Laurent Mekies is a man of many titles. The former Chief Engineer of the Toro Rosso F1 team joined the FIA as Safety Director in 2014 and has since added roles as F1 Deputy Race Director and Global Institute General Manager, Research. But, as he explains in this interview from the latest edition of AUTO+ Medical, they all complement each other to help support one of the FIA’s main objectives – improving safety in motor sport.
AUTO+Medical: It has been three years since you became FIA Safety Director. How have you found the role?
Laurent Mekies: The role is fantastic, that’s the simple truth. After having spent so many years trying to chase lap times for Formula One teams, it’s difficult to try and find a better motivation than to contribute to the safety of the sport. We have a great team in Geneva, we have impressive support from the commissions related to the safety effort – from the Medical Commission, from the Circuit Commission and of course from the Safety Commission – and at the end of the day these have allowed us to move things relatively fast. People often think things are going slower in a big institution like the FIA but ultimately you can pull things through and make things efficient here thanks to all the good people and the willingness there is in the structure. And when we don’t go about it in a fast enough and efficient enough way, the FIA President is the first to push us to perform better.
A+M: You are also General Research Manager of the Global Institute. How does this tie in with your FIA role?
LM: I think it’s completely integrated really. It’s about one safety effort from all the various elements connected to the FIA. Everybody contributes to it and we try to be as synchronised and as efficient together as possible so the integration of the safety research effort into this big picture is fundamental. There is a great group of researchers who are very, very skilled and experienced, we have super high-level people there and it has been an enjoyable effort to put all that together.
A+M: In addition, you are Deputy F1 Race Director. How does that fit in?
LM: Of course on paper it’s two different things – one is a sporting job and one is a safety job – but in reality having the link between the two is giving us a lot of advantages on the field. Back in Geneva when we try to support the departments and all the categories of motor sport with the safety side, it allows us to have a direct, hands-on experience on one of the championships. In F1 we have all the firepower to develop new things and therefore it’s a good accelerator for projects, especially on the research side. So this is very valuable for the safety effort. We also have a similar hands-on experience in other championships with our safety delegates.
A+M: You used to work for an F1 team, and now you’ve moved over to the governance side. Is there anything that has surprised you from this different perspective?
LM: I wouldn’t say surprised, because in the end we are all in the same circus! Really we are all working for the sport and it’s simply that we’re looking at it from a different angle. But at the end of the day it’s the same faces so it’s quite easy to step from one role to another because it is a small community, and therefore it makes things very easy. I guess the biggest surprise is that you are able to move things forward quite fast at the FIA, nearly as much as in the teams. It has been great to see that with everybody’s contributions and willingness, you can push things through.
A+M: Speaking of pushing through, we’ve got the halo introduced to F1 for next year. Is this taking up a large part of your time?
LM: The Halo is one of our many safety research projects, but of course it is one of the most highest profile ones. So yes it took enormous energy from the researchers to first complete the research work, and then once the research work was complete to try to make sure we can deploy it in a very tight frame that we have from the decision to the start of the racing season next year. On top of that, we are deploying it in as many categories as possible every time a new car is coming out. In 2018, we’ll have a new Formula 2 car, Formula E will have a new car for season five, in 2019 Formula 3 will have a new car… So yes, it has taken a lot of the research group resources in the last 5-6 months, but I would say that more globally the additional frontal protection project has been one of the key pieces of research of the last seven years, and has been central to the research work.
A+M: Halo is going to have huge safety benefits, but what are the other considerations for bringing in this device?
LM: It’s like for anything, the development is in the detail. So we are trying to iron out all the items that are now passed to make sure we have as smooth an introduction as possible for such an important change. We are looking into the extrication techniques, we are looking at the training for the marshals, we are looking at a large quantity of perhaps small items that together will make the difference between a smooth deployment and a difficult deployment.
A+M: Has there been extra training for F1 marshals and has this been carried out or overseen by the FIA?
LM: We are working on that right now, so obviously we did do a number of extrication training exercises before the Halo decision was taken, and now it’s about finding the best way to deploy that knowledge to as many people as possible. So we have a Halo plan for medical, which is basically how do we bring the medical chain up to speed with the Halo evolutions, and it’s something that is very much driven by the FIA Medical Commission.
There will be a dedicated seminar and accreditations that will take place early next year in order to support that. Plus a higher number of training tools such as videos and a large amount of information, which we have made available. We are also producing some dummy halos to be fitted on all our training chassis all over the world so that people can train on people and so on.
A+M: What has been the feedback from CMOs at the circuits?
LM: I think that everybody now is switching to the fact that ‘OK, halo is out, so let’s make it happen as best as possible’, and therefore the response we’ve had globally is very positive. People want to be ready, they want to be on time, they want to do things properly. So far the response has been very, very good and we’ve had a lot of inputs and advice from all over the world, so this has been a very positive thing. You have seen also that Formula 3 in America has been launched starting in 2018, and even though the deadline is super tight, these guys are going to go with the Halo as well. So I think there is a turning point now that people are getting on with it and trying to contribute, which is great.
A+M: Do you think that Formula 1 should have a dedicated safety team which goes to each race, similar to NASCAR and IndyCar with the Holmatro team?
LM: It’s a very good question. At the FIA we have had both models successfully deployed. In Formula E for example we have a single extrication team going to all events and in F1 we use a circuit-based team model. I think that both schemes have advantages and downsides, but I think we have managed to make both work and there is merit for both of them, so I don’t envisage a change short term for that, for Formula 1 or Formula E. In Formula 1 we have a good system, and in Formula E we have a good system.
A+M: How important is regular medical safety training, not just in Formula 1, but in motor sport in general for track teams?
LM: I think it’s fundamental. It’s like anything we do, practice makes perfect. We are very much training orientated, we like systematic training, that’s how we get to the level that we think is required. You know that on top of all the national training that is being done before an event there is systematic training a few days before the event when we arrive at the track with our medical delegates and with the local and national teams to make sure things blend together and are as efficient as possible. We do static training, we do accident simulation training with the dummy car somewhere on the track and sometimes with two cars and sometimes two extrication teams. We do real-life training with an actual F1 team for example, so training is a complete central part of extrication.
A+M: Finally, what are the other big safety projects that you’re focused on this year?
LM: We have 15 live projects, so to mention only a few… Our new biometric gloves will be aiming to take rescue to the next step by giving our people in the medical car early information about the vital signs of the drivers so that we can improve the race recuperations. I think that’s one of the big projects for us to deploy that for next year, but we have a lot of requests from other championships so we want to do it properly with one championship next year, with F1, and then if it’s successful we anticipate a very large deployment of that as well and further steps to come after that in terms of biometrics, so that’s one key one I would say.
Then we have a new helmet standard that’s coming for 2019, which will be published sometime in 2018. So we will have a new version of it which is something that we change nearly every ten years, so not every day. We have been working for nearly two years now to bring this product to life with the help of one of the key actors in the industry and that will be one of the highlights of 2018.