3 Safety Features that Changed Motorsports

Many drivers have been involved in horrific, sometimes fatal, crashes and suffered serious injuries. As motorsports has evolved,  safety has evolved with it. ATRL’s Sarah Roberts takes a look at three innovative devices that have changed motorsports for the better. 

Written by Sarah Roberts

May 31, 2023

The Halo

Zhou Guanyu accredited it to saving his life at Silverstone in 2022, and it certainly saved Romain Grosjean in his fiery 2020 crash. The halo is one of the latest safety innovations in motorsport, and perhaps one of the most important. 

Zhou Guanyu’s Silverstone crash (Photo via Driving.co.uk)

 

Proving itself time and time again to be quintessential to single-seater racing. The halo is the large, elevated protective barrier that encircles the cockpit where the driver sits. It is made of a strong, lightweight titanium tubing and is attached to the chassis at three different points for maximum rigidity. 

The halo was introduced in the 2018 Formula 1 season, following two fatal accidents in the 2014 F1 and 2015 IndyCar season.  In 2014, French-born, Marussia-F1 driver Jules Bianchi was involved in a horrendous crash, during a wet race at Suzuka. Bianchi’s car aquaplaned off the track, and drove right under a tractor. Bianchi suffered severe head injuries and died a few months later in hospital.  

In the 2015 IndyCar season, British driver Justin Wilson was hit on the head by the nose-cone of another car and the high speed at which the debris struck him caused him to fall into a coma. He passed away the following day. 

These two horrific incidents caused the open cockpit system to be reviewed and the FIA began conducting tests for the halo in 2016. In 2017 the FIA put a provision in the new regulations for the halo to be added to all F1 cars. 

Despite being controversial with many drivers, ex-drivers and fans protesting it for various reasons like reduced visibility and extractability for drivers, and poor aesthetics, those protests have ceased due to the sheer amount of times the halo has saved lives. 

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, crash out (Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images)

Toto Wolff recanted his previous statements about wanting to “take a chainsaw” to the halo, after the crash between Verstappen and Hamilton at Imola, where the Dutchman’s car ended up on top of the Mercedes. Wolff saying afterward he “didn’t even want to think” about not having the halo.  

The halo, despite only being around for five years, has saved dozens of lives and proven essential to protecting the drivers of the beloved sports. 

 

Tecpro and SAFER Barriers

The two most common, and safest barriers seen on a racetrack are the Tecpro and Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barriers (SAFER). When a driver slams into the barrier the opposing force from the barrier bounces the car back onto the track. The Tepro barriers are designed to absorb the force of the car, and not send the driver spinning back onto the track. 

Tecpro barriers in Miami (Photo via Facebook)

Tecpro barriers are a joint German-French innovation that were initially used in the karting races but were quickly adopted by the higher formulas. 

Tecpro barriers are used specifically in places where high speed crashes are likely to occur, with a run off area between the barriers and the track. 

Tecpro is made of flexible polyethylene (a type of plastic) foam blocks with a 2mm steel reinforcement inside that are linked together in spaced out rows with nylon straps that also strengthen the gaps. The blocks are layered twice, in a first wall and second wall, the second wall creates an energy absorbing zone. 

Their two layer design ensures that they can absorb safely speeds of up to 218 kph, and forces of above 60G. This is far more effective than tyre walls or Armco barriers, which rupture at speeds of 100 kph, and do not absorb the force as effectively. 

Tecpro is a safer, more efficient, and easily transportable barrier system that stops crashes from sending cars back into oncoming traffic, saving the lives of all drivers involved, and prevents the force of a crash from causing as severe injuries. 

First introduced in 2002, SAFER  barriers are much like the Tecpro barriers, but more commonly seen in the American racing arena, particularly in IndyCar and NASCAR. 

Developed by the University of Nebraska, the SAFER barriers were barriers designed to meet the needs of oval racing. The SAFER barrier is a set of 28 metre² steel pipes set horizontally and welded on top of each other, this is the impact plate. The impact plate is reinforced every 20 metres with a vertical metal strut. 

SAFER barriers

Polystyrene boards are placed behind the impact plate, and creates an energy absorbing zone. This construction is then tethered to bolts anchored into the concrete wall bordering the track. This makes the deceleration of the car safer, preventing it from being caught, flipped, or spun back onto the track. 

 

The HANS Device

First trialled by six NASCAR drivers in the 2001 Daytona 500, the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device was developed by engineering professor Dr Robert Hubbard, and IMSA car driver Jim Downing. The HANS device is designed to stabilise the head and neck, and reduce the risk of serious injury caused by unrestrained movement during high speed crashes. 

How a HANS device protects the driver

The design is simple, it acts like a collar and is made of carbon fibre and kevlar – a synthetic, woven fibre. It is secured to the upper body with a harness with two flexible straps attach the collar to the drivers helmet. These ensure that the head moves with the torso in the event of a crash, rather than overloading the forces onto the skull and neck, where the serious injuries happen. 

It is extremely lightweight, only weighing 0.68kg, (or 1.5lb). The device has dramatically improved safety across all motorsport, reducing neck tension by 81% and and total neck load by 78%. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah lives in Melbourne, where as a child she would fall asleep to the sound of the illegal drag car races that happened nearby. Quickly this became a love for motorsports, beginning with Rallying and NASCAR but soon branching into the Formula series. Sarah is hoping to end up as a motorsport journalist once she finishes her studies.

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