Safety First: Crash Tests
Published 14th March 2012 - Written by Chris Kirk
While the majority of the teams have been busy driving round the Barcelona circuit before the start of the 2012 season, eager to learn all they could about their cars, some teams have been missing vital parts. For instance, HRT didn’t even have a car to drive and Marussia were missing, well, everything.
The reason: both teams have had problems passing crash tests. So, what exactly is involved with crash testing in F1?
In the beginning
Back in the early era of Formula One the cars were, while awe inspiringly quick, a tad fragile by today’s standards. As an example of the sheer lunacy of the era, Jackie Stewart drove around with a spanner attached to his steering wheel, just in case.
The build material of choice during Stewart’s era was aluminium sheeting, which, while reasonably stiff, was not strong enough to withstand a heavy impact. All this changed in 1981, however, with the launch of the McLaren MP4/1 – the first car to use carbon-fibre composites for the chassis.
Carbon-fibre was used for the simple fact that it was approximately three times stronger than the materials already in use and around four times lighter. The chassis was created by laying sheets of carbon-fibre over the top of a chassis shape mould while injecting it with a resin glue and heating it up in an industrial oven.
After fears from other designers that the MP4/1 chassis would disintegrate in a cloud of carbon on impact the idea soon caught on, particularly after McLaren started to win races regularly in 1981 and ’82 and the chassis proved it could survive the odd heavy shunt.
So, when did crash testing start?
Official crash testing by the FIA started in 1985. To this day it is still, for the most part, performed at the Cranfield Impact Centre near Bedford. With the safety aspect of carbon-fibre chassis obvious and the popularity of motor racing on the rise the FIA were keen to make the most of any opportunity they could to make a sport with a string of driver fatalities appear as safe as possible.
What do you mean by ‘the chassis’?
The chassis, sometimes referred to as the monocoque, tub or survival cell, is the part of the car that encases the driver. Its structure is mostly derived from extremely thick panels of carbon fibre. Starting directly behind the driver it includes the air intake above the drivers’ head (called the roll-hoop) and stops where the nose cone attaches. The fuel cell is also stored inside the chassis, whilst the cockpit sides, headrest and sidepods are not.
Are there other pieces of the car involved in crash testing?
While sidepods aren’t part of the chassis, they are part of what is known as the deformable structures of the car. These areas are used to absorb impacts and make sure that as much energy as possible is removed from any impact.
There are 4 areas of the car that make up the deformable impact structures. Two of them are in the sidepod inlets on either side of the chassis.
The other two are the nose cone and the rear ‘bar-like’ structure, to which the rain light attaches at the back of the car.
How are these crash tests performed?
As of 2012, there are eighteen tests that the chassis has to pass in order to be certified as fit to use on the track. This is also called the homologation process. These tests are very similar to what a road car goes through before going on sale and is why the FIA runs safety campaigns and even assists with road car crash testing.
A typical test involves a trolley loaded with ballast being accelerated towards the chassis, which is fixed in place. The most important result on any of the tests is that the chassis must not receive any damage.
For example, one of the frontal impact tests involves the trolley being loaded with 780kg of ballast and accelerated towards the chassis with the nosecone fitted and the fuel tank emptied. The nosecone should break apart on impact, resulting in the deceleration of the trolley and absorption of the energy created by the impact before it gets anywhere near the front of the chassis. All of this happens while the trolley is travelling at a speed of 15 metres a second. That’s the width of a football pitch in 3 seconds!
If a rear impact test is carried out, the gearbox to which it is attached must not receive any damage.
Why has this been in the news this year?
This is the big sticking point for Marussia and HRT. Were this season’s regulations the same as last season’s then they probably would have been able to take part in the final pre-season test. This is because the cars now need to pass all the crash test criteria in order to take part in pre-season testing.
This has put not just Marussia and HRT on the back foot but all the teams, who have had to pass their crash tests earlier then ever before to ensure a smooth pre-season testing schedule.
Caterham were the first team to have a certified chassis, back in early December 2011.
What happens once the season has started?
Once the chassis has been certified and the season is underway the chassis cannot be changed unless there is a very good reason and all the other teams agree. This is to keep costs down as much as anything else – some teams in previous seasons would have a different chassis designed for specific Grands Prix such as Monaco or Monza.
If any changes are made to the nose, sidepods or anything related to the rear deformable crash structure then this isn’t a problem during the season, but the changes will have to re-pass the crash tests. These tests are reviewed and changed every season in order to make the cars stronger and safer.
It is important to remember that F1 hasn’t had a driver fatality since the Imola weekend of 1994, which stands as a testament to the continuing improvement in safety standards, helping to keep the drivers safe every time they take to the track.
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