Formula 1 is one of the most popular and exhilarating sports to watch. However, due to the high-speed nature of the sport, accidents can and will happen.
While accidents aren’t that rare in the sport, when they go wrong they can go very, very wrong — often fatally so.
The sport has had its fair share of horrendous crashes in the past that have claimed the lives of the likes of Ayrton Senna, Roger Williamson, and Francois Cevert. For this reason, FI has needed to respond over the decades to the challenges of maintaining the core of the sport, while also protecting the drivers who participate in it.
What are some examples of safety devices in formula 1?
And so, without further ado, here are some examples of devices used in Formula 1 that are specifically designed to save the lives of its drivers. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Kevlar fuel tanks and fiberglass bulkheads have saved many F1 drivers over the years
After a series of serious crashes led to car’s fuel lines and tanks being ruptured, new safety regulations were introduced to combat this very real threat during high-speed crashes. Prior to these regulations, fuel tanks were often made of metal which was prone to be ruptured during accidents.
These regulations, introduced in 1970 (and amended 1999), required that new cars be fitted with flexible “bladder fuel tanks.” Modern versions are often made using military-grade Kevlar, but all tanks must be made of materials approved by the FIA and must be manufactured by certain FIA-approved companies.
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Modern F1 cars also need to have fireproof bulkheads around the cockpit to reduce the risk, as far as reasonably practicable, of fire engulfing the driver.
It was safety features like these that helped saved the life of Romain Grosjean during his recent crash at the Bahrain leg of the current Formula One series in November of 2020.
2. Tecpro guardrails are much safer than older alternatives
While they have not been adopted at all race tracks around the world, guardrails around certain portions of the track also need to be specially designed. The more traditional ones, like Armco-type guardrails, have been widely criticized for their relative lack of safety.
Used since the 1960s, these guardrails were designed to survive impacts at high speeds, often in excess of 230 mph (370 kmh). This translates into cars hitting them at around 101 meters per second!
While they do prevent F1 cars from running off the tracks at key points, modern F1 car designs mean the vehicles often get tangled up in them — just like Grosjean’s crash in November. For this reason, they have mostly been superseded by more modern circuit protection types like TecPro. Is this form of guardrail that many F1 racetracks are fitted with today.
First fitted around a decade ago, this kind of guardrail protects crowds as well as drivers during highspeed impacts. Other examples include the SAFER barrier systems, which are widely used in IndyCar and NASCAR racetracks in the United States of America.
3. Fireproof suits are an essential piece of F1 safety gear
With all the will in the world, and planning for that matter, the unthinkable can happen. For this reason, another piece of F1 safety engineering is the need for drivers to wear fireproof clothing.
Drivers are required to wear fireproof underwear, socks, balaclava, gloves, shoes, and, of course, three-payer fireproof overalls. Usually made from an aramid fiber called Nomex, this material protects the drivers from the worst of fires that break out.
This material is an excellent heat insulator and was developed back in the 1960s by a DuPont chemist called Wilfred Sweeny. By playing around with lengthy polymers of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, he managed to produce a material that was highly fire-resistant.
NOMEX, or Thermal Protective Testing Technology Guardian, requires a high temperature to ignite and also burns very slowly. Once the flame is removed it also self-extinguishes — impressive qualities.
NOMEX proved its worth in the 1969 Indy 500 when Mario Andretti managed to survive a flaming wreck, and it has now been widely adopted by many racing teams.
The Nomex fire-resistant suits can withstand temperatures of 600 to 800 degrees Celsius for more than 11 seconds without warming the inside of the suit above 41 degrees.
Not only that but since the beginning of 2020, such materials are required under the FIA 8856-2018 regs to be 20% longer-lasting than those worn in 2019.
4. Trailing medical cars are the world’s fastest ambulances
Another common safety procedures during F1 races is to have a medical car trail the pack of cars during a race. While they are not able to keep up with the race cars, the fact they are already on the track can save precious seconds for reaching an accident and potentially saving lives.
During accidents like the recent crash in Bahrain (which occurred just after turn three), the medical cars were able to attend the accident at record speed (within about 30 seconds). Once in place, the on-site medic can help assess the situation and administer medical intervention as and when required.
These medical cars also come equipped with other safety gear, like fire extinguishers to help put out fires, etc.
5. The “Halo” device has already proven its worth
Yet another piece of F1 safety equipment designed to save driver’s lives is something called the “Halo.”
Introduced in 2018, the halo is a crash-protection system that is fitted in the cockpit above the driver’s head. It is a curved structure supported by a single vertical pylon and mounted to the car’s survival cell and cockpit surround. It is designed to stop or deflect large pieces of debris, such as trackside barriers or wheels from another vehicle, from entering the cockpit and striking the driver.
It is made from titanium, and weighs around 15lbs (7kgs), and is capable of surviving an impact of up to 125 kN of force for 5 seconds without breaking. Introduced in 2017, the device is intended to protect the driver’s head from impacts at high speed.
Since 2018, the device has become mandatory for all open-wheel Formula racing cars.
6. HANS is another vital piece of the F1 safety kit
On February 18, 2001, during the final lap of the Daytona 500, an accident occurred in turn 4, when Dale Earnhardt made light contact with another vehicle and slid off the course.
When Earnhardt attempted to regain control and turned back onto the track, he collided with a third vehicle, driven by Ken Schrader and Earnhardt ended up colliding head-on into the retaining wall at an estimated speed of around 155 mph (249 km/h). Earnhardt was killed instantly as his neck stretched and snapped from the resulting G-forces.
Called a basilar skull fracture, this kind of injury used to be very common in motor racing. Until that is, the invention of the Head and Neck Support system (HANS). This is a horseshoe-shaped rigid collar that sits on the shoulders of the driver, under the seatbelt, and attaches to the back of the helmet.
The HANS system is designed to prevent stretching of the vertebrae and helps stabilize the driver’s head. The collar absorbs and redistributes forces on the head that would otherwise impact the driver’s skull and neck muscles, and keeps the head where it supposed to be. The device was introduced to F1 racing in 2003 and is widely used today in many forms of motorsport.
7. The crash helmet is probably one of the most important pieces of safety kit
And finally, one of the most important pieces of F1 safety equipment is the driver’s helmet. Each and every helmet must pass FIA approval and any damaged ones, must be discarded and a new one provided ASAP.
The first full-face helmets were introduced into F1 in the late-1960s, and they have undergone significant refinement over the decades. Today, each and every helmet needs to be specifically designed for each driver’s head, which usually involves a scan and the building of a complete life-size 3D model prior to construction.
The helmet is built using 120 mats of high-performance carbon fiber T800, layer by layer, the tens of thousands of fibers of which are thinner than a human hair. As you’d expect, helmet design and characteristics are highly regulated by the FIA, with their most recent regs (FIA 8860-2004) requiring the utmost in toughness.
Helmets that are unable to resist a 3kg (6.6lbs) pointed metal object being dropped from a height of three-meters are rejected. Chin straps must also not stretch more than 30mm (1.18-inch) when subjected to 38kg (84lbs) of stress.
These regs also require that the visor must protect the driver’s face from temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 Fahrenheit) for at least 45 seconds. Internal helmet temperatures must also not exceed 70 degrees Celsius (158 Fahrenheit) over the same time period.
Unlike other pieces of kit, the helmet is the only part of a driver’s gear that can be customized. In fact, in some races, drivers are known to change their helmet livery. For example, Sebastian Vettel changed his helmet for the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix to honor Niki Lauda.
And that is all folks.
These are just 7 out of a wide range of safety equipment used to keep drivers alive during high-speed crashes and impacts. If we have missed any other critical ones, feel free to mention them in the comments.