The design regulations for the 2016 Formula one cars have remained relatively stable, however one apparently small but significant alteration has presented a number of challenges for the teams. The cockpit surrounding the helmet has been raised some 20 mm to increase protection for the driver’s head.
This change is the result of a report produced by the FIA following the Jules Bianchi crash. The actual FIA document remains secret, though TJ13 understands the recommendations are based on analysis which suggested the type of compression Jules Bianchi’s head suffered could be mitigated by such modifications.
The loading test the new component is required to pass has been increased from 15 kN to 50 KN and this is applied at 90 degrees to the vertical. However, a side benefit of this improved design also enormously improves the vertical structural rigidity of the cockpit surrounding the driver’s head. Combined with the incremental 20 mm raise of the cockpit side, the effect of this regulation would ensure, were the driver’s head forced down at high speed, that it is now better protected from the full compression effect which Bianchi faced.
Prior to Bianchi’s accident, these kind of forces had not been considered and the roll structures of Formula One cars were the primary consideration to protect a driver’s head. Despite this renewed focus on design safety, interestingly the point at which the cockpit rises from broadly the height of the steering wheel to surround the drivers head hasn’t been brought forward. However, the FIA proposed closed cockpit introductions for 2017 would further improve this aspect of safety, though now all will handle the loads Bianchi faced as his car flew into a wedge shaped object pressing his head downwards.
The ‘halo’ closed cockpit solution the drivers prefer provides the least protection in this scenario due to its lack of energy absorption characteristics.
The obvious benefits of the new 2016 regulation are explained by Paddy Lowe in a video released by Mercedes. “It is a very significant increase. It is five tonnes of load that the chassis has to take sideways. It is intended to significantly increase the protection for the drivers should major pieces of debris, including a whole car, arrive at this point.”
Lowe admits this redesign has been a ‘big job’ because, “it is a very significant load increase. It is a matter of how you do it with the minimum intrusion to weight or aerodynamic surface. As always, everything is possible – it is how you do it in the best way.”