Motoring: Grand Prix - the safest place to drive

They may be a bunch of prima donna drivers - but we've all got a lot to thank Formula 1's racers for. By James Ruppert
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FORMULA ONE is the biggest spectator sport on the planet: 350 million world-wide watch each Grand Prix throughout the season. This weekend, Round 8 of the World Championship takes place at Silverstone. For the British enthusiast this is undoubtedly the highlight of their year.

But what about everyone else? Never mind the multi-million-pound driver pay deals, the cigarette- packet liveried cars (not in Europe, though) or the lack of racing spectacle as faster cars lead the slower ones on a orderly procession around the circuit. No, the big question is: what exactly has F1 got to do with the likes of us, the ordinary motorist?

The RAC, sponsor of the British Grand Prix for the third year in a row, is keen to emphasise that racing car and road technologies are inextricably linked - a position with which Jackie Stewart, three-times world champion and chairman of Stewart Ford Grand Prix agrees. "As a racing driver and everyday motorist, I am conscious of the need to make cars safer and more efficient. We're constantly learning new techniques in F1, and there is no question that these can help ordinary motorists - both from a safety and an environmental perspective."

On safety, we can only hope "ordinary" cars get more like F1 racers - statistics show that a driver involved in a road accident is two and a half times more likely to suffer serious injury than an F1 driver. Think about the relative speeds involved and that statistic becomes even more incredible. Kevin Delaney, RAC traffic and road safety manager, says: "Teams need to comply with such stringent regulations that drivers can walk away from 180mph crashes. It is vital that we learn from motor sport and incorporate these techniques to develop car and road safety for everyday motorists."

Indeed F1's governing body, FIA, along with the RAC and the UK Department of Transport, is part of a Europe-wide consortium that tests cars for crash safety.

In 1997 the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) was launched, introducing stringent standards for front impact tests, unchanged since 1974, and side impact tests, never a requirement.

So what could designers learn from an F1 car? Well, a driver has a quick release steering wheel and a comprehensive safety harness, but still needs to get out of the car within five seconds. There are fire extinguishers in the cockpit and engine compartments; the bodywork is constructed from hugely strong carbon fibre; and there is an accident data recorder on board to record exactly what happened.

If any area is going to cross over from F1 to listeners of Radio 1 as they tear down the motorway to their next appointment, it'll be increasingly complex electronics. Telematics is the current motor industry buzz word and the RAC has been developing this technology so that soon it will be able to diagnose remotely a car's fault via a cell phone link to the on-board computer.

That is similar to what F1 calls Telemetry and the lap-by-lap transmission of performance data from the car to the pits. Jordan designer Mike Gascoyne, who must know what he's talking about as a Jordan won the French Grand Prix a few weeks back, explains: "Ten years ago F1 cars had only around 10 sensors. The reason we need so many more (200) now is the compressed amount of time we need to check the cars' systems. Every time it passes the pits, all the data from those sensors is relayed to our computers for analysis." RAC patrols have a simplified equivalent to the diagnostic equipment used in the pit lane.

The on-board computer in the majority of modern cars can deliver data stored over months, not just minutes. This can be interrogated by the latest hand-held fault code reader so that problems can be quickly diagnosed and repaired.

The similarities between road and race cars are there if you look hard enough. Semi-automatic gearboxes with thumb-operated gear changes; active suspension that flattens bumps; and fly-by-wire throttles that mean electronic rather than purely mechanical acceleration. Traction control, preventing wheels spinning under extreme conditions, is now standard on many modern cars, but is banned from the race track from where it was developed.

If you really wanted to stretch the road and F1 analogy to the extreme, then the 1,200 volunteer marshals at the trackside in Silverstone this weekend are the equivalent of the 1,200 RAC rescue patrols. Except that the RAC has 5.5 million members to worry about and at Silverstone the marshals only need concern themselves with a few dozen prima donna drivers.

F1 and the real motoring world are certainly interdependent. Mike Gascoyne says: "There is no way F1 could or would operate independently from road cars. Every team has a relationship with a car manufacturer, and some teams are run by big manufacturers. F1 is not all about image, there is a tangible knock-on effect to the average motorist, and vice versa."