In Formula One today it is not a simple matter to jump into a Williams or a Brabham and drive off. Over the years rules and regulations have been formulated, and ideas agreed upon, to provide the driver with every possible form of protection against an accident, not that any of the measures will guarantee his safety or immunity, but collectively they will give him a sporting chance and minimise the results of an accident. Nothing is going to prevent an accident happening while people go racing and it may be the result of a driver error or misjudgement, or it may be caused by a design fault or mechanical failure. Once an accident has started the eventual outcome is usually sheer chance, but along the way there are all sorts of reasonable measures a driver, and a designer, can take to lessen the severity of the result.
Since the change from alcohol fuel to straight petrol in 1958 the fire risk has been one of the biggest factors in a driver’s life, and as cars became smaller and more compact the driver was put at a greater risk from fire. Naturally, fire-proof clothing soon became a high priority, though “fire-proof” is a bit of a poplar misconception: “flame-resistant” would be a more accurate description and the length of time an article of clothing will resist flames varies considerably. One very down-to-earth manufacturer of flame-resistant clothing said, in all honesty, that his product would not stop a driver being burnt to death, but it would give him about ten seconds extra life. Hopefully some other aspect of survival could be brought into play during those ten seconds. The manufacturer said “I cannot guarantee to save him from fire, but I can guarantee to give him a sporting chance.”
Before the advent of the ground-effect car, with the accent on everything being on the centre line of the chassis, the fuel load was spread around the car with tanks on each side of the cockpit, another behind the driver’s seat and a collector tank under his seat, so that he was literally sitting in an armchair made up of petrol tanks. It was no wonder than he covered himself with as much flame-resistant material as possible before stepping into his “petrol bath”. While driver protection has improved over the years there has also been a vast improvement in the design of petrol tanks and fuel systems. Well protected rubber tanks filled with sponge-like foam and fail-safe pipe connections have virtually eliminated the fire risk, but it is always there, so no-one is going to start driving in his shirt-sleeves again. While racing regulations demand the use of petrol, rather than alcohol, there will always be a fire risk, and a Formula One car carries something like 38 gallons of petrol at the start of a race. The need to wear all the flame-resistant clothing in a sprint or a hillclimb, where you are only carrying half a gallon of petrol, is something else.
Our Formula One driver wears long, ankle-length under-pants, a long-sleeve jersey and long socks, all made of flame-resistant material. He then dons one-piece overalls, specially made with flame-resistant properties and these fit tightly at neck, wrists and ankles. He then puts on lightweight boots that cover his ankles, these boots being developed by the specialist equipment people from the boxing and basket-ball sporting boots originally worn. Crash helmets have been mandatory in racing since about 1950, and like flame-resistant clothing these have undergone continued research and development. The original ones were little more than polo helmets, while French drivers used head protectors developed in pedal-cycle racing. Today’s helmet is a pretty sophisticated article, covering the entire head, with an opening in front of the eyes. Some have hinged flaps under the front and rear that swing up and clamp together round the driver’s neck, really sealing his head into a compartment. Helmets are fitted with two external connections, one for the “intercom”, with the transmitting microphone in the part of the helmet in front of the chin, and the other attachment is a tube onto which a rubber pipe is pushed, this rubber pipe being connected to a bottle of oxygen down in the car. Actuated by a heat sensor or by a manual control this oxygen gives the driver a few seconds of “breathing space” in the event of being enveloped in flames. It won’t keep him alive but like the flame-resistant clothing it helps to give him a sporting chance for survival. The helmet opening in front of the eyes is covered by a hinged visor, made of a special material that can withstand heat, and also withstand some pretty heavy blows, from flying stones for example. Before putting on his helmet a driver will insert plastic foam plugs into his ears for a 500 b.h.p. Cosworth engine just behind your shoulders can make the ears ring a bit, even after a minute, let alone a couple of hours. Drivers have been known to set off in practice without their ear plugs, but they are soon back in the pits. The noise can be very painful. Then he puts on a flame-proof balaclava hat that covers everything except his eyes and this has a long neck that tucks into his jersey. Then he forces his crash hat down over his nose and ears.
Having donned two pairs of flame-resistant gloves, lightweight “inners”, and slightly more robust “outers”, our driver is ready to step into the confines of his “petrol bath”. A six-point seat harness is mandatory these days, with two straps over the shoulders, two across the waist and two up between the legs. These all click into a central control more or less on the driver’s stomach. While he can easily reach the knob that frees all six straps, it is impossible for him to fix all six. Once he has lowered himself into the driving seat it needs someone outside the car to pull all the straps tight and click them into the central fixing. There is no way a driver is going to be thrown out of the cockpit these days, and this system has developed along with the design and construction of the racing car. There was a time when a racing car was a very homogenous hunk of steel that would knock a wall down and if it was out of control it was best to abandon ship before it hit anything. An object (like a racing car) that has a velocity has a kinetic energy, which is a product of weight and speed and to stop this object the kinetic energy has to be dissipated. Under normal circumstances the brakes absorb this energy, but if an accident is under way it either needs a very long distance for rubbing friction to absorb the energy, or some firmly fixed object, like a wall or steel barrier. When the car stops suddenly the kinetic energy of the driver’s body will keep him travelling until it is absorbed. With today’s driving positions, lying down in a tunnel, it would be very unhealthy for the driver to be projected forwards if the car stopped suddenly, hence the need for a six-point seat harness.
Today’s cars are about half the weight of cars of yesterday and have about three times the performance, especially in corners, where accidents often begin, so there is a lot of energy to be absorbed during an accident. The ideal situation is to have enough space around for the car to come to rest through the effects of friction with the ground, but this is seldom possible. Developed on aircraft principles the Formula One car of today has a very strong driver receptacle (the cockpit) and everything else is attached to it by means that are “just strong enough”. If the car gets out of control and starts hitting walls and barriers then bits tear off their mountings, each blow absorbing some of the kinetic energy, and often the monocoque, with the driver firmly strapped inside, will be the last thing to come to rest so that the driver has not suffered any violent decelerations. Deceleration in itself is not serious, the damage is caused by the bits and pieces inside the human body that do not decelerate and if they tear from their mountings then they’re in trouble. If the bits and pieces did not break off the car and it stayed in one piece then the driver’s body would have to withstand all the deceleration and that would really do some damage.
Apart from having a maximum speed of close on 200 m.p.h., given a good run, the Formula One car of today has all the potential for making a pretty bug hole in the scenery if it gets out of hand. With an all-up weight of under 1,500 lb., including the driver, anything up to 550 horsepower and the ability to pull nearly 2g on corners it will be appreciated that once started it takes a lot of stopping and when you are spinning sideways the brakes don’t have much effect. It is understandable then that the driver takes every possibility to protect himself in case an accident starts. Preparing to drive a Formula One car is quite a lengthy business, and a costly one, for most drivers have two or three of everything, just in case. – D.S.J.