The high-speed Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal is no stranger to dramatic crashes – and down the years many drivers have the F1 safety cell to thank for being able to walk away.
Nowadays, the progress made by the FIA in the push for safety has significantly reduced probability of someone getting seriously hurt, but drivers now have such confidence that if things go wrong the protective mechanisms are simply expected to keep them from harm.
Robert Kubica escaped an horrific crash in Canada in 2007 when his BMW disintegrated and barrel rolled after he collided with Jarno Trulli.
He would have been killed if the crash has occurred just one decade ago – and it is all thanks to the survival cell, which is the core of the F1 car.
The modern safety cell began to develop in 1981, when McLaren created a carbon fibre monocoque for their MP4/1 – an incredibly solid but light construction that could be constructed in any shape required.
Cars are now designed around a central monocoque that is designed to remains intact while the rest of the car breaks apart around it upon impact, to absorb the energy of the impact and protect the driver.
The modern F1 car now has front, side and rear deformation structures attached to different parts of the survival cell, all designed to deform on impact to limit the levels of force involved in an accident to below that which would cause injury.
Protected by all these deformable structures, the modern survival cell itself is a tough structure with thick carbon fibre walls and Kevlar inserts. It is fairly impenetrable, but when things go very wrong even this can fail – and in Kubica’s 230km/h crash, the Pole’s feet ended up in the open air when the front of the cell broke off.
It is here where the head restraints that sit around the driver in the survival cell are vital in reducing injuries.
The cockpit surround is a removable unit that runs between the helmet and the cockpit sides. It has a composite outer skin and houses a thick energy absorbing foam that is designed to crush and will be completely destroyed in a heavy accident.
In Kubica’s crash, the instantaneous impact reached an astonishing 75G, but the foam is designed to crush progressively and never allow the driver’s head to reach the solid carbon fibre survival cell side, even with this level of force.
In fact, while an F1 cockpit is open, it remains one of the most secure of all the motorsport categories, with the driver restrained by the seat and harness and the interior lined with energy absorbing foam with no sharp edges.
The seat works as the part of the restraint system, providing controlled support during both side and rear impacts and in an F1 car, where the cockpit is tight, the insides of the chassis become part of the seat, particularly in the shoulder areas.
The seat is very rigid with respect to the chassis and the driver remains fixed in as securely as possible. It continues the full length of the legs, as side impacts can have very large loads and the driver will need continuous support at least down to the knee.
The progress in F1 safety over the last few decades has been so monumental that it is now this kind of meticulous attention to detail that is the focus.
And it is thanks to all these developments that the sport is a safer place than it was many years ago.