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Formula One safety - buckle up! 17 Apr 2006

Graham Hill teaches his son Damon how to use seatbelts. Formula One Drivers Childhood Photographs. World © Sutton

The seat belts in a Formula One car not only give the driver a sense of security, they also directly protect him from serious injury in an accident. In combination with a carbon-fibre monocoque, customised seat, helmet and overalls, these belts help make the Formula One cockpit a pretty safe place to work.

Amazingly, although driver helmets and overalls were stipulated by Formula One racing’s governing body, the FIA, as far back as the early ’60s, safety belts have only been compulsory features in a Formula One car since 1972.

Formula One drivers are strapped into the cockpit by a six point harness, similar to that found in a fighter jet. Two shoulder straps, two pelvic straps and two leg straps allow them just enough freedom of movement to be able to steer and reach the various switches and buttons in their field of vision.

The drivers are pushed tightly into their seat, so they need the help of a mechanic to fasten the belts. However, in an emergency, they are able to leave the car from the normal buckled position within the five seconds stipulated by the regulations, because all the individual belts can be released with a single twist of the hand. The task of the belts is clear: in the case of an accident, they should work with the compulsory Head And Neck Support (HANS) system to protect the driver from smashing against the steering wheel, and at the same time they absorb some of the impact energy.

“On the one hand, the belts must be strong enough to protect the driver from an impact,” says Williams’ Frank Dernie, according to team sponsors Allianz. “On the other hand, they also have to give enough to make sure that the driver isn't injured by the belts themselves in an emergency.”

The manufacturers of the safety belts and the teams solve this dilemma with the help of extensive experiments that test the strength and the elasticity of the material. Generally, the belts are made of the textile fibre polyester, and sometimes have special monofibres woven laterally into them. They act as small laminated springs and keep the belt strap flat. In this way, the load is distributed better over the entire width of the belt strap. The fittings and tabs are generally made of titanium. After an accident, it must be possible to rescue the driver together with the seat from the car if the emergency services think it necessary.

According to the FIA standard 8853/98, every fastening point of the belts must be able to withstand a load of 14.7 kilonewtons, the equivalent of roughly 1,470 kilograms. The belt widths must be between 44 and 76 millimetres (shoulders and legs) and between 50 and 76 millimetres (pelvis), depending on the most comfortable setting for the driver. The idea of comfort is always relative, at least if you believe Martin Brundle: “If the belts don’t hurt,” the ex-Formula One driver once said, “then they aren’t tightened hard enough!”