From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.32 :: Aug. 08, 2009
Ferrari team members express their sympathy for the injured Felipe Massa before the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Motor racing is dangerous. That stark truth used to be printed on every admission ticket in the days when death was the sport’s unwelcome companion and spectators were just as likely to get hurt as the competitors they had come to watch. While the standard of safety has risen to such an extent that the last fatality at a Grand Prix occurred in 1994 when Ayrton Senna died of head injuries during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the sport, by its very nature, will a lways possess an element of risk thanks to freak incidents, as witnessed recently at vastly different levels of the sport.
The exceptional circumstances that killed 18-year-old Henry Surtees at Brands Hatch and led to serious head injuries to Felipe Massa in Hungary may have been rare during hundreds of thousands of racing miles during this season, never mind the past 15 years since the loss of Senna, but that will not prevent motor sport from examining each incident in minute detail in the relentless quest for safety improvements.
Massa was struck on the head by a spring that had come adrift from the Brawn of Rubens Barrichello. The failure of the suspension part may have been uncommon but the fact that it struck a driver following four seconds behind just above the opening on his crash helmet was ill-fated. So was the timing that had Surtees pass the scene of an accident only for an errant wheel to catch the Formula Two driver a glancing but fatal blow to the side of the head. Rather than dismiss both incidents as either “bad luck” or “just one of those unfortunate things”, motor sport has gone into overdrive in a search for answers, starting, in the case of Massa, at the incident’s source.
Ross Brawn has been drawing on more than 30 years of experience as an engineer, designer and technical director as his team tries to understand how the spring, weighing 830 grams became a hazard at a point where Massa’s Ferrari had been travelling in excess of 150 mph.
“The cap had come off a damper and the spring had escaped,” said Brawn. “It’s the first time (this year) we’ve had a problem with the car, never mind the rear suspension. It was a standard component which we’ve used all year. We’re obviously looking through the data to try and understand what caused the problem. It’s difficult to comment yet until we’ve had a chance to study everything.”
The incident was particularly difficult for Brawn to cope with since, apart from involving one of his cars, the errant spring had struck Massa, a driver Brawn knows well from the Englishman’s time as technical director at Ferrari. In the aftermath of two incidents involving head injuries, Brawn is aware of calls for investigations into increased protection for the drivers of single-seater, open-top racing cars.
“After what’s been seen at Brands Hatch and here in Hungary, we need to have a proper study and see if there’s a need to do something,” said Brawn. “You’re getting into structures (around the cockpit opening), windscreens and canopies; anything is possible. But we need to digest what’s happened and understand it properly. It is very important to take a balanced approach. You can have covers, canopies, whatever, but you’ve got to be able to get at the driver to extract him. You don’t want a structure that collapses down on the driver. There are a lot of secondary considerations. The cockpit sides are quite high now and we’ve got headrests around the driver. So Felipe’s accident was a pretty rare occurrence but one that we must take seriously. If there’s a need to react, I’m sure Formula One will do so promptly. But we must be sure we don’t do something to make the situation worse.”
Every significant accident is investigated by the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, established in 2004 by Professor Sidney Watkins, the top British neurosurgeon and Formula One safety delegate before his retirement. In view of Massa’s accident it was timely that a recent report from the institute investigated threshold loads for skull fractures during helmeted impacts. It was also appropriate that Massa was wearing one of the latest generation of carbon fibre crash helmets made mandatory by the FIA.
Felipe Massa’s mangled car is shifted to the Ferrari pit at the Hungaroring circuit near Budapest.
“Without knowing all the details, it sounds like all the work that was done on helmets over the past few years was essential in this case,” said Brawn. “Helmets have been improved a lot and the work that is done there is a great credit to the people that initiated that and pushed it through.”
Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s commercial rights holder, said there might be scope to further improve helmets. “Of course, it is a terrible thing when something like this happens and we will take it very seriously as we always do but it does seem to be a bizarre, freakish accident,” he said. “However, we can learn from any accident and I want to get Sid Watkins to look at how Felipe was injured and see what can be done. We need to look at helmet technology, what can be improved in what the drivers wear, study the visors.
“We might be able to learn from other sports. Look at ice hockey, where the goalies have to be able to see clearly but still have a visor that is strong enough to withstand the impact from a puck going like a bullet. We all hope Felipe will be back as soon as he is fully fit. I will be keeping in touch until he is ready to drive again.”
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009
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