Circuits safety is improving as fast as cars safety in F1
FIA has defined new design requirements
Circuit safety equipment now has to pass the most stringent tests to receive the FIA’s seal of approval, with everything from debris fencing to track lighting coming under close inspection.
It was a matter of milliseconds between Carlos Sainz losing control of his Toro Rosso at 200kph during practice for the 2015 Russian Grand Prix and him being buried under the TecPro barriers at the end of the circuit’s long straight.
Sections of barrier were resting over the top of his car’s roll-hoop, which meant it took a while before marshals and medical crews were able to extricate the driver from the cockpit and ensure he was OK. While Sainz emerged unscathed after the crash and was able to race the next day, it raised some concerns for the FIA over barrier safety.
“When Carlos Sainz had his accident in Sochi, he got buried underneath the existing design of TecPro,” says Stuart Robertson, FIA Head of Circuit and Rally Safety. “So we decided to carry out a test campaign with TecPro to develop a new version of the barrier that would prevent this from happening again.”
This would prove to be the start of the firstever test standard created specifically for circuit equipment. The FIA had for many years issued standards for driver equipment such as helmets and overalls – each one having to pass stringent tests before receiving the FIA seal of approval. But circuit equipment was always tested on an ad hoc basis.
The new barrier tests with TecPro sought to prevent against nose penetration, ensure that elements do not lift up and land on top of the vehicle, and be more compatible with a wall behind them. This research led to FIA Standard 3501-2017 being born, whereby the FIA now has clearly defined design requirements, performance pass/fail criteria, and a homologation and certification process for Safety Barriers.
MAKING THE GRADE
TecPro is the first, and so far only, barrier manufacturer to pass this standard, meaning it is recommended by the FIA for use on Grade 1 circuits, used for events like Formula One.
The grading process for circuits forms a key part of safety in motor sport, as no circuit is able to host an FIA-sanctioned event without it. The FIA categorises a track depending on its characteristics and the power-to-weight ratio of the cars racing there. To gain a licence the FIA must first conduct safety simulations, then review the design of the circuit and the relevant safety installations. An inspector will be assigned by the Circuits Commission to follow the construction process and, once completed, the circuit will be awarded a licence personally signed by FIA President Jean Todt.
Circuits that host F1 events need to be Grade 1 certified, while Formula 2 and the World Endurance Championship can host races on Grade 2 or higher circuits, and this continues numerically down to Grade 6 and includes circuits for autocross and rallycross, ice racing, drag strips and even land speed record attempt venues.
Now the FIA wants to combine the grading system with equipment homologation to help ensure that the top-graded circuits also have the safest equipment.
The next area to receive homologation has been debris fences. Last year, Swiss company Geobrugg became the first manufacturer to be homologated to the new debris fence standard which, starting from this year, all newly-built Grade 1 circuits must comply with.
Geobrugg has spent the past 10 years developing and improving its debris fence technology and is so far the only company to pass the stringent testing procedures defined by the FIA. This includes a head-on sphere test, whereby it has to withstand the impact of a 780kg sphere at 60kph, and a full-scale vehicle test where a car hits it going at 120kph and at an angle of 20 degrees.
To pass this in both cases the fence must not deflect, become detached or be thrown further than three metres behind where it was installed.
“It is a proud moment for our company to pass the tests and being the first makes it even more special,” says Jochen Braunworth, Geobrugg’s Director Motorsport Solutions.
“For our existing customers and their Geobrugg solutions, I am especially proud that our permanent debris fence system was not changed at all to successfully get homologated. Our existing mobile debris fence system only needed one minor adjustment to fulfil the three-metre deflection criteria and the FIA standard. With our upgrade kit, existing mobile systems will also meet the new requirements.”
Other manufacturers are currently undergoing tests and are expected to join Geobrugg on the approved list soon.
“We are convinced that the introduction of circuit hardware standards will make life easier for all involved parties,” says Braunworth. “Circuit designers know what they have to specify, circuit operators know which company can supply the required solution and suppliers know what performance level they have to accomplish.”
This performance criteria is applicable to any debris fence system and is aimed at encouraging companies that are already supplying circuits with locally-built systems to undergo full-scale testing. The FIA does not want the tests to be prohibitive for manufacturers, so FIA standard equipment will only be mandatory for new Grade 1 circuits.
“With the amount of investment involved in constructing racing circuits or even upgrading an existing circuit, it’s very difficult to turn around and say to circuits, ‘You have to only use this company in Germany that is approved by the FIA’,” says Robertson. “We’re trying to work with these local suppliers and help them become approved, or work on long-term plans with the circuits to gradually bring in upgrades. That is something we have to be sensitive to, particularly when you go down to the lower-grade circuits which do not have as many resources or financial backing.”
The FIA also wants it to be a lucrative investment for companies like Geobrugg and TecPro, by ensuring that producing a piece of FIA-homologated equipment is profitable for their business.
“There are a lot of FIA-homologated circuits out there, which is a market for our suppliers to get their teeth into, and we know from our point of view that suppliers corresponding to these standards are demonstrating an appropriate level of safety,” says Robertson. “They have a good option for a return on their investment and in the long term through having a list of approved suppliers available online on the FIA website.
“Even lower grades of circuits could look to what is currently being supplied and approved for an F1 circuit, and also cherry pick what products might improve their circuits as well from a lower level,” added Robertson. “It’s definitely a very positive thing for circuit safety.”
SAFETY IN DETAIL
As a testament to how seriously the FIA takes circuit safety, it is even delving into details such as the type of race track paint that circuits use for track edge lines, kerbing and asphalt run-off areas. As a result, the FIA’s newest standard is for paint that will prevent skidding and therefore reduce the potential for accidents.
“What we’re trying to achieve with the skid resistance of paint is to make it as close as possible to the asphalt,” says Robertson. “So we’re trying to have a smaller difference between the properties of the two surfaces because it is the change in skid resistance that can cause issues, particularly in wet conditions, or when bikes, which have a much smaller tyre contact patch, are racing on the same circuits as cars.”
When testing the paint, the FIA looks at a number of performance aspects such as the thickness of the material, the rate of consumption, the drying time and its visibility in daylight. This is then put under a number of different conditions, such as wet weather, to see how it performs.
This new standard has been developed in close collaboration with the FIM and already three suppliers are aiming to achieve homologation – Italian-based company Colorificio Sammarinese, France’s Oré Peinture and Germany’s Swarco Limboroute.
Following the controversy during the MotoGP event at Silverstone last year when it had to be cancelled due to torrential rain flooding the newly-resurfaced Tarmac, the FIA considers developing specifications for track surfaces a high priority for the future.
The next standard to be launched is for light panels. These are normally seen along the edge of a circuit and are used to signal the track conditions to the drivers, such as Safety Car, yellow flag, slippery surface or even signal rain at a specific corner.
It’s a system that has been progressively implemented into FIA championships over the past 10 years, most notably in F1 and the World Endurance Championship, and it can be an efficient way for marshals to clearly signal to the drivers when they need to slow down earlier because of an incident on track.
“We wanted to basically set the minimum requirements for light panels to supplement the traditional circuit flags,” explains Robertson. “Then we are able to have a standard that is not only providing light panels at the top level for Grade 1 circuits, but also allow for further homologation of different specifications of light panels for different grades of circuits, really being more inclusive for the suppliers.”
So far suppliers that are ready to be approved include EM Motorsport, which supplies its ‘T1’ panel to F1 and ‘T2’ panel to other circuits around the world, and DZ Engineering and Pixel Com, which supply light panels to Grade 2 and Grade 3 circuits. The new standard is set to be approved by the FIA World Motor Sport Council in October.
Ongoing research is being conducted by the FIA to refresh its circuit lighting specifications. This research is following a number of circuits, such as Bahrain International and Dubai Autodrome, looking at the possibility of running their lights 24/7 around the clock and the interest for clearer specifications.
“As you can imagine, circuit lighting and stadium lighting technology has developed a lot over the past 10 years, changing from Metal Halide to more LED-based systems,” explains Robertson. “We want to refresh our circuit lighting specification and we’re working with a number of expert suppliers in the lighting industry to enable us to do that.”
Making sure that these systems are all integrated into race control and connected is a key working point for the future, as the FIA is also looking to homologate a race control specification referring to the CCTV requirements, radio communications, networking and management software.
“So, if you’ve got a light panel on a circuit you need to make sure that you’ve got the appropriate software to be able to manage that from race control, to send the correct messages to the trackside panels and also to the marshalling system that’s installed in the cars,” says Robertson.
While circuit safety will be an evolving feature of motor sport’s future as lap times get quicker, it’s important that the equipment being used is constantly being tested and updated to keep up with safety standards. With the FIA working alongside top-level suppliers for its championships it is significant they are striving to ensure that, right down to club level, these products are readily available on the market.