Like road cars, Formula One cars must undergo crash tests before being passed fit for use. Introduced in 1985 and supervised by the FIA, these stringent evaluations are usually carried out at the Cranfield Impact Centre in Bedfordshire, England and comprise dynamic (moving) crash tests, static load tests and rollover tests.
The dynamic impact tests are performed on the front, sides, and rear of the chassis, plus the steering column. The drivers survival cell must remain undamaged throughout. The weight of the test chassis, including a crash dummy, is 780 kg. The front impact test is done at a speed of 15 metres per second (54 km/h, 33 mph), the lateral at 10 m/s (36 km/h, 22 mph) and the rear at 11 m/s (39.6 km/h, 25 mph).
The speeds may seem low, but are chosen to allow the most accurate measurement of the car's ability to safely absorb the unwanted momentum of an accident. The limits for maximum deceleration, energy absorption and deformation are precisely defined. For example, during the frontal test the deceleration measured on the chest of the dummy may not exceed 60G (approximately 60 times body weight) within three milliseconds of the impact.
The steering column test is designed to ensure the column will collapse safely in the unlikely event of the drivers head impacting the steering wheel. The column is fixed to the ground and an 8kg object is projected into the centre of the wheel at a speed of 7 m/s (25 km/h, 16 mph). All substantial deformation must be within the steering column; deceleration must not exceed 80 g for more than three milliseconds; and the wheels quick release mechanism must function normally after the test.
In addition to the five dynamic tests, a further 13 static load tests are carried out on the chassis front, side and rear structures to ensure they can withstand the levels of collateral pressure required by the regulations. These tests include applying pressure to the floor below the fuel tank, to the side of the nose mount, and to the chassis sides at leg and seat levels. The surfaces in question may only deflect or deform within specified limits and there must be no damage to the impact structure, the survival cell or the gearbox.
The cars rollover structure is tested in three directions - laterally with five tonnes, longitudinally with six tonnes and vertically with nine tonnes - and the level of deformation under load may not exceed 50 mm.
While their principal aim may be F1 safety, the above tests have also helped improve safety for road users, 3000 of whom die each day across the world. For example, the FIA has an active role in the Euro-NCAP road-car testing programme, while Williams partners Allianz use the global reach of Formula One racing to alert fans to the importance of safety, both on the track and on public roads.
Did you know that a Formula One cars cockpit walls, which were heightened by five centimetres in 2008, must withstand impacts equivalent to 250 tonnes?