Motorsports: Development of safety equipment and measures

Motorsports: Development of safety equipment and measures

By Lahiru Fernando

01 Jun, 2017 | 4:56 pm

The death of Ananda Wedisinghe -an eight-time Fox Hill Supercross champion- made ripples and sent shock-waves through Sri Lanka’s motor-racing and petrol-head communities.

Looking back at the accident, the corner, safety barriers and medical evacuation, we can’t help but dwell on the incident.

Was there a chance to avoid a fatality if better preparations were in place?

We asked fellow racer Dilantha Malagamuwa. This is what he said:

Fatalities and Motorsport

Motorsport in general is a dangerous sport. From the beginning of the sport, leading up-to the very late 80s and early 90s, fatal accidents were a frequent occurrence in Motorsport. Most racers participated in events, not knowing if they would make it back.

However, with the safety measures available at present, it is rarely that you hear of a loss of life. In most of the racing formats, there have been little to no fatal accidents since the mid 90s.

For  example, the death of Jules Bianchi in 2015 was the first fatality in Formula 1 since the dark day in Imola 1994 where Ayrton Senna, considered as the greatest driver of all time, lost his life in a high speed 200 mph corner.

Here is a breakdown in numbers per decade prior to the death of the great Ayrton Senna.

  • 1950s – 15 deaths
  • 1960s – 13 deaths
  • 1970s – 11 deaths
  • 1980s to Imola 1994 – 6 deaths
  • 1994 to 2015 – 1 death

Even in the World Rally championship, there were nine driver or co-driver fatalities during the 80s but only four from the 90’s to the mid 2000’s, the last one being co-driver Jörg Bastuck in 2006.

MotoGP has a long list of fatalities which date back to 1949.

  • 1949 – 3 deaths
  • 1950’s – 29 deaths
  • 1960’s – 26 deaths
  • 1970’s – 24 deaths
  • 1980’s – 14 deaths
  • 1993 to 2016 – 6 deaths

Looking at those numbers, there is a drastic drop in the number of fatalities over the years which prove the improvements and developmental advances the sport has seen and adopted.

Vehicle safety

Formula 1 car chassis have come a long way since the deadly 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The best example is the crash of two-time world champion Fernando Alonso in the Season opening Australian Grand Prix in 2016.

That crash would have killed the Spanish two time world champion, had it happened prior to the 90s. But in 2016, he just walked it off.

In other formats such as WRC or hill climbs etc, the chassis strength as well as leaps in the quality and standard of Roll-Cages have come so far since the era prior to the 90’s.

The crash of Jeremy Foley at “The Devils Playground” in the 2012 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is hard proof of the advances made in terms of roll-cages, chassis strength and other safety equipment.

Track Safety

As shown in the last two video clips of the Pikes Peak, road races do not have the same amount of track safety as a closed circuit would. However, in case of a metal railing which is there by default road requirement, extra shock absorbing measures would go a long way. In countries like Sri Lanka, several vertical and horizontal layers of inter-connected tyres, sand-bags, and/or mattress’ are simple ways of avoiding a fatal crash.

As for closed circuit raceways, crash barriers have been developed to ensure the safety of racers. When it comes to FIA recognized race-tracks, safety barriers have been researched, customized and specialized depending on the corner, on every corner of each circuit.

Barrier’s levels of shock-absorbance, layers and density are decided and changed after considering the type of race held, calculations on the speed whatever the car, bike or otherwise would be travelling in at that specific corner.

With all the car, bike and track safety in place, Motorsport can still be a very dangerous sport to take part in. Even with all safety in place, Jules Bianchi was killed at F1’s Japanese GP in 2015, Marco Simoncelli was killed at the MotoGP Malaysian GP in 2011, Luis Salon at Moto2 Catalan GP in 2016.

Most recently, 18 year-old Billy Monger lost his legs in a Formula 4 crash in 2017.

While we say our heartfelt goodbyes to a man who is considered a legend in Sri Lanka’s motorcycle racing, always remember – Motorsport – especially without safety measures – is unpredictable, it’s unforgiving, and dangerous.

If you are taking part, make sure you have the necessary safety equipment on you and on your car / bike, and always make sure the track you race in has the necessary safety barriers etc in place.