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Going under cover - the future of Formula One safety? 18 Jul 2011

This machine is about to fire a Formula One wheel and tyre into a jet fighter canopy at 225km/h. The Ferrari F2009 of Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari after his heavy qualifying crash.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, Hungarian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, 25 July 2009 These images, grabbed from a Hi-Definition film shot at ultra-high frame speed, show the approach, impact and aftermath when an F1 wheel and tyre hits a jet fighter canopy. These images, grabbed from a Hi-Definition film shot at ultra-high frame speed, show the approach, impact and aftermath when an F1 wheel and tyre hits a jet fighter canopy. These images, grabbed from a Hi-Definition film shot at ultra-high frame speed, show the approach, impact and aftermath when an F1 wheel and tyre hits a jet fighter canopy.

The FIA Institute has recently conducted tests to find out what happens when you fire a Formula One wheel and tyre into a jet fighter canopy at 225km/h - and these pictures show the results.

For some months now, the Institute’s technical advisor Andy Mellor and his colleagues have been investigating the possible benefits - and drawbacks - of adding some form of additional protection to the open-cockpit area of F1 cars.

Their research was prompted by the Formula One Technical Working Group (TWG) following the accident suffered by Felipe Massa at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, when his helmet was struck by a spring that had fallen from the Brawn car of Rubens Barrichello, running slightly ahead on the track.

The aim of the test shown here was simple: to launch a Formula One wheel and tyre, together weighing 20kg, at 225km/h into a canopy made from aerospace-spec polycarbonate, and measure what happens, with all close-up observations being recorded by strategically positioned high-speed film cameras.

The cannon used for the test - from a company whose main business is providing stunt equipment to the film industry - features a 1200 psi compressed nitrogen cylinder capable of accelerating a piston (and wheel) to 225km/h in just two metres - a thrust average of 100g in less than a tenth of a second.

However, for the test to replicate the effect of a free-flying wheel assembly hitting a canopy - as it could in a real-world incident on-track - the wheel had to be free of the piston by the time it struck the windshield.

It’s at this point that another strand of already-proven F1 safety science came into play. Before it was inserted into the barrel, the piston was attached to four F1-spec wheel tethers, each designed to absorb more than 6kj of energy. They came into effect at exactly the two-metre mark from the piston’s point of exit from the cannon barrel.

The result of all the science and engineering was to allow the wheel and tyre 500mm of free flight between leaving the piston as it was slowed by tethers, and impacting the canopy.

An executive summary reported that the canopy deflected the wheel assembly suffering no permanent deformation. And viewing the canopy impact in slow motion showed it flexing to absorb impact energy, before ‘launching’ the wheel and tyre away.

“There were tyre transfer marks on the canopy, but there was no apparent fracture,” explains Mellor. “It shows that it’s quite an elastic material and that it’s very efficient at providing a load path to keep the wheel and tyre away.”

It is reassuring to learn that the canopy is highly impact-resistant, but not entirely surprising: it’s manufactured by an aerospace firm and is exactly the same model as fitted to an F-16 Fighter jet.

Full scientific results have now been presented to the Formula One Technical Working Group. What happens next will depend on the reaction of the FIA and the TWG to Mellor’s findings.

Any debate on implementation of cockpit canopies would have to take account of a number of known negatives, such as visibility, optical quality, ventilation, cleaning, access and emergency egress.

“We’re not looking at any of these things at the moment,” says Mellor. “This test was purely to look into the mechanical safety effect. Now that we have data on that, we can move towards a decision on what’s next.”

To view HD video footage of the test, click here.

The above is an edited version of a feature republished with permission from IQ - www.institutequarterly.com