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A high-speed camera for Formula One, a virtual crash simulation for sports cars and new load cell harnesses for Formula E – these are just a few of the recent research projects undertaken by the new Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety.

Launched earlier this year, the Global Institute’s overall aim is to investigate and implement motor sport safety techniques and technologies on behalf of its research partner, the FIA Institute. In the longer term, it will also focus on ways in which these technologies can be applied for road safety. For the time being, however, it is putting in place a three-tier plan to develop safety at all levels of motor sport.

The Geneva-based organisation is chaired by Luc Argand, a leading Swiss lawyer who has been heavily involved in motor racing for most of his career, working with the FIA since the 1980s and also as President of the Geneva Motor Show. He is responsible for chairing a board made up of business leaders and motor sport professionals (see list, below) with Laurent Mekies, General Manager Research, and Quentin Crombie, General Manager Administration, also reporting to him. Together they choose the safety research projects to be carried out across three main areas: high-technology, cascading technology and grassroots research.

“The ultimate goal of the Global Institute is to develop safety in motor sport,” says Argand. “We want to increase the envelope of survivability in competition vehicles. A 30g accident was not survivable 20 years ago and now we see cases with 70g crashes being survived, so that’s big progress. At the Global Institute we have the duty and the responsibility to further this progress and to cascade down the research to all levels of the sport.”

The five-person board, which is responsible for the governance of the organisation, approves the work for its team of research engineers to conduct.

Top-level Research

The high-technology projects are driven by the categories at the pinnacle of motor sport, such as Formula One, the World Endurance Championship and the World Rally Championship. This research – a continuation of projects initiated by the FIA Institute – is focused on pushing the boundaries of what is survivable in a competition vehicle.

“The danger is part of the game, but the price that Formula One paid for 40 years was so huge,” says Argand. “We are not in a Roman arena any more where death was considered a normal part of events.

“If you look at the history of Ferrari, every year there was a fatal incident with one pilot dying, or even more, until the beginning of the 1980s. It was terrible and I want to make sure that the work the Global Institute does means avoiding a return to that. There is no longer any romanticism associated with death.”

Improved accident analysis will be central to this. This is why the Global Institute has developed a high-speed cockpit camera for Formula One, which records the movement of a driver’s head and torso during an accident. When played back in slow motion, this will show high-speed events in far greater detail than was previously possible. The technology will be implemented in Formula One next year with a view to filtering it down to other championships in following years.

“I think the Formula One programme is likely to be just the start. We’ll certainly be looking to use this technology to further help to develop safety across motor sport.”

Another project that will help to gather important data on drivers is one that is focusing on ear accelerometer biometrics. F1 drivers already have accelerometers built into their ear-pieces to measure the movement and forces on their head during an accident. Global Institute researchers are now looking to incorporate other tools into this device that will provide biomechanical measurements such as heart-rate, pulse, temperature and even sweat analysis.

A further high-tech project has seen the development of a virtual simulation that has proven a theory to reduce spinal injuries for drivers. This has been conducted in partnership with Toyota, which has developed a computer model of the human body that it uses for virtual crash testing. Called the Total Human Model for Safety (THUMS), it is made up of almost two million elements that accurately reproduce the human form, from precise bone strength to the structure of organs.

This project has significant potential for application in road cars and will be one of the priority targets for road safety development by Global Institute researchers.

“Whatever we do in motor sport we have the chance to think about how we can bridge that to road safety,” says Argand. “Even for the way we select projects, we will prioritise those that could have road safety relevance.”

Cascading research

The core work of the Global Institute is not just aimed at the top levels of motor sport but at all levels. As Argand says: “We need a downwards cascade of product or results of research, which can help other levels of our sport.”

These second-tier research projects are designed to use the technologies developed in the top category and make them financially and technically accessible on a large scale.

“We have the duty and the responsibility to cascade down all the research towards a much larger audience,” explains Argand. This is a sentiment shared by FIA President Jean Todt, a key Global Institute stakeholder. “It’s very important that we filter down the benefits of the research so we can maximise the safety impact – this is something that I attach the upmost importance to.”

The projects that will benefit other championships include studies into preventing car launching in WEC, the WTCC-GT and WEC seat studies designed to minimise the risk of drivers in those categories suffering spinal cord injuries, and work on creating a new type of World Rally Championship ARMCO end barrier that can be used in different rally events.

Another important study is the development of a safety harness load cell that is being trialled in FIA Formula E and may be introduced fully in future seasons. It is a device that can attach to any safety belt and ensures it has been adjusted properly by the driver.

This is especially important in FIA Formula E where the driver changes car halfway through the event and has to adjust his belts quickly. When it is introduced, the load cell light will come on when the driver has safely done so.

This may help to facilitate a change in the format where the driver no longer has a mandatory wait in the pitlane. The car swap can be done as quickly as possible because the device ensures that the drivers are safely in the car and feeds back to the race director if they are not.

This also has applications in any series involving driver changes, such as in endurance racing. “The belt is a problem because when there is a change of driver, if the belts are not properly tightened this can cause terrible injuries in the event of a crash,” says Argand.

Grassroots Level

The third tier of the Global Institute’s research studies, the grassroots projects, includes initiatives such as the World Accident Database and the Accident Data Recorders (ADRs), with ADRs now mandatory in all FIA Formula 4 championships around the world.

“There is also a new exciting project to develop a driver visual assessment tool,” says Argand. “That will hopefully have an application outside the sport.”

Looking to the future, Argand wants the Global Institute to build on its foundations and move towards becoming the world’s leading motor sport safety research centre: “First of all, I want the Global Institute to establish itself as the world leader in motor sport safety research, using innovation and excellence to help further reduce the incidences of fatal accidents and injuries. In the future, we will also be looking for ways to help take these ground-breaking developments and apply them to the motoring industry in general and for the betterment of society.”

This work is already having an impact on motor sport at every level of competition. Formula One, Formula E, Formula 4 and WEC are already benefiting from its research. But this is just the start. “There is no end because you cannot ever stop with safety research,” says Argand. “This is a long-term and ongoing commitment and I believe that the Global Institute is up to the challenge.”

Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety board:

Chairman: Luc Argand

Board Directors: Charles Firmenich, Pierre-François Unger, Colin Hilton, Garry Connelly

General Manager Administration: Quentin Crombie

General Manager Research: Laurent Mekies