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Cockpit Safety

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes The 2010 Belgian Grand Prix gets underway. © Allianz Michael Schumacher in the cockpit of the Mercedes. © Allianz Nico Rosberg in the cockpit of the Mercedes at the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix. © Allianz

At the heart of the modern Formula One car is the 'monocoque' (French for ‘single shell’), or 'tub'. It incorporates the driver's survival cell and cockpit, and also forms the principal component of the car's chassis, with engine and front suspension mounted directly to it. Its roles as structural component and safety device both require it to be as strong as possible. Like the rest of the car, most of the monocoque is constructed from carbon fibre - up to 60 layers of it in places - with high-density woven laminate panels covering a strong, light honeycomb structure inside.

At the heart of the monocoque lies the survival cell and within that the cockpit. For safety reasons, no fuel, oil or water lines may pass through the cockpit and the driver must be able to get out within five seconds without having to remove anything except seatbelts and steering wheel (which he must be able to refit within another five seconds). The width of the cockpit must be 50 centimetres at the steering wheel and 30 centimetres at the pedals. The temperature inside the cockpit averages 50 degrees Celsius.

To ease a driver’s escape, the dimensions of the cockpit opening have grown over the years. Currently it must be 850mm long, at least 350mm wide at the pedals and 450mm wide at the steering wheel, with the rear half wider still at 520mm. The rear 375mm of the cockpit’s side walls must rise upwards at an angle of at least 16 degrees (to reduce the risk of injury in the event of one car flying over the top of another) and the edge of the cockpit must be enclosed in an energy-absorbing material with a thickness of at least 100mm.

The survival cell is surrounded by deformable crash-protection structures which absorb energy in an accident and features a roll-over hoop behind the driver’s head, made of metal or composite materials. The survival cell’s flanks are protected by a 6mm layer of carbon and Zylon, a material used to make bullet-proof vests, to prevent objects such as carbon fibre splinters entering the cockpit.

The driver’s seat is a single plastic cast, tailored to provide optimal support. Since 1999, rules have stipulated it may not be installed as a fixed part of the car. Instead it must be possible to remove the driver and seat as one after an accident, thus eradicating the risk of spinal damage. Compulsory since 1972, today F1 seat belts comprise a six-point harness, which can be released by the driver with a single hand movement.

All Formula One cars must be equipped with a fire extinguisher system. This automatically spreads foam around the chassis and engine area in the event of fire and can also be operated manually by either the driver or marshals. Also required in the cockpit is a master switch that deactivates the car’s electronics, fuel pumps and rear light.

An accident data recorder is also compulsory. Linked to a medical warning system, it registers important information such as speed and deceleration to tell medics how severe the impact was. In addition, there is a cockpit display with red, blue and yellow lights which informs the driver about any warning flags being waved around the circuit.

Did you know … that during his high-speed crash at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2007, Robert Kubica was subjected to more than 28 times the acceleration of gravity? This meant that his body effectively weighed two tons instead of 73 kilograms. Millions of spectators expected the worst, but thanks to the strict safety precautions in Formula One racing Kubica suffered only minor bruises.

Did you know … that for a monocoque, about 30 square metres of carbon-fibre mats are processed, in which the individual fibres are five times thinner than a human hair?