Crash Testing

For the casual fan it may seem that F1 testing is more interesting than the races. Seemingly every week there is some new controversy about testing. This week, David Coulthard has decided to share with the world his opinion that safety standards at F1 test days are not up to scratch.

I do sympathise with David. Having attended numerous test days over the past couple of years, I agree that in terms of marshalling and circuit infrastructure there is a gulf between testing and racing. If you go off at a race meeting marshals will be with you in seconds, at a test day it could be a couple of minutes.

Last year, when testing at Silverstone, one of my competitors (who for reasons of anonymity I shall only refer to as Alex Waters) went into the gravel at Beckets so deep that they had to wait 20 minutes for the JCB driver to show up and drag him out. This sort of thing would be unthinkable at a race meeting (the delay for the JCB, not Waters going off).

Although Coulthard has every reason to complain, today’s F1 stars are positively wrapped in cotton wool compared to safety testing standards 20 years ago.

Elio De Angelis and Patrick Depailler both needlessly lost their lives due to appalling safety standards at tests. De Angleis died of suffocation while trapped in his burning Brabham at Paul Ricard in 1986. Depaillier died in 1980 when his Alfa Romeo hit the barrier at the old Ostkurve corner at the Hockenheimring. He wouldn’t have hit the barrier had the safety fencing been erected in front of it, rather than rolled up neatly and stored behind it, ready for race day. These are both harrowing examples of why F1 safety standards have had to improve over recent years.

Furthermore, despite the inherent dangers of racing (ie being surrounded by 20 other drivers equally as keen to win as you are), testing is in its way more dangerous. Drivers new to cars are finding their limits, and cars are running with new components that have a greater potential for failure. Testing accidents are either innocuous or enormous, but rarely in between. It is understandable that F1 drivers want top-level safety and marshalling at tests.

There is an argument that says ‘testing’ is just that: it is not racing, and that race day safety services are not required. I agree with this argument in principle, and, quite frankly, when drivers ?????ǣzig when they should zag?????? (to paraphrase Minardi’s recent excuse for their two drivers running into one another on a test day), then they can push their car back themselves. But it is for the serious accidents, rarely caused by driver error on these occasions, that first class marshalling and medical services are required.

But first class medical services and marshals do not come cheap. Even if the staff themselves are volunteers, the equipment they use has to be paid for. Although it is comparatively easy to get marshals for a Sunday race meeting, Thursday testing is more complicated.

Therefore to get marshals along to weekday tests you would have to pay them. All this would undoubtedly raise the costs of testing even further – probably limiting Minardi to a quick spin round the factory car park. As F1 anoraks know, this is a controversial issue.

Luckily for Max and Bernie, I have a two-pronged solution. First: in the way that the Premier League has a roster of professional referees, so F1 should have a team of professional marshals, doctors and fire tenders that travel to every race meeting. This would mean that safety and marshalling standards are consistent at every circuit.

Second, this team of experts would attend new official F1 test days. Ten days before the season starts and one day before each race meeting seems like fair numbers. These would be open to all teams and marshalled to the same standards as Grand Prix meetings. This would solve the problem of test days and test safety at once.

Teams could, of course, test outside these days, but the marshalling and medical arrangements would be their responsibility. This would mean that, while Ferrari could afford George W. Bush’s presidential detail, Minardi would be left with one man, his dog and a bucket of sand in case of fire.

You may think I’m joking here, but I refer you to a British F3 test session at Croft in 2003. Rob Austin went off in the wet and barrel-rolled through a field. The driver behind saw the accident and slowed down, expecting a red flag. When it didn’t come out on the following lap he drove up to Austin’s pit to explain what had happened. Only then did the reds come out as no marshals had been near enough to see Austin go off. Marshals arrived at the scene a good five minutes after the accident to find Austin unharmed but trapped under the car. Imagine if Austin had been hurt or his car had caught fire. To reiterate, that was two years ago at one of Britain’s top circuits.

Testing is a necessary part of racing, but to marshal test days as you would a race day is simply impractical and would escalate costs massively. Improvements can be made but they need not be big ones. Simply, you need every corner in sight of a flag marshal and medical staff on standby. Beyond that there is little you can do that doesn’t raise the cost of testing out of the pocket of the average racer. Every driver is fully aware of the risks when they step into a racing car; all they expect is that circuit owners do as much as is practically possible to minimise the dangers they can control.

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