This past weekend’s F1 accident again showed how dangerous steel barriers can be. That’s why we’re not using them. Even though other local tracks are.
This past Sunday, in front of a live, international TV audience, French driver Romain Grosjean crashed almost head on into an metal guard rail barrier at the start of a Formula 1 race in Bahrain.
You can read about it, and view photos here. The shorthand version is that his speed was 137 mph at impact; the front of the car split the barrier’s two rows of steel and stopped halfway through; the car itself split in half, with the driver and safety cell on one side of the barrier and the engine and rear of the car still trackside; there was a large fire but miraculously, Grosjean was able to climb out and run for safety with only minor injuries.
Key point: The barrier failed when the car hit it. If Grosjean’s Haas/Ferrari didn’t have a halo the driver could have been killed instantly. Because it’s happened before. And it can happen again.
In 1973, French driver Francois Cevert crashed during the United States Grand Prix, his car landing upside down, on top of him, on a section of metal guardrailing. He was literally cut in half. Two years later, also at the USGP, Helmuth Koinigg hit the steel barrier nearly head on. The bottom rail gave way but not the middle rail, resulting in death by decapitation.
In 1984, Rick Mears crashed during a practice session at a short oval in Quebec, hitting the steel barrier hard enough to completely rip off the front end of his car. His feet were mangled by the metal to an extent the medical people wanted to amputate. He survived and raced another eight years but still suffers from those injuries. Alan Simonson was a popular young sportscar racer who died in 2013, when he crashed directly into an unforgivable metal barrier at Le Mans. There were no injuries from blunt force trauma or penetration. He died from sudden deceleration, damaging either his brain or aorta.
Steel barriers lining the sides of race tracks have been around since the 60’s. They were installed to protect spectators, buildings and property, not drivers or motorcycle riders. Designed for low impact and low speed applications like residential areas, car parks and industrial sites, they are unacceptable for use around a race track unless they have a tire wall in front of them.
They are simply not designed as safety equipment for motorcyclists, drivers and passengers.
Due to cost advantages, a number of private circuits in Arizona rely heavily on steel guardrails as their primary barrier system. We believe those barriers are a mistake. Lives are too important. The money savings will never be worth the added risk.
The track we’re building was designed to be fun, challenging and versatile, with multiple configurations and the ability for cars and motorcycles to run both clockwise and counter-clockwise. But most of all, and above all else, it was designed to be as safe as possible.
That means more than generous runoff areas, and state-of-the-art, energy-dissipating safety barriers where there’s the highest risk of potential impact from off-course excursions. The Club complex may have some type of corrugated beam barriers at far boundary locations, but any exposure to trackside activities will be fronted by stacks and stacks of tires, wrapped with an industrial conveyor belt.
As evidenced by the F1 incident in Bahrain, things happen. We’re making sure that regardless of the why, where or how something happens at our track, our drivers, riders and members won’t have to worry about hitting steel barriers that could very well do more harm than good.