Heikki Kovalainen’s massive crash during the Spanish Grand Prix was a powerful reminder of the danger that exists within Formula One. The fact that Heikki was able to survive the impact largely unscathed is also a testament to the many safety improvements that have been made to Formula One cars over the past fifteen years. It sounds like a cliche, and you hear it every time someone has a big shunt, but Kovalainen might not have survived the same accident in the previous decade.

Heikki’s lucky escape can be put into context by some poignant remarks made by Jackie Stewart just over a month ago. The former champ warned the sport was becoming too complacent towards safety and that a big accident was just around the corner.

Stewart said “It has been 13 years and 11 months since the death of Ayrton Senna. You can’t go without something going wrong somewhere, and somebody will die. The moment somebody dies there is a new awakening. It is going to be a big shock to this fraternity.”

The Scotsman  added “These guys don’t know how to deal with a death. They have never seen it. They have never been up close. They have never been to a body when it is still in the car, never had to identify a body, never had to pack that person’s clothes because the wife or the girlfriend can’t face it. I pray to God they never do have to learn that, but the law of averages says that when you are doing 200mph, millimetres apart with mechanical failure or human error, you are going to have an accident. Nowadays that’s a plane crash. So far we have been incredibly lucky. We are on the slate to have a big shunt.”

His words are now a little haunting following the Spanish Grand Prix.

Heikki Kovalainen was leading the race on lap 22 and was about to make a pitstop when he suffered a front left wheel failure at turn nine. It could barely have happened at a worse part of the circuit. Kovalainen’s broken wheel shredded the tyre leaving him no way of turning or slowing his car before it made contact with the barriers at 220kph. The McLaren pushed itself under the tyres and all the energy from the impact was dissipated in just a fraction of a second. His car stopped with the same level of G force that a fighter pilot would experience when using an ejector seat.

Kovalainen was unconscious immediately after the accident but was able to wave to the crowd when he was extricated from the cockpit. He was airlifted to hospital as a precautionary measure and has been in observation overnight.

Accidents like Kovalainen’s are often the most dangerous because the declaration is huge and very sudden. When Robert Kubica crashed at Montreal last year the force of his accident was absorbed by the many pieces of debris that flew off the chassis and by the car itself as it rolled over the grass. Heikki’s accident was more of a risk because his car just came to a sudden stop. In that instance the only soft and squishy thing that can absorb the impact is the driver.

The worst part of Kovalainen’s crash was that he was trapped under the tyres. That would have been diabolical had the McLaren caught fire, or if the medics needed to access him in a hurry. He could have been sitting in there choking on his tongue and there is nothing anyone could have done about it.

It should not be surprising that a Formula One with its low pointy nose would dig under a barrier like that. In previous years that was one of the biggest dangers for a Grand Prix driver. In the 1970’s both François Cevert and Jochen Rindt were killed when the front of their cars went beneath the armco fencing. These days that risk is compounded a little by all of the aerials and winglets that appear on top of the cockpit. These were sheared off in Kovalainen’s accident and would have become little missiles right in front of his helmet. With that in mind Heikki is probably a little pleased that McLaren have not adopted the same ‘dumbo’ wings as Honda.

It is also worth noting that many circuits use chains to hold the tyre bundles together, and crashing into those in an open-wheel racing car is a recipe for disaster. Kovalainen was a very lucky boy.

Formula One has come a long way in terms of safety and you only need to see a photo of a Grand Prix car from the sixties to realise just how dangerous the sport once was. However, it might have been some of the more recent safety innovations that helped save Kovalainen from death or serious injury.

Possibly the most significant feature of the car that prevented Kovalainen from hurting himself yesterday was the monocoque survival cell. These first appeared in Formula One during 1984 but have been developed greatly in recent years. This is essentially the part of the car the driver sits in. The cell is immensely strong and most of the other components such as the engine and suspension are bolted onto it. Like much of the car it is made from carbon fibre which is twice as strong as steel, albeit much lighter. Twelve carbon fibre mats that stretch over thirty square metres are layered on top of one another and then baked in an autoclave to create the massively strong monocoque.

Once this is completed, the survival cell is coated with the same material used to construct bullet proof vests. This is to prevent any debris penetrating the cockpit and is also helpful to stop it from splitting open, much like the protective coating on a windscreen.

This survival cell is put through some rigorous FIA crash tests. These have been around for about twenty years and are similar to the tests you might have seen used for road cars. The F1 chassis is driven into a wall at around 60 kph, and whilst that may not sound very fast it gives a fairly accurate reading of the energy absorbed during impact. The survival cell must of course remain totally intact. There are fifteen different types of crash test that measure different parts of the car, and these tests are enhanced almost every year.

Many drivers owe their lives to the strength of modern Formula One cars, and to the FIA for enforcing such strict controls.

The HANS device would also have played a significant role in helping Kovalainen yesterday. This is the ‘Head And Neck Support’ system that drivers wear along with their helmets. It sits on their shoulders like a collar and restrains the movement of their head in the event of a big crash. The devices were first built in the eighties but did not appear in Formula One until 2003, by which stage they had been made suitable for Grand Prix drivers.

The HANS collar is most useful in a front-on accident when the neck is subjected to some extreme G forces. If Kovalainen had not been wearing the device he would have risked a major injury as his head was thrust forward by the massive deceleration.

His helmet would also have been crucial in preventing a brain injury.

Interestingly, Formula One helmets are highly developed and are very novel pieces of equipment. The headgear worn by a modern F1 driver weighs just over a kilo but is insanely strong. In fact, today’s helmets are actually bullet proof. Like the monocoque they are built with several layers of carbon fibre along with some flame proof plastic. There are so many tightly woven threads within the carbon fibre matting that you will find over 16,000 km of them on a single helmet. That is amazing, and goes to show the high level of protection around the driver’s head.

However, it might have been the most recent safety improvement of all that saved Kovalainen from serious damage. This year the cockpit sides have been raised to provide more head protection, and that would have been invaluable as the Finnish driver’s McLaren buried deep into the tyres.

That is why it is important to always push for more safety in Formula One. Every little improvement can make a big difference. Some people might argue that further safety measures will sanitise the sport and make it boring, but Kovalainen’s accident is a worthwhile reminder that motor racing will always be dangerous. You only have to look at Formula One’s tragic past to learn that unnecessary danger does more to ruin the sport than help it.

Formula One should listen to Jackie Stewart when he warns of complacency, or the next big accident might not be followed by a sigh of relief.

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