Safety in Modern Motorsports: Predicting the Impossible
January 8th, 2016 by Matt Holden
Rush is one of my favorite movies ever. Not only does it make viewers relive one of the most intense rivalries in Formula 1’s history, it puts you right in the middle of one of the most dangerous times in motorsports. The movie starts with one of the most poignant quotes I’ve heard relating to motorsport, and even if it was just a few lines to draw in the crowd, it could have easily been spoken by Niki Lauda himself:
“Twenty five drivers start every season in Formula 1, and each year, two of us die. What kind of person does a job like this? Not normal men, for sure. Rebels. Lunatics. Dreamers. People who are desperate to make a mark, and are prepared to die trying.”
The ’70s were what some consider the “golden age” in Formula 1. The cars were fast, the drivers were fearless, and the danger was real. From 1970 to 1982, Formula 1 saw eleven drivers killed at Grand Prix events. Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Mark Donohue, and Gilles Villeneuve, just to name a few. Many of these crashes ultimately led to fires, something that is still very prevalent in today’s motor racing. At the time though, not much was known about how to combat the infernos that resulted from the heavy crashes. Drivers wore firesuits, balaclavas, and made attempts to cover any part of their body that may be exposed. Still, it was often not enough, and it’s what nearly claimed Lauda’s life in the 1976 German Grand Prix.
In 2010, I began working for US Legend Cars International as a technical inspector for their race cars. After a year, I was entrusted with inspecting the safety equipment for all drivers participating in our events. I inspected hundreds of helmets, suits, belts, and neck restraints. The equipment we have in today’s motorsports is leaps and bounds ahead of what was present in the “Golden Age,” but as we’ve learned recently, it’s very difficult to keep every possibility from happening to our on-track heroes. I took great care in making sure each one of the drivers, who became my friends, was going to be able to withstand any kind of crash they could be involved in.
Despite all the care I took in making sure belts were intact, HANS devices weren’t stressed, helmets were in good shape, and firesuits didn’t have random holes in them, there was always a sinking feeling when you watched one of your friends slam into a concrete wall at 80+ miles per hour, and another went tumbling across the infield grass. I remember an accident during the Big Money 100 legends race where a driver was hit square from behind by another car in a crash. He was stopped, the other driver was not, and it resulted in a lower back injury. All of his safety equipment worked, yet none of it was intended to prevent the injury that resulted from the crash. It was at that moment when I realized that it’s impossible to really predict the kinds of forces and random events that can happen during high-speed crashes.
The fires of ’70s Formula 1 basically stopped by the mid-’80s and are almost unheard of today. Fuel cells and tanks now feature multi-layer bladders, drivers have multi-layer fire-retardant suits that eclipse the old stuff by miles. I studied a lot of crashes when I worked with the Legends series, and the majority of what I looked into were crashes that resulted in injuries, often fatal. There was something I noticed about all these crashes, a pattern that repeated itself over and over through history. It wasn’t that these fatalities were random in how they occurred, it was often the same fatal injury over and over until a solution was found, which typically stopped those injuries completely. It was also usually caused by some gap in the safety equipment, something small that you wouldn’t think of normally. The injuries would stop for a little while until a new injury appeared and restarted the pattern.
The injury that followed fire was probably the most well-known motorsports injury to date: the basilar skull fracture. Caused by a driver’s head whipping forward from sudden deceleration, it claimed the lives of Roland Ratzenberger, Adam Petty, Scott Brayton, Gonzalo Rodríguez and Dale Earnhardt. In the ’90s and early 2000s, driver “containment” was not something seen commonly in the racing world. In-car shots of Dale Earnhardt showed a simple seat with no headrest, his helmet usually leaned so far over that he was touching the window net. Formula cars had low cockpit sides, showing off drivers from the shoulder-up. Helmets were heavy, and nothing was in place to stop them. Ironically, this was likely in place to allow drivers to escape a burning car quickly. The open cockpits in the formula cars allowed drivers to jump right out in the case of an accident, and without headrests and nets in stock cars, the drivers could do the same. Plus, it looked cool! We could see our favorite driver wrestling these big beasts around racetracks at high speed, and it added to the super-human aura that they all had around them.
In 1994, just one day before Ayrton Senna was killed during the San Marino Grand Prix, Roland Ratzenberger lost his life in a crash during qualifying when his car struck the wall at high speed. He died of a basilar skull fracture, something that was little heard of in motorsports at the time. Then on the lap 7 of the grand prix the following day, Senna speared off the road into a wall, tearing-off the right front suspension, jagged pieces of which penetrated his helmet. While Ratzenberger and Senna didn’t die of the same injuries, the two crashes led to sweeping changes in response to the injuries. Cockpits were made more confining, the drivers were covered up more by the cars themselves, and until recently, it’s done the job. In 2000, NASCAR saw three crashes result in the same basilar skull fracture that Ratzenberger suffered in his crash six years prior. Tony Roper, Adam Petty, and Kenny Irwin, Jr. all died of the same (or very similar) injury. In 2001, NASCAR was rocked again when Earnhardt was killed during the Daytona 500.
What’s interesting to note about the crashes in 2000 and 2001 is that the devices to prevent those injuries were available. The HANS Device was designed by Robert Hubbard in the 1980s, and the Hutchens device (a harness worn on the driver’s chest and clipped to the helmet) served a similar purpose. However, these weren’t mandatory safety devices, with drivers claiming restricted movement and the possibility of not being able to get out of a car that was on fire. When neck restraints were made mandatory in NASCAR following Earnhardt’s death, as well as across nearly every racing series in the world, the injury all but disappeared. Driver cockpits then became more like containment pods than driver compartments, with Formula 1 cars showing only the very top of a driver’s helmet, and closed-cockpit seats becoming entire systems of headrests, leg boards, and the “knee knocker” plates. Engineers found a way to make the car responsible for absorbing impacts instead of the drivers, and through a mix of fire suppression and contortionism, drivers can escape from burning cars very quickly as well.
In 2009, I saw a news story that showed the fatal crash of Henry Surtees, the teenage son of John Surtees, still the only rider/driver to win world championships on two and four wheels. He was killed in a Formula 2 race when the front tire from another car broke off and struck him in the head. His death was attributed to blunt force trauma, something relatively new to motorsports. Like most people, I thought of the injury as a fluke. What are the chances of that, anyway? Later that same month, Felipe Massa was struck in the head by a coil spring from the suspension of another car during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. While not fatal, the injury was serious. The two accidents separated by just a few days caused the racing world to wake up again and realize that it had gotten comfortable with safety again.
Massa’s crash was interesting in that he was wearing a new kind of helmet, specifically, the Schuberth RF-1 helmet. Typically reserved for Formula 1 drivers at the time, the helmet was the only one approved by the FIA’s new “Super-Helmet” 8860 regulation standards, and it clearly showed what it was capable of. The 8860 helmet regulations turned the helmet world upside down, mandating that the helmet could not deform in a crash, must absorb extreme amounts of energy, and must not exceed temperatures that would be deemed dangerous. Impact tests for the 8860 are extreme by most standards, and Massa’s crash showed they paid off. Energy values for the spring’s impact were in the realm of a bullet from a .357 Magnum from close range. Impressive, in my opinion.
Safety standards today are strict, and ratings for equipment is not handed out very easily. The 8860 rating graces only a few helmets in the world, while the majority of helmets you see today carry the 8858 rating. In the US, all racing helmets must carry a Snell rating no more than 10 years old. My personal helmet, an Arai SK-6, carries a Snell 2010 rating. It does not have a fireproof lining, which means it’s restricted to karting, but it still meets the same impact standards as every racing helmet sold from 2010 onward. Snell releases new certifications every five years, with the most recent 2015 helmets starting to show up in top-tier racing series around the world. In 2020, my helmet (and any helmet with a 2010 rating) will no longer be allowed in competition because the certification will expire. Seems silly, right? Maybe a way to force us to buy new helmets regularly, but it’s really how drivers stay safe. New technology comes along constantly, with advances in materials, construction methods, and overall quality. While drivers like saying, “These are the safest cars in the world,” the companies that make the safety equipment are all too aware that something they don’t account for could be catastrophic. It makes sense that they do whatever is possible to keep their products up-to-date with the best they can offer.
The recent deaths of Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson have reminded us that there are still instances that we cannot account for. While we can do everything in our power to prevent injury, there will always be something that catches us off guard. Bianchi and Wilson were killed by the same injury, blunt force trauma, that killed Surtees in his Formula 2 race. The same thing claimed the lives of Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Jason Leffler in 2013. This is the current challenge in motorsports safety. What’s even more concerning is that Bianchi was wearing the 8860 “Super Helmet,” and it’s very likely that Wilson’s helmet met the same standards. The FIA is currently testing different devices to cover drivers in open-cockpit cars, from canopies to cages, all with different, yet promising, results. Late last year, the racing world got a shock when Brad Keselowski announced that Austin Theriault’s HANS device broke in his crash at Las Vegas this year, his helmet coming into contact with the steering wheel and breaking his helmet. A broken HANS is something nobody had ever considered, mainly because the thing has withstood such a beating in past crashes. But like always, forces beyond our control were able to say, “Hey, you’re not as safe as you think.”
The truth is that racing will never be truly safe. The human body was not designed to withstand the forces encountered by slamming into something solid at 200 miles per hour. I suffered a massive concussion when I was 17, and I honestly was not moving very fast at all when my head came to a sudden stop. Still, it was a bad bump, something I still feel the effects of today, nine years later. Safety companies try their best, being proactive by introducing new products such as 7-point harnesses, updated neck restraints, and more protective clothing. The biggest delusion someone can have is that, one day, there will be no more fatalities in racing. That’s a very dangerous thought to have, and as we’ve seen over the past 40 years, we’re always proven wrong when we least expect it. The truth is that, in terms of safety, there’s always going to be something that wasn’t considered, something that wasn’t known about at the time. The key is to learn from those things, and find ways to prevent it from ever happening again.