Safety First

Kelvin Burt’s monster shunt at Oulton Park was a shock to the system. Paul Fearnley talks to Peter Riches, the man at the forefront of Super Touring safety matters

To watch regularly cars specifically designed for the purpose sweep easily from apex to apex is to induce hypnosis. As can a racing driver, so a spectator is able to hit upon a rhythm that lessens the speed element of the sport.

But racing cars are fickle. Drop off the fine line they tread, and the momentum they contain – a force shielded from view when all is well – can shock with its ferocity. The siege gun retort that resounded around Oulton Park when Kelvin Burt’s BTCC Volvo cannoned into the Armco contrasted starkly to its preceding silent 120 mph Slither across the grass and the deathly hush after the wreck had expended all of its violent energy. Britain’s leading national championship had been jolted out of its rhythm.

The data logging facility, that allows the modern-day race engineer to fine tune his car to the nth degree, can also provide some gruesome statistics. Burt pulled 7.6 G in the shunt: the jockey-sized Tamworth man, therefore, momentarily weighed 480 kg, one-fifth of this total being his helmeted head. It’s no surprise that he was unconscious for 15 minutes.

Thankfully, he’s still with us. Two hazy days in a Chester hospital followed the accident, but a fortnight later he was declared “95% fit”. Apparently, the only side-effect from the incident is that quiet Kelvin has suddenly become a chatterbox!

This happy fact is a direct result of the safety measures introduced into Super Touring last winter. The man at the forefront of this push is Peter Riches, the BTCC’s technical supervisor. He has seen to it that the touring car of today is substantially safer than those of just one year ago. Indeed they are considerable more secure than some of the circuits they race on. But that’s another story.

Riches was impressed by how the Tom Walkinshaw Racing-built car withstood the impact. This involved slamming into the knuckle-end of the barrier just behind the B-post on the passenger side. “It stood up remarkably well,” said the former long-time Lotus employee. “I have talked to John Gentry [the car’s designer], they’ve stripped the car and found no more structural damage than what we saw on the day – sometimes you find things hidden underneath. The only structural damage is that the floorpan is creased either side of the tunnel beneath the rear seat. Other than that, there is no reason why they couldn’t race it again. Volvo and TWR must be applauded for producing a very strong product. It rolled onto the wrecker. They just winched it straight up. It’s incredible, it really is.”

This amazing strength has come hand-in-hand with the increasing elaboration of a touring car’s rollcage. This no longer simply serves to prevent the roof from crushing in the event of an accident, it supplies the structural integrity of the shell. But if a car can be made more resistant to impact, a driver cannot. And an overly complex web of steel tubing can hinder the efforts of rescue crews to tend to an injured driver. In this respect, constructors have now been forced to leave a clear space for access via the passenger side. This meant that Volvo had to remove a diagonal bar that passed close to the driver’s head in its ’95 version.

Riches: “They still had to cut bars to get him out, but you are going to have to do that in any car. Access for the doctors was alright. You’ve got the problem of, ‘What is strong enough?’ and what might be detrimental to the medical people. If you can get the doctors in, you’ve achieved it. And that’s what we did.”

Another major feature of the recent safety regulations was the protection of the driver’s head. All ’96 BTCC cars feature seats with head restraints designed to minimise whiplash in a side-on impact. Volvo was in the forefront of this, fitting a heavily reworked Momo seat last season. And this was paid the ultimate compliment by TOCA’s medical chief, Dr Paul Trafford: “If Kelvin had had an ordinary seat, with no wings [side restraints] at all, it’s quite feasible that he would have broken his neck.” But Riches feels the seat area still requires some fine tuning: “We haven’t got a regulation for that at the moment. we’ve just got that you must have wings. If you look at Formula One, there’s a prescribed hole, that there must only be a certain gap in between the helmet and cockpit sides in there. But a Formula One driver sits there and he only looks at two little mirrors; touring cars need a wider field of vision. One of the things that have come out of the Audi crash test is that maybe even the helmet’s the wrong shape; maybe it should be squarer sides or something.”

Whiplash has also been reduced by the mounting of the seat directly onto bars that run off the flank of the rollcage. The idea behind this is that the driver starts to accelerate laterally at the same time as the car. Previously, he has always lagged fractionally behind the car, and thereafter his head accelerates quicker to catch up, exaggerating the force when the car impacts.

“I know he hit the passenger side and not the driver’s side, but the seat moved across as we expected to,” reveals Riches. “The seat brackets bent that was probably a bit unexpected, but something’s got to give somewhere …

“The impact test that Audi did told us that we had done all the right things, but it’s still not like doing what Kelvin did: at the end of the day, it’s clinical, it’s a crash test facility and you’ve got a dummy sat there. You always have this niggling feeling that it will never be quite like that in reality and it never is.”

In spite of the nature of the incident that was the catalyst of this article, it makes a pleasant change to report on a subject upon which the teams are united. Audi has made the findings of its crash test widely known, BMW was planning a similar test even before Burt’s accident, and Renault has provided an old shell for the rescue teams to practice their techniques.

“I think it’s a good first step,” Riches concludes. “We are going in the right direction. But we mustn’t stop. We won’t stop; there’s a general mood that, ‘We run cars like road cars, and they must be very safe’.”