Protection bracket - are front roll-hoops the future? 26 Apr 2012
At first glance it looks like an unremarkable roll-hoop structure from an ordinary racing car, and somewhat out of place fixed to a metal plate and resting on the concrete here at a remote airfield in Suffolk, England. Only the imposing mechanised structure - essentially a huge cannon powered by compressed nitrogen - looming over it with a Formula One wheel and tyre attached, the whole immense assembly directed threateningly towards the roll-hoop, hints at the significance of this seemingly unremarkable little titanium fabrication.
It's an everyday part of motor racing, of course, with recognisable equivalents in all single-seaters from the most humble junior classes to Formula One, but its importance lies not in its design, but how and where it would be mounted on a car.
Meet the forward roll-hoop - the latest step in the FIA Institute's meticulous research into improved cockpit protection for Formula One and other open-wheel single-seater drivers.
Shielding their heads from debris and impacts is now, arguably, the most critical area in single-seater safety research. The increase in cockpit side protection in the 1990s marked a substantial stride forward, but the life-threatening injuries suffered by Ferrari driver Felipe Massa in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix (when a 1kg suspension spring from the car ahead came loose and struck his helmet just above his eye), and the tragic death of young British driver Henry Surtees in a Formula Two race that same summer, highlighted the potentially horrific effects that flying debris can still have.
While the two incidents could easily be dismissed as completely freakish, the FIA and Formula One were certain that lessons could and should be learned. So those accidents led to a renewed push for better head protection, and even raised questions about whether fundamental changes were necessary to what has always been an open-cockpit branch of motorsport.
Led by FIA Institute technical adviser Andy Mellor, the previous round of cockpit protection research tests in 2011 saw a 20kg F1 wheel and tyre assembly fired at 225km/h into, first, a 30mm polycarbonate windshield, and then into a jet fighter canopy. While the windshield deflected the wheel but shattered in the process, the aerospace canopy flexed but resisted the impact, diverting the wheel away more convincingly.
In the latest evaluation, the same impact test was carried out on a titanium roll-hoop structure manufactured and supplied by the Lotus F1 team. The roll-hoop could theoretically be fitted to a car from the front edge of the cockpit opening to the point where the nose section meets the front bulkhead, with a peak height 100mm above the top of the helmet, so forming an impact-deflecting barrier ahead of the driver.
Mellor confirmed that the initial results were very promising: "The roll-hoop basically did a very good job. It was able to keep a wheel away from a driver's head. We tested it both by firing the wheel down the centre of the car, and also coming at it from an angle."
Another positive outcome of the test was the roll-hoop structure's effect on the tyre, the FIA Institute understandably not being keen just to see how well the device resisted the flying object, but where and how the wheel was deflected afterwards.
"The impact deflated the tyre during both tests," said Mellor. "We tend to think that's a good thing - it means that the wheel doesn't bounce as much. It stops much more quickly if you can deflate the tyre."
Another key area of the process was striking a balance between head protection and visibility, since forward-mounted structures designed to protect drivers' heads might also dangerously impede sightlines. During the forward roll-hoop test, a helmet was placed in the position that a driver's head would occupy relative to the structure.
Mellor also emphasised that the research's range would widen as it continued, acknowledging that any cockpit protection system would have to be effective in a variety of impacts and scenarios. "The research ultimately can't be restricted only to wheel hitting," he said, "but it's relevant to use wheels as they have a high mass and are a very real factor in such accidents."
Like the canopies assessed in the 2011 test, a roll-hoop on the front of the car would mark a dramatic visual departure from familiar single-seater style. But a radical aesthetic change would be a price well worth paying to save drivers' lives and achieve a game-changing safety breakthrough.
Mellor emphasised that the process was still firmly at the research stage, with the FIA Institute effectively conducting experiments to test the science behind the theories, rather than assessing and defining an answer to the head-protection question.
The final decision on a cockpit safety rests with the Formula One rule-makers, of course, so it is far too early to begin speculating about how a field of Formula One cars fitted with forward roll-hoops, aerospace canopies or similar devices might look. The priority, Mellor reiterated, was to investigate thoroughly all the factors involved in each potential option, build up the data, and test the scientific practicalities of the theories put forward so far.
"At this stage it's almost pure research, which we need if we're to understand what the loads are in such impacts," Mellor explained. "We're not at all looking at final solutions as such. The work is absolutely exploratory and we are beginning to understand the mechanisms in order to protect a driver's head in this kind of impact. This is the next step in a very detailed process."
The results of the latest evaluation will be fully analysed and put before Formula One's Technical Working Group, as the FIA Institute's research continues its intriguing and essential progress towards an even safer future for single-seater racing drivers.
To view HD video footage of the test, click here.
The above feature is republished with permission from IQ - www.institutequarterly.com