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Brake Lights For Formula One

by Larry Roberts

July 2, 2001

With all the tragic accidents that have occurred in big-time racing during the past two or three seasons, it's to be expected that every possible avenue should be examined to increase the safety of drivers, course workers and spectators.

The first noteworthy contemporary apparatus to be tested and inaugurated into the list of safety systems was a suspension tether device incorporated into Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Champ Car and Indy Racing League (IRL) racing. After more than one fatality that involved heavy suspension and wheel systems flying off crashing race cars and hitting spectators, the tether system was created. These simple fiberglass restraining straps loosely connect suspension parts to the chassis of the car and keep them from ejecting missile-like after a crash. In subsequent situations, these tethers have proved their worth.

Recently, a more sophisticated device has been struggling for acceptance by race drivers world wide. Head and neck injuries are often the causes of driver fatalities under hard impact as the helmet- protected head is subjected to uncontrolled twisting when the vehicle stops but the head does not. To combat this, all auto racing organizations are experimenting with Head And Neck Support (HAND) systems that hold the driver's head firmly in place in the event of a heavy impact.

But many drivers object to HANS devices saying that they're uncomfortable, ungainly in use and in some cases, partially hinder the ability of the driver to get out of the car. The latest driver to vehemently object to the HANS device is Jacques Villeneuve, Formula One driver for the British-American Racing team and a former Indy 500 winner. Comfort and inflexibility are Villeneuve's major complaints.

These types of devices are sometimes new and unusual, but there's another type of safety device being tested by international Formula One teams that is so simple and common that it's a wonder its use hasn't been contemplated before now. Brakes lights that go on when the brake pedal is depressed is undergoing considerable verbal debate and on-track testing at this moment. Ironically, the car or truck that you are driving today utilize brake lights, as have their ancestors for nearly a century.

Almost laughable and open to ridicule in its simplicity, brake lights on race cars that run on road circuits have been cited as a possible preventer of the current rash of Formula One cars simply running into each other entering tight turns or the pit area. The idea has been under consideration for several years now, but it's only been within the past 12 months that the idea has been taken seriously.

One of the tricks used by front-runners is to "brake-test" those following closely behind who are a threat for overtaking and passing. Applying the brakes prematurely makes the overtaking driver also brake early, sometimes in a near panic. It throws the trailing driver off his pace and sometimes causes collisions. This was thought to be the case in the Australian Grand Prix, when a course marshal was killed by a crash involving Villeneuve and front-runner Ralf Schumacher. Villeneuve later claimed the German driver had brake-tested him.

In turn, Villeneuve brake-tested Juan Montoya in Montreal and Richardo Zonta made the same claim after running into the back of Kimi Raikkonen's Sauber at the same race.

These kinds of tricks are extremely dangerous with cars capable of blinding acceleration, 250-plus mph top speeds and almost instantaneous braking.

Hopefully Formula One "dirty tricks" can be curtailed before the FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the sanctioning body of Formula One racing) requires other ancient devices. Having to mandate turn signals on the cars would be embarrassing.