Why Race Cars Don’t Have Airbags

ferrari f1 racing car

Racing is the most dangerous yet exciting sport in the world (At least to me). But in these super fast racings, the probability of massive crash is super high and it can be really fatal. But race car safety has been made better now than its early days.

Just in recent memory, F1 driver Kimi Raikkonen walked away from a crash in which he experienced 47 Gs. That’s insane.

You know how many Gs we have here on Earth? One G. But even with the last 100 years of innovation, drivers are still in loads of danger.

So, why don’t race cars have air bags?

In this short article, we’re going to take a look at how safety features in race cars were innovated, from the roll cage to the helmet, to even something as small as the rear-view mirror. We’re going to take a look at why those features are necessary in World Rally Championship racing, Formula 1, and NASCAR. And how those features have trickled down to the cars we drive today.

When auto racing first started, most of the effort of the teams went into making cars faster and virtually no effort was put into making them safer.

Racing was considered a calculated risk for the drivers and death was an unspoken, very real possibility. Every race could be their last. The most dangerous sport has actually made everyday life a lot safer for everyone around the world. In fact, we can thank innovations in racing for almost all the safety features

we have in our cars today. All it took was a bunch of horrific crashes for us to learn.

Rear View Mirrors

Rear view mirrors are crucial for defensive driving and staying aware of your surroundings. The first known instance of a race car driver using a rear-view mirror was Ray Harroun and his Marmon race car at the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. The mirror turned out to be useless during the race though, because the rough surface shook the mirror so hard that Harroun couldn’t focus on anything.

Whoops!

Rear view mirrors have changed very little since then other than their placement. Mostly they’ve remained right outside the cockpit. It doesn’t benefit any car to not see what’s behind them.

Roll Bar/Roll Cage

redbull f1 car roll cageOne device that has a directly measurable impact on driver safety is the roll bar or roll cage. In the event of a car rolling over, these devices literally shield the driver from their surroundings. Some of the first mandated uses of roll bars were in Formula 3 racing, dating as far back as 1948.

Roll bars became mandatory in the USAC Racing Circuit in 1959 and shortly after in Formula 1, following the move to mid-engine placement. But for the better part of the ’60s, roll bars were basically useless in F1. They were very low and didn’t protect the driver very much in a roll over.

Modern F1 cars are built to exact the specifications and utilize the air intake as the roll over point

that protects the driver’s head. Doesn’t seem like it’d be very strong but it’s probably the strongest point on the entire car.

For cars that didn’t have open cockpits, there was the roll cage. The FIA mandated that all cars must use a roll cage or roll bar in 1971. And since then, they’ve been getting stronger and lighter ever since.

One type of racing that has immensely benefited from the use of roll cages is rally racing. They not only protect the driver in the event of a crash or a roll over, but they actually improve the handling and performance of a car because of the added stiffness.

WRC driver Ott Tanak and his co-driver survived a horrific crash at the Rally Monte Carlo earlier this year, thanks to their roll cage. His Hyundai Velostor N flew off the road going 110 miles an hour. But both driver and co-driver walked away from the crash totally unharmed.

Roll cages set the stage for innovations in unibody construction found in production cars for the regular consumer. Stiffer cabin components not only protect drivers in the event of rollovers, but they provide stiffness and reduce body flexing which can drain on performance.

Disc Brakes

Before disc brakes were standard on most cars, drum brakes were the primary means of stopping. In the racing world, the first car to use disc brakes was the BRM type-15 in the late 1951 Formula 1 season.

A Jaguar c-type, equipped with disc brakes, won Le Mans back in 1953, which is the same year that for the first time a production car debuted with disc brakes on all four wheels.

There are many advantages disc brakes have over drum brakes. But first, let’s look at how they both works.

How Drum Brakes Work

A drum brake uses a drum on the interior of the wheel hub. When the brake pedal is pressed, a set of shoes presses outwards against the surface of that drum, creating fiction and slowing the car down.

How Disc Brakes Work

A disc brake has a flat rotor connected to the wheel hub. When the brake pedal is pressed, a caliber pinches the rotor like a mechanical crab claw, slowing the car down.

Disc brakes are way more efficient at dispersing heat and less likely to experience brake fade, which is the loss of efficiency brakes experience when something becomes super-heated.

Something as small as driving over a puddle in a car with drum brakes can lessen their effectiveness, as water can splash inside the drum and make the shoes slip. That sucks.

Nowadays though, Formula 1 cars use carbon composite discs and six piston calibers. The Brabham F1 team was the first to use composite discs in 1976. The composite showed an advantage over other disc materials, like steel or iron, because the carbon’s exceptional, thermal, frictional and anti-warp in capabilities.

Just in the last 10 years of F1 competition, brakes have gotten significantly better. Brake technology from race cars has made the made the technology in production cars much safer.

Modern sports cars exclusively use disc brakes and some use carbon ceramic brakes that cost thousands of dollars to replace and make a lot of noise compared to steel rotors which cause some Porsche owners to complain a few years ago, that their cars were too loud.

Tires

Brakes don’t mean much without good tires and race tire technology has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. There’s a tire for every sort of weather condition, driving style, and racing track.

One reason cars are safer now is because tires have become more predictable. Rubber compounds have been tested and refined for decades now. And the result is a tire that resists ware better, diverts water better, and most importantly, grips the track better.

Tire companies are constantly striving to create the best tire for each application, tweaking compounds and tread patterns to optimize every aspect. The stiffness, the heat threshold, the resistance, the resilience.

Pirelli supplies all the tires used in Formula 1 and every single tire is accounted for with a barcode like they’re in freaky Hitman or something. Technically speaking, F1 teams don’t own the tires, they just lease them from Pirelli.

Pirelli have to do this because the compounds they experiment with could be taken by another company and profited from. There’s a legitimate concern that a rival will get a piece of their tire and reverse engineer the compound by just picking up little marble at the race track. That’s what they call the little rubber bits. So, it’s in Pirelli’s best interest to make sure all these tires make their way back to the lab. Even the ones that disintegrate need to be picked up piece by piece and returned to Pirelli.

Seat Belts

Of the earliest safety devices to appear in race cars is one that we take for granted today. Seat belts. Modern multi point harnesses found in the highest level of racing nowadays started as simple two-point lap belt.

The widespread use seat belts and harnesses in racing didn’t happen until the 1950s. But even then, they weren’t standardized. It was commonly accepted that a crash would be safer if the driver was ejected from the car which might otherwise trap them in flames.

It wasn’t until physicians in the 1930s started testing safety belts that they saw undeniable proof that the restraint of a seat belt was much safer than being flung out of a car. But it still took a long time after that to convince some drivers and racing teams that it was, in fact, safer.

Although loosely enforced, NASCAR started requiring safety belts since the 1940s. Things got better in 1958 when a Swedish engineer at Volvo by the name of Nils Bohlin invented the three-point safety belt.

The addition of the second strap across the driver’s torso restrained the top half of the body from whipping forward into the steering wheel. Nils could have licensed his three-point seat belt out to manufacturers and made a ton of money. But he chose to leave the patent open for other companies to use freely. That’s truly selfless. The world thanks you, Nils.

While some race teams have historically been opposed to increasing safety measures, mainly because of the added cost, some drivers have fought to have better safety standards.

We’ve all seen the old footage of Le Mans drivers running to their cars starting a peeling out, right? Well, that tradition changed after 1969. That year, Jacky Ickx had suffered the loss of his teammate. And as a result, protested the traditional start over safety concerns.

Instead of running over to his car like the rest of his drivers, Jacky walked over to his GG40 and took extra time to put on his safety belt. He may have lost his starting position but he wanted to prove that it was better to be safe than sorry.

His point was further emphasized a short time later when British driver, John Wolfe, slid out into the grass and crashed his Porsche 917 on the first lap of the race. Because Wolfe’s Porsche didn’t have a seatbelt, he was ejected from his car and killed. Jacky Ickx won Le Mans that year, proving his point that safety is worth the extra effort. And the next year the rules were changed to make the start of the race safer.

Another Jackie, the legendary race driver, Sir Jackie Stewart, pushed for improved safety a few years earlier in Formula 1. Which led to the mandated use of the six point harness. Nowadays, racing harnessing in Formula 1 have to keep the driver snug in their cockpit while dealing with more force than ever before.

Hard braking in an F1 car can produce as much as 5 Gs. If the driver didn’t have something holding them back, that force would send them straight into the steering wheel.

Modern harnesses are able to withstand a load of almost 10 tons of force. The harness also needs to be able to stretch and give a little in the event of a crash so that the blow is softened. Even just a few milometers can drastically cut down the amount of bodily harm.

But drivers also have to be able to get out of their car quickly in case it starts on fire. And that’s why modern racing harnesses have a quick release so drivers don’t have to fumble around with six or seven straps. It’s just a quick boop and then they’re running away from their flaming car.

Helmet

One of the most significant safety innovations in the history of racing is the helmet. Helmets have been around in racing since the beginning. But they’ve evolved a lot from the cloth skull caps of the early 20th century.

Thin leather helmets and goggles were common but didn’t provide much protection at all. I can’t imagine why. In the 1920s and ’30s, some drivers used football helmets or firefighter helmets because they protected better than the racing helmets.

Modern Formula 1 helmets are the safest they’ve ever been. The outer shell is made of carbon fiber and has small, polycarbonate thins to direct air around the driver’s head. Because in open wheel racing, the driver’s head affects the overall aerodynamics of the car. Also, you’re going so fast that it might pull the helmet off your head. Those little thins keep it down, it’s like having a spoiler on your helmet.

The inside of the helmet is Kevlar, molded around the specific driver’s head. The visor also has multiple transparent sheets that can be pulled off in case debris clouds the driver’s vision. You know, tear offs.

After Formula 1 driver Felipe Massa took a spring to the dome at 160 miles an hour while qualifying at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, a small carbon fiber shield was added to the top of the visor. The force of the spring hitting his helmet was equivalent to being shot with an AK-47. Luckily, Massa recovered and continued his career after the accident. He actually retired twice.

To help the driver breathe, there are also ports for ventilation. But when it comes to airflow, NASCAR helmets have F1 beat by a country mile. Modern NASCAR helmets have a tube at the back that connects to a fresh air intake.

Air flows through the tube and around the driver’s head during a race. And that is crucial when the temperature in stock cars climbs bast 130 degrees in the (beep)-pit and up to 170 degrees by the pedals. Race drivers are known to lose up to 10 pounds of body weight from sweat during a race.

HANS Device

helmet and hans deviceIn addition to a helmet, modern drivers wear a HANS device or head and neck support. This device restrains the head from whipping forward in a crash. The straps and harness help to reduce neck tension 81% and a total neck load of 78%.

When unrestrained, drivers can suffer a Basilar skull fracture, which is tragically what happened to NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Following Earnhardt’s passing, NASCAR mandated that all drivers wear a HANS device.

Mercedes helped developed the HANs device that’s been used in F1 since 2003. They’re different systems than the ones used in NASCAR but they work on the same principle.

So, among all this innovation striving towards having the safest vehicle possible,

Finally, the reasons why race cars don’t have airbags

Well, there are two different approaches to safety that fill two different needs. And to understand why race cars don’t have airbags, you have to understand what those needs are.

Race cars have different safety needs than passenger cars meant for the road. Comfort isn’t a big a concern in a race car because it’s all about going fast. But comfort is a huge concern in road cars. You need room to move around, stretch, observe your surroundings, grab your coffee, adjust your mirror, whatever. All that requires space to move around.

The more room you have in your car, the further your body is going to travel in the event of a crash. But that means there’s more time for your body to slow down. And that’s what safety features in passenger cars do. They slow your rate of deceleration.

The crumple zone is the first area of impact. It takes a lot of the force of the crash and slows the car down, dispersing the force over the whole car. As your body goes forwards, the seat belt restrains you while also giving a little bit of slack to slow your body down even more. As your body continues to move forward, the airbag expands to meet your chest and face and absorb that impact.

Hopefully slowing your body down enough, that the next impact, your organs hitting your skeleton, doesn’t completely turn you into jelly. Sounds delicious? Actually, very uncomfortable.

A race car has most of these features but heavy-duty versions of them to deal with the extra force of going 200 miles an hour. Race cars have crumple zones much like road cars that help disperse some of that energy. But that’s where the two diverge.

The biggest difference the two is the amount of space between the driver’s seat and the steering wheel. Race cars are built for speed with driver comfort being less important. If the cockpit had any more space,

that would directly impact the weight and aerodynamics of the car. So, the cockpit is engineered to be as compact as possible.

Racing harnessing are designed to restrain a driver much more than a normal seat belt plus the HANS device. This is all to say that the driver is not moving much at all. So, if an airbag went off, it wouldn’t do its intended duty and slow the driver down. It might not even reach the driver.

An airbag would probably make driving an F1 car more dangerous. Rally drivers often hit curbs and get in small accidents but keep driving as if their car is totally fine. The truth is, minor impacts could set that airbag off, obstructing the driver’s view when they might need to get out of the way. And then they’d probably need to stop and replace the module costing them precious time on the track.

And then there’s the issue of engine fires. If driver crashed and the airbag went off, it would also make it a lot harder to undo the harness and get out of the car in the event of the fire. And that’s probably the worst way you can go, trapped in a burning car.

On that horrifying note, thank you so much for being here on wowracer.com. Happy Racing!

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