Safety collar is pain in neck for Villeneuve

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The Independent Online

As the first official day of the 2003 Formula One season draws near, drivers are resigned to wearing a new safety device that the FIA, motorsport's governing body, is convinced will save lives.

As the first official day of the 2003 Formula One season draws near, drivers are resigned to wearing a new safety device that the FIA, motorsport's governing body, is convinced will save lives. The Hans (Head and Neck Support) system is a carbon fibre collar that fits over the driver's shoulders and is tethered to his helmet to prevent his head moving too far forward in the event of a heavy frontal accident.

It was developed in America in the 1980s by sportscar racer Jim Downing and Dr Bob Hubbard, his brother-in-law and director of the Biomechanical Design Research Laboratory at Michigan State University, and has been proved many times in American racing circles, such as Nascar saloons and IndyCar single seaters. But there has been strong resistance in Europe even though the Brazilian driver, Felipe Massa, became the first man to race the system in a grand prix at Monza last year.

Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion, has been one of the most vocal critics. "It might be more dangerous to wear it," he said. "When Pedro Diniz had his accident at the Nürburgring in 1999, he could have been killed if he was wearing Hans."

The BMW-Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya is another who has reservations. "I've got a short neck and I like to turn the wheel from the shoulder. When I do that with Hans, it gets up against my helmet and it's not just uncomfortable it interferes with the way I drive the car," he said.

Sauber Petronas's Nick Heidfeld said: "I tried Hans at Mugello, and in practice at Monza last year, and I didn't like it. I like to lift my shoulder when I turn the wheel, and the device was restricting my ability to do that."

The teams are allowed to modify the basic design, however. Most use a variant of the Hubbard-Downing design, but Renault has its own. Heidfeld admits that the work Sauber has done in connection with the FIA has helped. "It's a lot better," the German said. "I did one lap with the old version at Barcelona recently and got a headache. But with the modified version I did a whole day at Imola without any problem. I still feel better without it, but at least I can use it now."

The greatest champion of Hans in Formula One is Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA's man of safety. "We know from tests carried out by Daimler Chrysler that Hans enhances a driver's chances of escaping injury in high G-force accidents, and we have very good evidence from the Cart and IRL series in America that it is a good protective mechanism that is just as effective as an airbag," he says. "I would recommend it to all drivers. The only problem is one of individual comfort, but I am sure that it is quite within the ingenuity of Formula One designers to overcome that."

The BMW-Williams technical director, Patrick Head, is also convinced. "Not an awful lot has been done to help the situation in terms of head-on very rapid longitudinal decelerations. It is a very difficult problem. Anybody that has been involved in nose crash tests knows that with the standard 75kg dummy, with the normal seat belts and things, his head is literally touching the steering wheel or touching the front of the cockpit during that deceleration, and obviously one has got to look at accidents beyond the sort of crash tests that we put the car through."

The most trenchant supporter is former Formula One driver Christian Fittipaldi, who used Hans during his IndyCar career. "If you see a crash test with and without Hans, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to see you ought to be wearing this thing," he said.

The FIA has worked hard with the teams tailoring the system to individual drivers by using different angles, widths and foam padding, and most drivers admit that they are comfortable with it now.

The FIA president, Max Mosley, is not coming to Australia this weekend after his flight plans went awry, but he sent a clear message to dissidents: "It's up to them whether they wear it, but they won't be allowed out of the Melbourne pit road if they don't."