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GP Week : Issue 162
30 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: In late 2011, we lost Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli in close succession. In June of this year, rally driver Lucie Vauthier and co-driver Gareth Roberts lost their lives in accidents in rallies in France and Greece. That weekend, Anthony Davidson broke two vertebrae in a Le Mans crash. At the end of the month, the LA round of the X-Games saw Marcus Gronholm and Toomas Heikkinen hospitalised with serious injuries. Most recently, Marussia test driver Maria de Villota was in critical condition following an accident in testing at Duxford Aerodrome. The cause of de Villota’s Duxford accident is still being investigated, but appears to have resulted from an unlucky combination of factors that are unlikely to ever be repeated. Despite the best efforts of those involved in motorsport, it is impossible to guarantee driver safety. Whatever developments are made to cars, to circuits, and to protective equipment, this is a dangerous business in which one is always at risk of the random. Speaking about de Villota’s accident with Spanish newspaper Marca last week, FIA race director Charlie Whiting – who has worked for many years to improve safety standards in motorsport – spoke of the difficulty of guarding against such events: “It was so incredibly unfortunate,” he said. “I think that if Felipe’s [2009 Budapest] accident was one in a million, then Maria’s was one in five million. The circumstances were just so unique that it was just incredible bad luck.” Whatever the circumstances of an accident, what is critical is to ensure that those injured receive the best possible standard of care, and as quickly as possible. Formula One is a standard bearer in this arena, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Professor Sid Watkins, who has been instrumental in improvements to trackside medical care over the years. It is thanks to Watkins that circuit activity at a grand prix weekend requires the presence of a medical helicopter, the medical car, and an anaesthetist – countless lives have been saved as a result of his work. But other areas of motorsport don’t have quite the same approach to safety, as was made painfully obvious during the recent LA edition of the X-Games. Finnish RallyCross driver Toomas Heikkinen broke his ankle in a practice crash that saw his car catch fire. The Finn had to crawl away from his car unaided, and was reportedly waiting some time for medical assistance. Despite the impossibility of guarding against every possible outcome on a racetrack, the FIA are doing their best to stay abreast of emerging technologies that could yet revolutionise driver safety. While a number of the more significant improvements in recent years – such as the introduction of wheel tethers, or changes to the crash testing parameters – aren’t immediately obvious to the casual observer, they form part of a concerted effort to reduce risk where possible. A key area of study at present is driver head protection. Since Henry Surtees was killed by a tyre at Brands Hatch in a 2009 Formula Two race, an accident that was closely followed by Massa’s head injury in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, motorsport’s governing body has been researching methods of improving drivers’ protection against flying debris. Closed cockpit canopies were one area of investigation, but the safety benefits raised their own issues, particularly with regard to visibility and driver extraction, as Whiting explained to Marca. The FIA’s research has now moved on to for ward roll-hoops, as GPWEEK reported earlier this year. “We can only do [the research] as fast as we can, because it’s a very complicated matter. In Maria’s case, yes [head protection] would have worked, but perhaps in many other cases the problems would be worse, like extraction or visibility. We have to make sure we aren’t making something better for one type of accident but worse for three more.” The FIA race director went into more detail in an extensive inter view on driver safety with journalist Will Buxton earlier this year: “Research on the for ward roll hoop solution follows the abandonment of the proposed cockpit canopies which were under discussion last year,” he explained. “The canopies were an unpopular The way it used to be: Canadian Grand Prix,1977 – It took over half an hour to free Ian Ashley from the wreckage of his Hesketh 308E which somersaulted and hit a television tower during practice. Despite losing his helmet amid the violence of the crash he suffered 'just' broken ankles and wrists ... F1 >>> FEATURE