drivers) when it came to matters of safety. The FIA statement read:

"The owners of circuits licensed for Formula 1 are required not to discuss safety measures with third parties (including drivers)." Pompous arrogant shits. Howzabout they strap themselves into a single seater and crash test the barriers and see if it is a pleasant experience. The GPDA argued that high friction asphalt as used in places like Istanbul was far safer and they would have liked to see them in use in Monza.

But of course that makes sense for given even the slightest whiff of grip and a grand prix car will slow right down to a halt. But if its skipping over gravel (not an unknown occurrence) then no AP Racing calipers and pads will be able to stop a nasty smack in the barriers, which can be a very painful experience. Even crashing into unsecured polystyrene foam can hurt a driver travelling at very high speeds. I've seen that happen at Hockenheim back in the late 80s.

Whatever the case may be I think its one helluva way to treat drivers who are risking their lives out there. Yes, safety improvements have grown leaps and bounds since the 70s but no one wants to be in pain unnecessarily. I think the drivers have legitimate concerns and the FIA and circuit officials need to listen to them. Or at least give some respect to them and meet up as they had agreed at Monza that weekend. The drivers were simply ignored and thats simply not right. Remember it was drivers that started this crusade of safety that the FIA likes to take full credit for in the first place.

1 comment:

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