Crashes. They can be, in controlled circumstances, a spectacular and undeniable guilty pleasure for many racing fans. But sometimes, as the glittering and colourful carbon-fibre shards flutter back down to Earth, we’re left with that horrible feeling.
On paper, the Monaco street circuit looks incapable of hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix. But such is its tradition, fame and prestige, the race is perhaps the one event Formula 1 could not afford to lose from the calendar.
However, events during last year’s Monaco Grand Prix left a sour taste in the mouth of many F1 followers and analysts alike. Nico Rosberg clipped the wall under braking narrowly avoided a massive secondary head-on collision with the barriers on Saturday morning, and that same afternoon, Sauber’s Sergio Perez did the double in a horrifying accident. The corner in question? The Nouvelle chicane.
The slow harbour-front chicane immediately follows the tunnel and is the heaviest braking zone on the entire circuit. Cars decelerate from the highest speeds they will manage around Monaco into the downhill braking zone, which features some challenging bumps. Drivers often lock the rears and the only choice they’re left with is which barrier they’re going to hit.
This wasn’t the first time its safety had been questioned, though — the corner has seen some of the scariest accidents in recent memory. Karl Wendingler was left in a coma for weeks after a huge accident in practice for the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix, the very event succeeding the tragic round in Imola. Jenson Button had a strikingly similar accident in 2003, and was forced to sit the race out due to injury. David Coulthard also had a close shave in qualifying for the 2008 Grand Prix, but crucially missed the “peninsula” of barriers. But Sergio Perez’s accident was perhaps the most frightening of all. Even with all the modern safety measures, that sudden stop from frightening speeds made for sickening viewing.
So was TecPro effective in this case? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s better than hitting armco, but then again, hitting a row of marshmallows would have the same effect. So why don’t we have marshmallows at the Nouvelle chicane? Because it’s silly. But why don’t we have a giant marshmallow instead?
Just for a moment, imagine a version of F1 where hitting a barrier at unabated speeds didn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. No, I’ve not gone mad. But where there’s space, there can be more impact-absorbing materials. Instead of moving the same piece of barrier 10 metres further away, why not keep the barrier where it is and increase the padding?
Potential solution 1: tyre barrier
Replace TecPro with tyres. Why not? Tyres are not only friendlier to their unfortunate visitors, but they’re better at taking some severe hits without needing to be replaced — which takes time. But is it a safer alternative to TecPro?
For all of their advantages, there are some serious problems with tyre walls. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that F1 cars have a tendency to submarine and bury themselves under the wall, leaving the driver’s head vulnerable. The most recent example of this happening is Heikki Kovalainen’s wheel failure in the 2008 Spanish Grand Prix.
Strips of rubber colloquially known as conveyor belts were added to tyre barriers in an attempt to prevent such occurrences, but have proven ineffective in several situations. But perhaps the tyre barrier’s biggest endorsement came in the 2010 European Grand Prix when Mark Webber cannoned into one at over 200 km/h without sustaining any injuries. The impact was so severe that the concrete blocks holding the barrier in place were displaced significantly, but the absorbency of several rows of tyres was proven to be highly effective.
Potential solution 2: more TecPro
Lots and lots of TecPro. Perhaps all the way up to the left hander at the beginning of the chicane. It’d be like drilling it into a foam-pit at 200 km/h. What’s stopping them from using more of their impact-absorbing barriers?
Perez’s high speed side-on impact made short work of any give in the foam-like blocks and the car virtually stopped dead when all of the rows of barrier had concertinaed, all without shaving much speed off the eventual greeting from the solid armco barrier.
Webber commented after his huge crash in Valencia in 2010 that he was relieved to see it was a tyre wall he was headed for rather than TecPro, citing his brake failure induced accident in the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix as a much less pleasant experience, despite the notably lower speeds.
Potential solution 3: Both
Now we’re thinking outside of the box, right? Hear us out.
TecPro is quite effective at absorbing energy in low-speed accidents, but perhaps its biggest advantage is its sturdiness, which prevents cars from submarining upon impact. With several rows of tyres (and in a place like the Nouvelle chicane where space isn’t really an issue, they could go 5 or more rows deep) we’d effectively have the same amount of absorbency as our giant marshmallow. Add a few rows of TecPro in front of this tyre barrier and we’re left with the benefits of both without the flaws of either.
If the tyres were then positioned with small gaps between the rows, it would allow for move movement and increase the distance in which the car has to decelerate. TecPro barriers already feature a similar design with impact absorbing spacers holding the rows apart — an effect that could easily be recreated with further stacks of tyres.
Obviously, a barrier as soft and fluffy as this would likely be significantly disfigured in a sizable accident, and Formula 1 and its support categories must stick to a tight schedule. But delays are a small price to pay for increased driver safety. F1 should never get complacent. Is there such thing as being too vigilant when it comes to preventing injuries?
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