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.

17 comments on “How Formula 1 can improve safety following the Heikki Kovalainen crash”

  1. I’m not an expert in this kind of enginering problems. But i find a problem here. In high speed crashes you need to disipate a lot of energy. Some part is disipated destroying adjacent pieces of the cockpit, but the main part of the energy are disipated in to the barriers.

    If the barrier is too hard, too soft, too elastic i think it’s not going to work properly. I don’t know if the belt is a good idea. Heiki’s car was completely stopped by the second row of tyres. I guess the best option for a human body is a progressive deceleration, and use all the existing rows, but in this case we would have the problem concerning to be trapped into the stack.

    Anyway it looked like if everything worked fine last Sunday, and Heiki could avoid a serious accident. Once again, i think HANS was the most important piece of safety.

  2. I think that Mark Webber is right about this.  Earlier in the weekend I saw a photograph of one of the Ferraris taking Campsa and thinking "Boy Matt, that’s not a whole lot of run off area is it?".  To my knowledge there is nothing, geographically speaking, preventing the race organizers from adding tarmac and increasing the run off area.  I believe that Tamburelo and Blanchimont both have streams running adjacent to them making larger run off areas next to impossible.Unfortunately given F1’s lack of foresight, Herman Tilke might just get hired to build another tire chicane.  : (

  3. William Wilgus
    1st May 2008, 2:37

    One way to help would be to have an aerodynamic brake (think of the `dive brakes’ one certain airplanes) that could be extended when a crash becomes obviously un-avoidable.  To satisfy the no movable aero devices rule, it could be made so that it could not be retracted by the driver while in the car.

    Similarly, rubber pads underneath the car could be extended to work just like the `shoe brake’ on old style children’s scooters.  They’d need to have something requiring a pit stop after use to prevent non-accident  use.

  4. I did notice how long it took for the Medical car to reach the area where Kovalainen crashed. Compare that to Kubica’s crash last year, where it was there within seconds of the crash. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like tarmac run-off areas since it makes it easy for drivers to push without worrying about messing up their race, and can be used as a shortcut during close racing. Perhaps they could make those gravel run-off areas inclined at a small angle so that gravity can help with deceleration.

  5. Nico Savidge
    1st May 2008, 4:53

    I might make myself sound stupid on this but whatever…

    First, I’m not sure how much help a paved runoff area would have been in Heikki’s case, since he was basically a passenger once that tire blew. Sure, the gravel probably didn’t slow him down (or help him control the car) very much, but I doubt tarmac would have done much better.

    Second, it seems to me that the main reason why his car was so buried was because the low nose allowed it to burrow in under the tires. Could this possibly be solved by putting the tires a few feet below ground-level, so the car can’t shovel itself under them?

  6. Another surprising thing to me was the race direction’s decission. It lasted more than 30 sec to the FIA stop the race and give any order to the SC and medical car. I think everybody after seeing the marshalls reaction knew that heiki’s incident was serious.

    I think they could investigate use some kind of destructible device before the tyre stacsk in the high speed run-off areas. Something like pneumatic barriers used in motorbikes races, or the fences used in skying.

  7. An excellent interview in the Autosport Journal (may require subcription) with Charlie Whiting addresses some of the points above:

    Heikki’s car split the belt about 40cm above the ground. That’s where it first hit, and it penetrated and then went through the tyres. When I looked at the pictures I thought it had gone under it.

  8. so Heikki’s car knifed itself through the conveyor belt?, easy way to make F1 safer if thats the case, make the front end of the cars flat.

    I do NOT like run off area’s.  Having a huge stretch of tarmac round every turn in F1 is giving the drivers a "reset" button for mistakes.

  9. There´s another problem with the tarmac/gravel trap discussion, many circuits are both used in races for cars and bikes, the motorbikes prefer the gravels trap, they are caught and stopped there and the driver gets a "softer" surface to fall, with the new tarmac run off areas they get heavier hits with the surface. But the cars tend to bounce and if they go flat in the corner the car almost fly and  his speed ismostly unaffected, so we get diverging interests in here.
    In the case of Kova i don´t think a tarmac area would do muhc better, just more space would be needed. Sush made a good comment, maybe remodelling the nose of the cars, so they aren´t like a knife would be better. Maybe also making the barriers not being in line in all the dimensions, i mean
    _____ ______ ______
      _______ ______ _____
    So the car only could get one spot, the rest of the lines wouldn´t be new surface of pneumatic

  10. Tarmac would’ve worked a lot better than gravel by providing the grip for the three braking wheels to slow the car down. At that speed the car doesn’t get caught by the gravel as we could see, gravel only works well at slower speeds for F1 cars.

  11. A quick response to Sush’s statement is that Coulthard already broke his car on such a run-off, so in a sense, you are only allowed so many mistakes. (That means there should be a tall curb and some growing grass in between the track and the run-off.)

    I remember reading about a new barrier being developed made from plastics that is intended to prevent tire-wall burial, if I find a link explaining it I will comment again.

    I’m sure work will begin on that corner, considering all the other after-thought changes they’ve made to the facility. While watching the race, I also wondered what would happen if a car lost grip during New Holland chicane?

  12. Ninguen, I was actually being facetious and sarcastic regarding the nose cones on F1 cars.

    Its impossible to change that aspect of the car in such a dramatic way, and making the nose stronger for a frontal impact would make it much more dangerous in a skirmish on track for position.

    An F1 car is designed to almost turn to dust upon heavy impact, thereby decreasing the chance of large debris smacking the drivers in the face.

  13. Chunter, incorrect Coultard didn’t brake his car… it was quite clearly someone else fault.

  14. Anyone know if KOV is going to be ready for Turkey? Last year KUB was obligied to step off for one race. If that is the case who is the replacement? DLR? Thanks

  15. That was very revealing post.

  16. This post couldnt be more on the money!!!

  17. This may be your greatest post on here!!

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