Crash test, nose to tail

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The FIA Institute regularly conducts a wide range of safety tests
The FIA Institute regularly conducts a wide range of safety tests
This article appears in the latest edition of AUTO magazine.
This article appears in the latest edition of AUTO magazine.

In the latest edition of AUTO magazine, Marc Cutler looks at the highly specialist safety research and testing that takes place behind the scenes of the Formula One championship, with funding from the FIA Foundation.

We’re standing on a breezy airstrip at RAF Membury in Berkshire, England. A machine is about to fire a full-size race car nose-first at a spinning rear wheel assembly to simulate a 150km/h crash.

It’s all in the name of safety. Andy Mellor, consultant for the Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety (GIMSS), the FIA Institute’s new research partner, is conducting a series of tests to inform rule changes for the 2016 Formula One season and beyond. This involves testing the relative merits of 2014 nosecones from four different teams: McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

“We’ve collected the four to cover the variety of designs that we had last year, so we’ll only have a complete picture once we’ve tested all four,” explains Mellor. “It’s actually coincidental that these are the big teams because in terms of performance they were chosen to cover the full spectrum.”

With the implementation of sweeping changes for the 2014 season, F1 saw diverse interpretations of the rules, particularly with regard to the design of nosecones. This is why these have been chosen to help inform future nosecone regulations. The main aim is to prevent a car from being launched into the air by reducing the risk of the nose being lifted off the ground by the rear wheels of the car in front. This solution aims to provide the most protection possible to the driver. In this latest series of tests, Mellor and his team are investigating which interpretations of the 2014 nosecone rules best meet the safety objectives. The main difference between the various interpretations of the 2014 rules is geometry. “If you compare Red Bull with Mercedes, the nosecones look different cosmetically but they are also very different in terms of performance and strength. They all met the regulations and were fully compliant but did so in different ways.”

The test itself is full scale; a Formula-BMW chassis with an F1 nose attached is pulled at 30km/h into a GP2 wheel and suspension assembly, fitted with F1 tyres, spinning at 120km/h, simulating a typical nose-to-wheel impact at 150km/h. “Like [Mark] Webber’s accident at Valencia in 2010,” explains Mellor. “We’re simulating nose-to-wheel impacts because the two types of contact that have happened historically are nose-to-wheel and wheel-to-wheel. Nose-to-wheel is the contact to which re-designing the nose has brought a solution.”

In the test we witnessed, the tip of the nose slammed into the centre of the rear wheel of the target-car generating a balance of forces to slide underneath the spinning tyre. “Basically it behaved in a textbook style, where everything we had put in place for the regulation change was followed, so it did everything it was supposed to do: it prevented launch.” The wheel did ride up over the nosecone towards the driver, but this would be less likely to happen in an actual collision because the leading car would be propelled forward and the driver of the bullet car would be applying the brake. Either way, it has been judged that, on balance, going under is better than going over.

The teams involved are understandably cagey about the sensitive technical details of their designs and Mellor emphasises that there are many different ways of interpreting and meeting the regulations. His focus is on identifying which interpretations provide the greatest safety levels. “After we’ve analysed the data, we’ll make the proposals for the 2016 regulations. That might be very similar to what we have this year, or we might propose some detailed changes to the regulations.”

The second phase of the testing will look at the potential use of an anti-launch beam, somewhat similar to IndyCar rear bumpers, to further prevent launching. In 2012, IndyCar introduced a carbon-fibre rear bumper designed to prevent the front tyres of the following car from contacting and catapulting that car over the rear tyres of the leading car. The bumper goes across the rear wheels to prevent this scenario. If introduced into F1, this would allow noses to be higher in future regulations because the bumper anti-launch beam would mitigate vertical forces acting on the nosecone to prevent launching.

“The anti-launch beam would go across the rear wheels, in a slightly higher position than you see in IndyCar,” says Mellor. “In IndyCar the nose goes into the bumper, whereas our concept is that it goes below it. It doesn’t prevent the nose from hitting the tyre, but as the tyre starts to push the nose up it engages with the underside of the beam, so the car can’t launch. The concept could allow future regulations to permit again high noses,

This concept might never find its way onto an F1 car, but like many of the other innovations tested by the FIA Institute it is important to explore all potential areas that could improve safety. Even if that solution is not taken forward the results often influence the development of other safety devices. For instance, in 2012 the FIA Institute tested the safety benefits of a jet-fighter canopy to be added over an F1 cockpit to protect drivers from airborne debris. While this is unlikely to make its way onto an F1 car any time soon, it has helped to inform other potential developments in this area such as a frontal roll-hoop. Other tests have led to more direct change. Last year, F1 adopted improved side-impact protection systems as a result of FIA Institute tests in close collaboration with the F1 teams.

As for the nosecone tests, Mellor is confident that they will provide important feedback for the 2016 regulations. “If everything is fine it indicates that the current regulation is robust,” he says. “But in 2014 there were limited structural requirements. So we’re trying to determine what the structural requirements should be for future noses. We will study the results to see if we can draw a conclusive and robust solution”

Photos courtesy of Will Thom