The new, heavier Formula 1 cars have tested Grand Prix circuits to their limits this season.
From Zhou Guanyu landing in the debris fence on the opening lap at Silverstone to Mick Schumacher taking the rear of his car off against the Tecpro barrier in Monaco, circuit safety equipment has been called into action numerous times during 2022.
But it is no accident that all of these drivers have walked away from heavy crashes. With the continued development of circuit safety by the FIA and technology companies like digital flag panel maker EM Motorsport and debris fence supplier Geobrugg, the circuits have never been more secure.
So what are the latest improvements? Key figures from the world motorsport safety spoke exclusively to RacingNews365.com about five areas that have seen a surge forward in recent years.
1. Track Design
It all starts with AI and virtual simulation. During the track design process, thousands of simulations are run to work out where incidents are most likely to occur and therefore the exact location for safety elements like run-off areas, gravel traps, barriers and debris fences.
“The right approach is designing the most challenging track that you can do, and as soon as you have it, you can calculate the kind of run-off that you want,” says Jarno Zaffelli, CEO of Dromo Circuit Design, who worked on the redevelopment of Zandvoort for its F1 return and the redesign of Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps.
Spa came under fire in recent years due to safety concerns at Eau Rouge and Raidillon. Recent incidents included the death of Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert in 2019, Lando Norris’ crash in a soaked 2021 qualifying and a six-car pile-up during the W Series feature event on that same weekend.
This is why Zaffelli was commissioned with the challenge of improving safety at Spa while maintaining its character.
“You need to take in account what happened and try to figure out why it happened every time. You use the existing corner model to understand how you can improve it.”
The work was carried out during Spa’s winter break at the end of 2021. Since re-opening in early 2022, the redesign has proven effective.
“No incident has happened there in the last nine months that was not due to contact between cars or mechanical failures. The reason we achieved this result is because we virtually simulated a lot of scenarios to understand why accidents happened.”
Zaffelli continues: “We found that following a flood, a patch had become a bit bumpy, enough to make it a mistake generator for the drivers. The racing line was more to the left than what it is now because drivers were trying to avoid the bumpiness.
“All these iterations allowed us to remodel the surface and try to reduce the unexpected issue for the drivers. But the challenge is still there because there is a lot of acceleration going into that corner.”
After the track has been designed and laid out, the next phase is making sure safety barriers are placed in the correct positions, ready to protect drivers following a crash.
In F1, there are four types that can be used – Tecpro, SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction), tyres and armco. For new F1 circuits only Tecpro barriers can be used which must pass stringent FIA tests (3501-2017 standard) to be approved for use on a Grade 1 circuit, the level required to host a Grand Prix.
Tecpro is placed in areas where there is an increased risk of high-speed accidents, but with a run-off area between track and barrier. Flexible polyethylene foam blocks are connected together in rows with spaces between to absorb the impact and decelerate the car and driver in a protective way.
SAFER barriers are placed in long sweeping turns with a long impact angle where space is limited between the track and the wall. Inside is an additional steel wall with energy-absorbing foam blocks in the middle, before being strapped to an already placed wall, giving it a softer cushion. They are designed to distribute the impact load across the barrier, reducing kinetic energy, lowering the chance of injury to the driver and avoid bounce-back onto the track.
The new Jeddah Corniche Circuit has the most SAFER barriers due to its narrow track and long sweeping high speed turns. They are also located at some of Baku City Circuit’s fastest corners as well as permanent tracks such as Zandvoort on its banked final corner.
Tyre barriers have been used for decades. Tyres are stacked on top of each other, bolted together to form the so called six-packs, occasionally with a polypropylene insert in the middle. They are then tied together so they don’t disperse on impact, allowing all the tyres to take the impact together and act as one barrier.
The combination of these different types of barriers and the increased knowledge of where to use them, thanks to virtual simulation technology, has led to huge improvements in this area.
Viewed by others:
Another layer of protection sits behind those barriers in the form of debris fences.
These fences enable fans to be close to the action while protecting them in the event of an accident.
They must pass strict FIA tests to be used on an F1 circuit, including catching a 780kg sphere fired from a cannon at 60kph and a full-size car impacting at 120kph 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 meters behind where it was installed.
Swiss company Geobrugg became the first manufacturer to be homologated to the new debris fence standard which all newly built Grade 1 circuits must comply with. In 2023, it will be supplying fences to 15 circuits on the F1 calendar, including the new night race in Las Vegas.
Many of these will receive the new 6m Geobrugg debris fence, which was approved by the FIA this year for use on Grade 1 circuits.
These fences enable wider spacing between posts (from 4m to 6m) to give greater safety for drivers, better viewing for spectators and increased sustainability for circuits.
The new system is also a major improvement on sustainability with Geobrugg expecting to be able to put up to 600m of debris fence in one 40-foot container, as opposed to 400m, which will reduce shipping weight and transport emissions.
“We're starting to do all installations with the 6m post spacing debris fence because we think it's a great product,” says Jochen Braunwarth, Geobrugg’s Director of Motorsport Services. “As a spectator, you have a much better view of the circuit because you don't have as many steel posts in front of your vision.”
As the demand for live F1 action grows, more tracks are wanting to add extra grandstands and in 2022 alone, Circuit of the Americas and Yas Marina Circuit have introduced additional seating for their F1 extravaganzas. The Geobrugg debris fences are placed in front, allowing fans to get close to the action without worrying about safety.
4. Light Panels
If a car does end up in a barrier or fence, all drivers are immediately notified by the digital flag panels and smart marshalling system.
These digital panels are used to display any marshal signals that needs to be shown to drivers such as yellow or blue flags or the slippery surface flag. They’re triggered via a remote by a local marshal to specifically where there is a caution on track. If need be, race control can also access the flag boards to raise any issues to the drivers such as if a Safety Car has been deployed or if the session has been red flagged.
Luca De Angelis, EM Motorsport’s Deputy Manager, believes the product is easy for marshals to quickly adapt to: “It's quite easy for marshals to understand how to use it and it's very important for us that the marshals understand that this system is not replacement for them because marshals are still the key element of safety in motorsport. This is just a new tool that can increase their own safety and also the general management of racetracks.”
The light panels work cordially not only with the marshals but also the drivers. Alongside the panels flashing up, the technology will send a notification to the driver’s dash, which is part of an electronic marshalling system that works in conjunction with the panels. This helps lower the possibility of anyone missing the information.
To battle all weather conditions, the luminosity can be adapted including fighting the power of the sun and turning the brightness down during night events with over 1,000 pixels and almost 4,000 LEDs in each panel making this possible. They can be viewed up to 2km away and have a viewing angle of 90 degrees.
Drivers were thrown through the ringer at the Singapore Grand Prix when the race was not only at night but also staged in wet conditions. Yet, despite the less-than-optimal conditions, the light panels still shone away, signalling drivers throughout the disrupted race.
De Angelis continues: “If you think about the flag made from cloth fabric, when it's sunny, you see it's yellow. When it's raining, the flag itself is wet and yellow can become a bit darker and more like a grey, so it blends more with the greyness of the rain. While the panel will still remain yellow.”
Another key element of track safety is asphalt. All the action will typically happen on top of an asphalted surface and it’s vital that it is as even as can be. Asphalt is layered smoothly, with no bumps and is produced to give racers optimal grip to the track. Wrongly resurfacing a track can cause issues later down the line, or even during a race weekend.
Dromo develops its own unique asphalt recipe for each circuit. It focuses on getting the required characteristics whilst being sustainable by using regional aggregates, whether for F1 or MotoGP tracks, electric vehicles, test circuits or resort and experience tracks.
“Every time we make the asphalt, we licence the recipe to the circuit. The recipe can be used by the circuit to cover patches in the years to come or to resurface when they need to.” Zaffelli said.
Asphalt also has a great absorbency but that’s not the only thing on track to keep rain floating about. Occasionally, on a race weekend, when it rains, it pours. Drainage systems dotted around the track are on hand to get as much water off the surface as possible, reducing the risk of aquaplaning. Most circuits are designed with wet weather in mind, making sure rainwater can drain away and avoid standing water.
Going down to the finer details on a track, even the paint must be as safe as it can be. This includes, but is not limited to, the starting grid, track markings and run-off areas. Each paint that is used on an F1 track needs to be approved by the FIA. This is to ensure the paint holds out in any weather condition and is non-slip should any car drive over it.
Every time we make the asphalt, we licence the recipe to the circuit.
Looking to the future
Going forward, circuit safety will continue to be a big talking point in F1.
Braunwarth would like to see damaged equipment be replaced with FIA homologated products: “For Grade 1 circuits, I believe that the FIA will strongly recommend circuits to go with a tested product, even with the repair of existing fences which they currently don’t do.”
A harmonious flag system is what De Angelis hopes to see: “I think it's more about making a system that can provide different services. We're talking about flagging, GPS positioning, then there is timing, CCTV cameras, starting lights and even radio communication with the marshals.
“All these are the services that are required nowadays to manage a racetrack. Ideally, we would have a system that can integrate all these parts together. Using artificial intelligence to collect information from the different parts and put them together will give us a better understand of what's going on.”
No doubt, circuit equipment will continue to evolve as technology develops with safety always a priority.
Video: How F1's prize money is distributed and who actually gets what
How has F1’s distribution of income changed since the new Concorde Agreement came into force in 2021?
RacingNews365 takes you on a journey through F1’s financials, and explains how the sport’s revenues trickle down to its ten teams.