As speeds have risen in motorsport, so has the potential for accidents. As a result, huge advances have been made in the construction of racing cars to help reduce the risk of death or injury. It’s not just the cars, however, as significant developments have also taken place on the design of circuits that have helped protect not only the drivers, but the spectators too.
Here are five of the most major race track safety innovations in the sport.
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One of the most controversial race track safety innovations in recent years has been the design of catch fences which attempt to keep spectators safe from flying car parts – or cars themselves from penetrating into the crowd. In recent years accidents at superspeedways, including Daytona and Talladega, have resulted in serious injuries and even spectator deaths. The standard chain-link fencing is surprisingly strong at dissipating energy, but as speeds have risen in time, so has the energy. For example, a car travelling at 180 mph has nine times more kinetic energy than a car travelling at 60 mph. To compensate for this, horizontal steel cables are fitted behind the wire mesh to increase its strength and vertical poles also provide even greater support. The downside of this added protection was all too evident at the 2011 Indycar finale at Las Vegas when Dan Wheldon’s car became airborne in a multi-car accident and he was fatally injured when his helmet struck one of the vertical poles. It’s an area where research is still being undertaken to improve the safety for both drivers and spectators.
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Electronic Flag Marshalls
It was only in the early 60s that a recognized code of flag signaling was introduced in top-line motorsports. A simple but effective way of warning a driver of unseen danger ahead, yellows flags are waved by marshals to signify a car has left the circuit and could be a potential hazard if it is stranded on the track ahead. Fast forward to this century and new racing safety technology includes electronic boards fitted with LED lights stationed at every corner which provide a very clear and bright signal, much closer to the driver’s line of sight than the conventional marshal holding a flag. This “DigiFlag” technology can be operated by corner workers or centrally by the clerk of the course in race control. GPS systems fitted to a car’s ECU also mean that yellow warning lights now appear on a driver’s steering wheel when he enters the sector of the lap where there’s trouble. This is a huge advancement in alerting the driver when there is the potential for immediate danger.
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TecPro SAFER Barriers
TecPro barriers were initially developed for karting tracks and first used in top flight motorsports in 2006 following extensive research. They are similar in construction to the SAFER barriers pioneered on the Indycar and traditional oval tracks in the US. The principle is the same: the new barriers reduce G-forces by around 40 percent compared to a tire wall or old Armco metal barrier. Constructed using two different types of high-resistance, anti-penetration polyethylene blocks, these make up a formidable defense. The first type is a 120 kg, reinforced block filled with energy-absorbing polyurethane foam and a 4 mm thick steel sheet at its center, bound with three nylon straps. The second is an 80 kg, absorbent hollow block that acts as the barrier’s crumple zone in an impact. Different configurations have been developed depending on the speed of the corner. TecPro SAFER barrier’s arrival means that it’s now the barrier and not the car or the driver that absorbs most of the energy in the event of an accident.
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It’s incredible to think about it now, but permanent medical centers weren’t mandated in the rules of categories like Formula 1 until as late as 1980. The man who did so much to revolutionize circuit safety in the sport was the neurosurgeon, Professor Sid Watkins. The primitive facilities he first encountered at the Watkins Glen circuit in upstate New York during the 70s is what caused him to take interest in improving circuit safety. Watkins decided to reorganize the track’s facilities, hiring an anesthetist, an orthopedic surgeon and a burns specialist. He developed a full-scale medical center and even pioneered the use of a doctor’s car that followed the pack during the first lap of the race – despite the anesthetist sliding from one side of the estate’s boot to the other. Today, not having a team of medics and a state-of-the-art on-site circuit medical center at major motorsport circuit is simply unthinkable.
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Gravel Traps / Hi-grip Run-off Zones
At 200 mph, drivers cover the distance of a football field in less time than it takes to read this sentence. The problem of stopping cars at high velocity if they have lost either their brakes or wheels becomes extremely difficult. In the 50s straw bales were used, which became disastrous when fire was so commonplace. Then, in the late 70s, road courses saw chain-link fences on the outside edges of corners which helped to arrest cars, until the problem of drivers becoming trapped in them also became a factor. Finally, gravel traps were developed, but sometimes these had the unfortunate effect of launching a car into a barrel-roll. Ten years ago, track designer Hermann Tilke developed high-grip Tarmac run-off areas. These increase the distance between the track and the wall, and the grip helps to slow a car down dramatically when it’s out of control. Despite the race track safety improvement, the only downside is that drivers who make a mistake are no longer penalized for leaving the track. Proving once again there is no easy solution to all the racing safety issues there are in the sport.