Hearing the news that a car has passed its crash test is now commonplace in racing circles. As advances in computer software through the design phase improves, so does the ability to predict how one will deform, but it was not always the case. Racecars from all series have often failed their first impact tests before heading to the track, particularly as rules tightened at key moments and design teams had to react quickly, perhaps with the risk of losing performance.
Long gone are the days when crash testing meant dropping a car, or component, from a crane into the ground to estimate the likelihood of a driver surviving the impact. Also behind us are the days when racecars would not even be tested, extra material only being added in order to improve performance, rather than driver safety.
Today’s crash test criteria are stringent and the results are clear to see. Advances in composite materials, accident investigation and computer design have all helped create regulations that have yielded some of the safest racecars ever produced.
Yet, in order to approve car design before the cars hit the track, a component, or car, needs to be properly evaluated. And for that to happen, FIA-approved crash testing facilities have been created in order to conduct repeatable, measurable tests. One of these is housed on the campus at Cranfield University in the UK, and it is not unusual to have Formula 1 and WEC cars pass through the doors to reach certification for racing.
When we visited the facility, essentially a hangar in which all the test and measuring equipment is housed, there were a range of vehicles that either have been tested, or are about to be, including a Dakar tube-frame chassis and, sitting next to that, a wheelchair. In a box next to the wheelchair are bolts which hold Formula 1's Halo device in place.
This is not just a racecar test facility, and those running the tests are not necessarily racing fans. Their sole goal is to establish if a vehicle, or component, is fit for purpose, and they have been doing that for 40 years.
In order to understand the challenge that the crash testing process poses, a design team must create a monocoque, or tub, from which the component parts of the racecar are hung. These include the front crash structure, side-impact protection as well as functional items such as the front suspension and side radiators. However, the tub’s primary function is to be the survival cell for the driver in the event of an accident, one in which the body will be as protected as possible.
From the roll hoop above the driver’s head to the bottom of the tub, normally sculpted for aerodynamic efficiency, the structures have to withstand enormous pressure in a combination of both dynamic and static tests to prove not only strength, but also the correct deformability for a given part.
The former essentially establishes deformity in the event of an accident, the latter ensures the parts are fitted well enough that they don’t simply fall off at a measured minimum impact speed.
The combination has produced cars that are capable of withstanding impacts that previously may have led to injury or death of a driver, but there is more to the tests than simply crashing a component, car or wheelchair into a solid wall. In order to prove the parts are able to withstand impact, each test must be measurable, repeatable and accurate. Data gathered must then be shared with the design team and governing body to confirm the car is safe before it is put into production, or allowed to race.
In order to do that, not only must the equipment be maintained to the highest level but the latest technologies need to be incorporated, including high-definition cameras, accelerometers and computer software. The results must be fully understood too, in order to provide meaningful reports back to the involved parties.
The history of crash testing at Cranfield stretches back to the mid-1980s. Prior to that, teams would generally only strengthen their cars to increase torsional rigidity for the purpose of improved performance. Lotus and McLaren brought carbon chassis to Formula 1 in the early 1980s and, although the structures were stronger, and protected the driver better, it was not necessarily for that purpose carbon tubs were introduced.
Lighter and stiffer, the cars were going to be faster than their aluminium-bodied competitors and, as such, had a performance advantage. However, back then there was less knowledge of how to lay up the carbon fibres for strength and specialists were needed to ensure the finished racecar was as strong, or stronger, than an aluminium one.
Even then, actually testing the car for strength was not a priority. ‘There was a regulation change in 1983 where we had to add a bit of extra box section on the front, which I remember was a bit optimistic,’ recalls Brian O’Rourke, former chief composites engineer at Williams Grand Prix Engineering. ‘Those things were not very substantial.’
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