Motorsport: Drivers safe in technology cocoon
F1 technology advances graphically demonstrated in Melbourne
Despite the recent rumblings from team principals to Bernie Ecclestone and assorted officials, Formula 1 as a sport shone through at the Australian Grand Prix.
There was real competition, real overtaking (although still not quite enough) and real drama.
There was more noise from the cars, a home-town hero did good, the ‘‘underdog triumphs’’, a bit of wheel-banging, spins, teenage drivers getting uppity with their team-mates, speed, as well as Mercedes almost knocked off its lofty perch. Pretty good really.
Then there is an old saying that “nobody goes to a motor race to see an accident, but if there were no accidents then nobody would go to see a motor race”.
If that is true then the attendances at GPs should be guaranteed for a decade judging by the enormous, frankly horrifying, disaster that befell double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso.
Alonso crashes during Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park.Picture / Supplied
Any description of the seconds after he clipped the back of Esteban Gutierrez’s car would be inadequate and could never describe the ferocity with which the car, with Alonso now a passenger, flew through the air and was comprehensively destroyed.
In the seconds that followed the car coming to rest, almost upside down, there was a collective holding of breath until Alonso was seen crawling out from under the upturned cockpit.
He later said, “When I stopped, I saw a little space to get out of the car and I went out quickly just to make sure that my mum, who was watching on television at home, could see that I was okay.”
We talk endlessly about safety in motorsport but rarely are the advances in technology, driver and spectator protection so graphically demonstrated. Apart from the fact that the drivers are cocooned in a virtually bullet proof ‘‘bathtub’’, the impact absorption zones around the car did the job they were designed to do.
Although it looked dramatic as the car shed various bits of itself during the seconds after the original impact, it was also getting rid of kinetic energy by absorbing the forces of the crash and preventing those forces from affecting the driver’s area.
People have said Alonso was “lucky” not to have been hurt, but that belittles the huge amount of study and effort that has gone into making these cars as safe as humanly possible.
“Luck’’ was not responsible for developing these improvements over time.
It is not ‘‘luck’’ that has driven the FIA and the teams, in this case the McLaren team, to spend huge amounts of money on research into how to minimise personal and collateral damage to drivers and spectators.
It is not only the drivers who benefit from the safety improvements, but also those watching in the stands.
With the speed of Alonso’s car, overturning while it flew through the air, it is not too difficult to imagine the extremities, the wheels and tyres, flying off the car as well.
Had they done so it would have put those in the adjacent viewing areas in serious danger of losing life or limb.
The wreckage of Fernando Alonso's McLaren Honda by the side of the track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park. Picture/AP.
Since 1998 it has been mandatory for an F1 car to be equipped with wheel tethers and over the past few years those tethers, designed to keep the wheels on the car in just this scenario, have been made hugely stronger by the development of new composite technology.
They are made from a special polymer called ‘‘polybenzoaoxide’’ (PBO) also known as Zylon.
More must be done, though as the rear left wheel seemingly escaped the car at the very last second as the car came to rest.
So, having seen the strength of a modern day F1 car, I think we can now concentrate on what may well be a very competitive season ahead without the need for more proof, thank you.
To look at the record books and see that the Mercedes drivers were once again in first and second place formation for a Grand Prix would not tell the whole story of what was a fascinating race and that result — given Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel’s grip on the race until the red flag for the Alonso incident — could have been so very different.
There is competition between cars and drivers all the way down the grid and that competition will get closer as the season stabilises and teams develop more performance.