No easy answers to safety questions posed by Massa and Surtees crashes

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

F1 is looking for ways to give drivers better protection
F1 is looking for ways to give drivers better protection

The terrible accidents suffered by Henry Surtees and Felipe Massa in the last eight days have left the motorsport world in general – and F1 in particular – asking questions about safety.

It has reminded everyone that the oft-repeated mantra ‘motor racing is much safer than it used to be’ will only remain so if the sport remains open-minded enough to ask itself whether it needs to change.

But there are no easy answers how it might be done.

Ross Brawn, whose car was at the centre of Massa’s crash on Saturday, urged against a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the two accidents:

We need to keep a perspective of it I guess. From what has been seen last weekend and this weekend, we need to have a proper study to see if there is a need to do something.

You really are into the area of structures, windscreens and canopies, and anything is possible. We just need to digest what has happened, and understand it properly.

Brawn’s assessment is exactly the kind of cool-headed logic you’d expect. So what – if any – possible improvements could F1 consider to reduce the chance of a repeat of these accidents?

Cockpit covers

Cockpit covers are mandatory for LMP1 Le Mans cars from 2010
Cockpit covers are mandatory for LMP1 Le Mans cars from 2010

Although Surtees and Massa were both struck by flying debris, there is nothing to suggest that drivers’ heads have suddenly become more vulnerable than they used to be.

In F1, driver cockpit protection was increased only last year. With cruel misfortune, the spring which hit Massa did so after ricocheting off the padding.

As Brawn himself admits, and as we have already discussed here at length, the debate over cockpit covers is complicated because covering the cockpits could create further safety complications. Would it impede the rescue of a trapped driver, for example?

Some people have said that introducing covers would mean they are no longer Formula 1 cars. I don’t think that argument would or should stop them from putting covers on the cars if they decide it would make them safer.

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, organisers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, have required that all LMP1 cars must run with closed cockpits from next year. But the technical obstacles to introducing such a rule in F1 would likely be far greater.

Crash helmets

The alternative to cockpit covers could be tougher crash helmets. The current specification of helmet was introduced in 2004 (you can see details of the specifications here).

Massa uses a Schuberth RF1.7 helmet which is on the FIA approved helmets list. It has multiple layers of carbon fibre and despite its low 1.35kg weight is strong enough to support a 55 tonne Chieftain tank.

Can these already impressive standards be pushed further? Bernie Ecclestone thinks so:

We need to look at helmet technology and what can be improved. We might be able to learn from other sports. We can look at ice-hockey, where goalies have to be able to see clearly but still have a visor that is strong enough to withstand the impact from a puck going like a bullet.

Medical crew reaction time

I thought this response from American Indy Car journalist Curt Cavin to a question about the medical car response time on his blog was interesting:

Question: Watching F1 qualifying today I was amazed at how slow the medical attention to Massa was. Course workers seemed to just stand around for so long. In Indy and even NASCAR they seem to jump right to it. Why don’t the F1 workers get a clue? (Tim, Logansport, Ind.)

Answer: It’s a different way of life in Europe, to be sure. NASCAR’s response team has improved, but there’s never been a group better than those used in CART, Champ Car and the IRL.

I can’t say whether the observation about the F1 medical response team being slower is accurate, but if so then surely this is an area the FIA should look into.

The black-and-orange flag

Kimi Raikkonen was allowed to drive with a loose exhaust until it fell off
Kimi Raikkonen was allowed to drive with a loose exhaust until it fell off

Renault’s punishment for letting Fernando Alonso out of the pits with a loose wheel, which later fell off, has been taken by some as evidence of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction by the governing body.

Certainly, race control had nothing to say during the French Grand Prix last year, when Kimi Raikkonen was circulated with a flailing exhaust pipe which later fell off. On that occasion there was no sign of the black-and-orange flag, used to summon drivers to the pits to have dangerous car parts fixed.

As usual the FIA’s implementation of its rules leaves a lot to be desired. We’ve had no previous indication that the scale of punishment for this kind of thing had increased so much and there was no indication during the race that Renault were under investigation. I think this goes some way towards explaining why the majority of people on this site think the punishment was too harsh.

Putting all these misgivings to one side, if the situation in future is that teams will not be sending their cars out on track with loose parts, that is clearly an improvement.

But it will look like hypocrisy if race control continues to miss instances where the black-and-orange flag should be used.

The investigation

Whatever possible improvements to the cars are put forward, safety standards in F1 have improved so much it is no longer a straightforward matter to see how they can be made better.

Are drivers at more risk from debris hitting them? Or from being trapped in an upside-down car?

We are comparing two scenarios that are, on the whole, very rare in single-seater motor racing, never mind just Formula 1.

The safety debate today is not what it was in the 1960s, when people had to be persuaded to do anything at all. Now it’s a case of working out how safety can be improved. That can involve difficult trade-offs between improving safety in one area and compromising it in another.

Acknowledging that leaves us confronted with motor racing’s hardest truth – it will never be entirely safe.

But that doesn’t mean the sport can shy away for looking for answers to these difficult questions.

Update: I’m going to be on Sky News tonight from 7pm talking about the Massa crash.