Russian to safety

The Sochi Autodrom plays host to the Russian Grand Prix and is one of Hermann Tilke’s circuit designs that we’re all accustomed with. The new circuit was introduced in 2014 and was compared to other dull tracks like the Valencia street circuit and the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi because the venue, despite being located within the Winter Olympic village, lacks character.

But it’s not the boring nature of the circuit that this post is about.

Again, the subject of safety was brought up as a result of Carlos Sainz Jr crashing heavily into the tec-pro barriers at Turn 13 during the third practice session. Sainz lost control of his Toro Rosso under braking and hit the outside wall before sliding head on into a partition of tec-pro barriers. The force was so great that Sainz endured an impact of 46g after hitting the barrier at 150km/h, where the car then wedged itself underneath tec-pro wall and hit the Armco barrier behind the tec-pro wall.


Sainz tunnelled underneath the tec-pro barrier after losing control of his Toro Rosso. c/o Sutton Images

This was a worrying sign for the safety measures the sport has implemented over recent years as a Formula 1 car should not be able to slide underneath any object. The raised sidewalls in the cockpit did their job perfectly, keeping the barrier out of the cockpit and allowing Sainz enough room to move. Sainz remained conscious throughout the crash and was able to perform the proper shutdown procedure after the accident.

The main problem Formula 1 faces isn’t a quick closed canopy fix – although they will almost certainly be the future of the sport – it’s the compromising of one safety design for another. For example, the cockpit sidewalls were raised a few years back to further protect a driver’s head in a T-bone accident, so that the nose of the car wouldn’t directly impel itself towards another driver’s head.

To further this safety measure, new rules were introduced to incrementally reduce the front of the car from 2012 to the present day, which saw the front nose of the car lower so that it couldn’t be higher than 85mm from the floor of the car.

Some designers and engineers spoke out against the regulation, as they feared prior to the implementation of the rules, the negative outcomes the changes would bring. Gary Anderson, a former Formula 1 designer, and Red Bull Racing’s chief technical officer Adrian Newey, both voiced their concerns over the low nose change. Their primary fear was that the low nose could act as a ramp, and if a driver was to ram into the back of a slow starting or stalled car on the starting grid, the car could submarine straight underneath and the consequences would be terrifying.

A similar example of this happened during the Russian Grand Prix. Nico Hulkenberg had spun on the first lap of the race at Turn Two which left Marcus Ericsson nowhere to go. Ericsson’s Sauber then mounted Hulkenberg’s Force India and ended up on the German’s sidepod.

Hulkenberg, Ericsson

The first lap incident between Nico Hulkenberg and Marcus Ericsson wasn’t helped by either of the cars’ low noses. c/o Sutton Images.

Formula 1 wasn’t the only series that weekend where a head-on crash occurred. In the GP2 series’ Feature Race, Racing Engineering’s Jordan King crashed directly into the tec-pro barriers at Turn Three after racing with a damaged front wing. The lack of downforce sent the Briton careening head-on into the barrier, which bounced him straight out again.

The similarities between Sainz’s and King’s crashes were almost as marked as their differences; while both vehicles made head-on contact with the barriers, it was only in King’s crash where they acted as designed. This can only be attributed to the difference in nose design.

GP2 has yet to introduce lower noses as the series has stuck with the same Dallara chassis since 2011. This proved to be the difference between the Sainz and King crashes and King wasn’t subjected to the threat of his car submarining underneath the barrier despite hitting it head-on.

The simple fix of raising the front nose of the car is the solution to this problem. Maybe not to the height of a current GP2 car, as that’s where Formula 1 has already been, but a small elevation to make the front noise align with the rear impact area. This was a solution offered by Anderson as he too continued to voice his opinion on the low nose of a Formula 1 car.  This would reduce the risk of burrowing under a stationary car that’s stalled on the grid, or gotten away slowly. Also, if a driver was to T-bone a car that had spun, the nose would still be low enough to not threaten the spun driver’s head, as well as the impacting driver as he wouldn’t have to deal with launching another car on top of his own.

Safety will never be perfect in any form of motorsport, but constantly changing regulations, whether as a knee-jerk reaction or a preventative measure for unlikely scenarios (especially at the sacrifice of safety in other situations) is not the answer.

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