Autosport International

Autosport International

Brawn speaks out on F1 safety

Autosport International was deeply privileged when Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn took to the stage to host the annual Sid Watkins Lecture on motor racing safety. As expected he did not disappoint and delivered a fascinating insight into the development and future of safety in the sport

Brawn speaks out on F1 safety

The days of racing drivers being a commodity like light bulbs, where one goes out you just put another in, has long gone. F1 safety has reached an impressive level where thankfully fatalities and injuries are now the exception rather than the rule.

Brawn himself, who has established himself as one of the best technical directors of the last decade, acknowledges that much of the praise for this work must go to the sport's governing body, the FIA - especially because he admits that racing car designers are only ever made famous for designing quick cars, not safe ones.

After talking about the development of safety since the 1960s through to the present day, Brawn took questions from the floor on the topics of the moment.

The TWG was an organisation set up by the FIA and the teams, not for safety reasons but for political reasons. About 20 years ago we went through a difficult period where the FIA was changing technical regulations without consultation and this brought conflict, so the TWG was a committee that was formed within the Concorde Agrement with the objective of forming the technical regulations for the future. It actually became the ideal forum to discuss and promote safety issues in F1 involving the people who really know what was going on, which was the car designers.

What became clear was that every car designer wants to avoid the moral issue of balancing safety and performance, he wants to have a prescriptive set of regulations which tell him what he has to do for safety, knowing that those regulations apply to his competitors and he can design his car to those safety regulations without giving any performance away.

The TWG is quite an interesting environment because it means the designer can now wear two hats, he can wear his safety hat when he goes into the TWG and try and improve safety and when that is done he puts on his performance hat to try and make the car as fast as possible. It is an important consideration for this group that they plan changes far enough in advance that they don't disadvantage any of the teams. Inevitably when you are talking about technical changes everybody looks to their own situation and decides whether it is in their advantage or not. One of the great things about the TWG is that all the information is shared, it is not quite the same with performance issues, but with safety issues all of the information is shared.

It is clear that regulations alone cannot remove the responsibility of the designer to produce the safest car that he can, but the existence of strong, prescriptive safety regulations means that he doesn't have to make any major concessions to safety when pursuing performance, he knows that complying with strict prescriptive safety regulations may mean a slower car, but also it is the same for every other team. For me that means I can sleep at night with no more than a cup of Horlicks.

It is a problem but that is a price we pay for the protection we want to give the driver. Anyone who races with a full-face helmet knows there is a pretty severe limitation on what you are going to see, and it is the same balance of safety and providing peripheral vision with the driver. We are constantly looking at the mirror regulations to try and improve that because again we have this conflict, we want the smallest mirrors we can for performance but we need big mirrors for the drivers to be able to see.

The last few years we have been increasing the size of mirrors and improving the position of mirrors to help the drivers see, but I think sometimes you see what appears to be a stupid manoeuvre from a driver when he drives into another car, but there is a certain blind spot when he doesn't see. I remember I made the comment last year when Takuma Sato and Rubens Barrichello came together. Sato had made a great move up the inside but Rubens simply did not see him and the driver overtaking has to be aware that the driver in front is not going to see him. So it is a little bit of a problem but on balance but it is better that we have the high sides and the protection.

Yes, what we actually try and do in the pit-lane is try and keep in radio contact with the driver because we can see more of what is going on the pit-lane than he can. The driver does not exit the pits until he is given the sign by his mechanic and also the engineer's responsibility is to keep him informed of what is going on in the pit-lane so we try and avoid accidents so we have a little bit of responsibility to what is going on.

Cornering speeds are a function of downforce, tyre grip, chassis parameters but it would certainly reduce cornering speeds in proportion to the reduction in downforce. I think F1 has an opportunity at the moment to really set the reference points for 2008. The Concorde Agreement finishes at the end of 2007 and we are therefore able to define what sort of F1 car we want in 2008 without the need to get every team to agree. The FIA has now started a discussion to think about what sort of car we should have in 2008 and I think because it is so far ahead the teams won't take a selfish view on their own competitive position today.

I think one of the things that we have got to think seriously about is dramatically reducing downforce. The problem at the moment is that the cars cannot follow each other, as soon as you start to follow a preceding car you lose downforce so when you go through a corner, so to improve the racing you need a dramatic reduction in downforce. It could be an important consideration, so I think in future years you will see us go in that direction.

What is being undertaken at the moment is the FIA has commissioned a rig to be built where one F1 car can drive into the back of another with rotating wheels to see what the mechanisms are of a car launching. The interesting thing is that if you make the suspension too strong the suspension doesn't fail, the car launches. There is a case for making a suspension that is fragile in a particular way so it cannot take the load to launch the car.

It is one avenue we are pursuing. The other is a deflector device in front of the rear tyres because when a nose hits a rear tyre it is flipped up. If we put something in front of the rear tyre, at least to counter the effects of that rotation, then we could do a lot of good. The important thing is that the research has now started and we will see what happens. Of course fully enclosed bodywork would solve the problem but that is not Formula 1 and we will have to find a solution that helps us retain an open-wheel formula.

I think probably on first examination that could be a concern, but what has impressed me in the few months that we have been developing the tyres is how much more durable the tyres have become. It is a fact that the tyre suppliers design their tyres to the limits, it is the same as the car design, there are a set of parameters that you have to design the tyres to and there is a performance-durability curve. Their durability has been one stint of a race, now it has to be the whole race, and certainly in terms of our tyre suppliers they have made amazing progress in the last few months to provide us with a tyre that can do a whole race. So I am not concerned.

But what I think will happen is that there will be a certain potential in the tyre, which you can either use in the beginning of the race, the middle of the race or the end of the race, or spread it out. I am hopeful that it is going to be really interesting to see the scenarios where a guy who has looked after his tyres and maybe not shown so strongly in the race will start to show at the end because he has got tyres left and the guy who has used all his tyres up is a sitting duck. I am praying that we can see some overtaking again...but it depends which way!

Tests are safety by default and often we find problems with components in testing that could have occurred in the race. The great thing about a test is that if you see a problem you stop, you examine the component and then you can decide to carry on or not. The problem with the race is that it is a very difficult decision to make to say, 'let's stop' because you are seeing a problem with a component.

There are an awful lot of problems that occur in testing that we are able to fix and never show themselves in racing, and some of it is safety. The driver may come on the radio and say, 'the car feels a bit strange what shall I do', he comes in and you find a problem. It is difficult to do that in the race even with the best intentions, so testing is by default quite useful for safety. I could not justify testing on that basis, but it is a useful environment to improve safety.

It is certainly something we are examining very carefully. The rear-impact absorption structure did its job but there was nothing left. What was left in the television images went all the way to the gearbox and pushed the engine and gearbox together. We are looking at improving the rear-impact absorption structure and in 2006 we have to have a longer rear-impact absorption structure.

The other things we are looking at is some form of energy absorption in the seat. The seat itself should have a type of cushion so when you have a very severe rear impact there is enough give in the seat to at least spread the load. I don't think there is enough space to provide a lot of energy absorption but the important thing is to try and spread the load across the driver's torso.

The interesting thing is that Michael, because he likes them, has air bags around his seat for comfort. On his back and on his side he has these inflatable air bags. He gets in the car and he pumps them up to keep him in position. He has had a couple of severe rear impacts and he has not suffered any problems so we are investigating whether these comfort bags are a useful facility to have in seats in the future. Ralf's accident is still being studied and I think in the next year or so I think you will see some changes as a result of it because hitting a concrete wall is the worst case, but we also need to look at circuit safety to see if we can do something there.

Ballast in itself is a problem because there have been incidents where one or two cars have lost ballast, so we have tightened up on the regulations about how they should be mounted, so in itself it is not a problem. But it is a shame that we are carrying all this weight and cannot use it to improve the safety in the cars, so that is a factor. On debris there is a move this year, so all the cars have to have certain construction use for the endplates and all the frangible items on the car. I think that will be quite a good step forward. The tests show it is a good step but what we don't know is in real track situations, that is what we have to work out.

It is voluntary because it is at such a short notice that it could not be made a regulation, but everyone this year will have all the endplates and bargeboards and all those pieces reinforced with a material to stop some them fragmenting.

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