How Formula 1 can improve safety following the Heikki Kovalainen crash

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Heikki Kovalainen’s crash in the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday was another major escape for F1. It came less than twelve months after Robert Kubica survived an accident of immense violence in last year’s Canadian Grand Prix. (See here for video of the Kovalainen crash).

Although the lightness of the injuries to both drivers is a cause to be grateful for the excellent safety standards in Formula 1, every major accident provides the opportunity to appraise how well safety systems are working.

Already the GPDA and FIA are looking into ways to make F1 safer.

Size of run-off area

The GPDA has focussed its attention on the amount of run-off available to drivers at turn nine – Campsa – where Kovalainen crashed.

It was this corner that the GPDA first requested changes to in 1994, when the sport was reeling from the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. At that time the corner was less tight, and was followed by a fast right-left flick called Nissan.

A temporary tyre chicane was installed for the 1994 race, and for 1995 Nissan was straightened and Campsa tightened accordingly into the bend it is today.

It is the same corner where Sebastian Bourdais crashed in testing before the race, demolishing the new Toro Rosso STR3. According to GPDA representative Mark Webber, there isn’t enough room at the exit of the corner:

the run-off on that corner is too tight and we need to have a look at it because any driver that has an error there is going to have a big crash. If Heikki’s accident had happened two seconds later he would have been fine and controlled the car, but it probably happened on the worst section of that whole track.

I had actually been round that part of the track on my scooter on Thursday afternoon to see the tyre barriers because in testing Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Bourdais had crashed within five metres of that point. Sebastien made a mistake whereas Heikki had a failure but the result was the same. The problem with Heikki was that he went in at a nasty angle.

Many circuits have installed tarmac runoffs to increase deceleration of cars that go off at high speeds. This is something that has already happened at turn one at Catalunya.

Improving response times from medical staff

The FIA, meanwhile, is concerned about how long it took for Kovalainen to receive medical attention and is investigating.

Dr Stephen Olvey, who spent decades pulling badly injured (and worse) drivers out of wrecked cars in America’s CART series, said:

If you are unconscious and perhaps not breathing you don’t have more than two or three minutes before you get some kind of significant damage. So, that’s going to have to be looked into.

Similar concerns were expressed following Ralf Schumacher’s crash in the 2004 United States Grand Prix.

Barrier construction

Part of the delay in getting to Kovalainen was caused by the car being so deeply buried in tyres. The depth of the tyre barrier undoubtedly contributed to his survival, and as Journeyer pointed out in a recent comment, that was partly down to the foresight of one of the workers at the track:

Marca has been speaking to Aman Barfull – head of the Royal Automobile Club of Catalonia – who was full of praise for one Paco Mora. Paquillo, as he is otherwise known, is responsible for track maintenance at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Following concerns about the corner where Heikki Kovalainen suffered a spectacular exit in this year?s Spanish Grand Prix, Paquillo ensured that three rows of loose tyres were upgraded to a five-deep stack, strapped together, ahead of this year?s race.

Kovalainen’s crash was similar to that of Luciano Burti in the 2001 Belgian Grand Prix, where the Brazilian’s Prost became buried deep in tyres causing similar problems:

Since then the FIA has urged the use of conveyor belts on tyre walls to prevent cars becoming buried.

Although the tyre wall Kovalainen hit appeared to have one of these belts, he nevertheless became so deeply buried in tyres it caused problems for those attending to him.