Something in the air over safety

David Tremayne believes last week's crash in Adelaide may bring a radical response
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The Independent Online
MIKA HAKKINEN'S survival of his 200kph crash in qualifying for last Sunday's Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide had Formula One embracing two new buzzwords as it bade farewell to the season: "air bags".

The sport is now taking stock of Hakkinen's accident, in which he fractured his skull in a collision with a tyre-protected concrete wall, following a blow-out in a rear tyre caused by hitting debris on the track. "Mika hit his head on the steering column, so you can appreciate just how far the safety belts stretched and how far his body elasticated," the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, said. "It's a long way from where his head started and where it struck. I'm told that the forces required to fracture a skull in that way are very, very high."

The Italian Lotus driver Alessandro Zanardi was likewise "elongated" in an incident during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix two years ago, but that was before the fresh safety crusade initiated last year in the wake of the deaths at Imola of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. The FIA Technical Working Group has since been investigating means of restricting driver movement and air bags are one avenue of development.

Dennis is sceptical about air bags, which may not be the panacea some believe them to be. On road cars the explosive charge that detonates them can damage the interior and there is the problem of precisely where to install them.

Both present serious risks in the tight confines of a race car. There are problems in safeguarding against premature or accidental deployment, such as from jolts over sharp bumps or collisions with other vehicles.

The dangers of accidental deployment when the driver is travelling at maximum velocity are self-evident. "The speed of these accidents is so much higher than anything experienced on a production car that our engineers believe there is no system that could inflate fast enough to accommodate this sort of impact," Dennis claims.

Ross Brawn, technical director of the champion constructors Benetton, is more sanguine. "What you are trying to do is decelerate the head, and there is an arbitrary figure arrived at for the average human being which gives a critical impact figure for cranial deceleration," he said. "If you decelerate it too quickly, you will extrude a driver's brains through his ears, and we don't want to do that. So what we try to do is slow the head in a progressive way; but if you let it move too far laterally you then start to risk neck problems. It's a juggling act between deceleration rates, duration and size of impact. You can have a relatively low impact, but if it's sustained for a long time that can do a lot of damage. Or you can have a higher impact for a much shorter period."

It is a tribute to the far- reaching investigations instigated by the FIA last year that solutions to the problems that arise from accidents such as Hakkinen's are already being sought. At the same time, Formula One's far-sighted scientists are only too aware that any progress brings new problems in its wake. The trick is not to create more of them than you solve.

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