Formula 1 has always been a sport with inherent dangers for its drivers. High-speed racing is one of the most demanding and dangerous sports around. As time, attitudes, and technology have moved on, driver safety has become paramount. And the last line of safety in F1 is the safety barrier.
Some F1 circuits do use SAFER barriers, although the number of tracks that use this type of barrier is smaller than those using Tecpro or tire walls. Many F1 circuits have more space and use asphalt run-offs before the need for a barrier, although tighter tracks are now using SAFER barriers, too.
Having proper barriers in place during a Grand Prix can be the difference between life and death in motorsport. In the article below, we’ll discuss the multiple options race organizers have to choose from for each corner and every straight, all of which means safer racing for fans and drivers.
Tecpro and tire barriers are still the most common safety barriers used in F1. However, SAFER barriers have been introduced at certain tracks, especially on specific points of the circuit where it’s been identified as the best available option for driver and fan safety.
Luckily for F1 drivers, safety barriers are often interchangeable, or at least can have uses at certain points on a racetrack, so organizers and safety officials can pick the best barrier for a particular job. This allows organizers to mix-and-match so to speak for the best safety configurations.
Tecpro barriers are used at many F1 circuits because of their compact design. This allows the crowd to be closer to the action, and offers drivers a safer racing experience. One downside to having barriers like Tecpro so close to the edge of the circuit is that any mistake could mean the race needs to be suspended, as they need to be replaced when even slightly damaged.
Tire walls are still widely used in F1, especially now that there have been upgrades to the tire inserts the tires are fitted onto. An inner core surrounded by tires that are then bolted together is still an excellent way to stop a car that is traveling at high speeds.
Another common barrier that’s been in use in motor racing since the 1960s is the Armco barrier. These are steel barriers shaped into a W-shape to improve their strength, the same technique that is now commonplace on public roads worldwide. Although popular, Armco barriers are not easily or quickly repaired, and as such can be problematic to deal with during a race.
What Are SAFER Barriers?
SAFER stands for Steel and Foam Energy Reduction. These barriers work by tethering a steel outer wall to an existing inner wall, with a gap in between that has energy-absorbing foam blocks within. SAFER barriers are primarily used on oval racetracks because of their design and the materials used.
SAFER barriers were specifically designed for racetracks due to the inadequacies of their predecessor, the PEDS Barriers (Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System). The primary goals of SAFER barriers are to:
- Have a flush surface to avoid catching vehicles
- Have retrofitting capabilities to be compatible with multiple existing tracks
- Be a way to stop cars from bouncing back into the track
SAFER barriers are designed to spread the impact of a crash. As the outer steel barrier compacts in, the foam inserts absorb much of the force of impact. Because most SAFER barriers are used on oval tracks, a car hitting one at speed will often hit it at an angle rather than straight on, which spreads the force along a much bigger stretch of the barrier.
A key component of SAFER barriers is that, when struck at speed, they do not bounce a car back into oncoming traffic, thereby decreasing the risk of additional collisions. They can also be retrofitted onto existing walls, which makes upgrading existing racetracks much easier.
Tecpro Barriers are specially designed multi-phase barrier systems designed to absorb impacts while being robust enough to retain their shape and guide a vehicle out of a crash. Tecpro Barriers are easily fitted together and offer multiple layers of shock absorption.
Tecpro Barriers come in two types. One is an absorbent block (usually in red), which is very flexible and is made from hollow foam. The other is a grey reinforced block with a strong outer skin, a soft inner core, and a steel wall running through the middle of the barrier.
A big advantage of Tecpro is the ease with which they can be placed around a track. The barrier is made up of interconnected blocks that can contour to any racetrack shape or size and are an excellent addition to the barriers Formula 1 already uses.
Multiple barriers can work together. It’s not uncommon to see a primary barrier of Tecpro, with a secondary wall of Armco behind it, especially on street circuits where the Armco barrier is already in place for public safety. Tecpro blocks can be placed in front as the first line of defense.
Armco barriers, like many other forms of safety equipment, have had their share of problems, and several drivers have lost their lives in the early years of this type of barrier being introduced into racing, due to the barriers being badly fitted together.
Austrian driver Helmuth Koinigg lost his life at the USA Grand Prix in 1974 when his car suffered a suspension failure and went into the Armco barriers. Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, the barrier had been badly fitted, and his car went through the lower barrier entirely, while the upper barrier remained intact, decapitating the driver as his car passed underneath.
The materials used in making F1 barriers depend upon the type of barrier, but steel, polypropylene, rubber, foam, and concrete are widely used. The science behind the design of each barrier has steadily advanced, ensuring the barriers can safely cushion any impact, protecting the driver.
The materials now used are designed and manufactured to be as energy absorbent as possible, because the speed at which F1 cars can crash has increased exponentially. Should any part of the process fail, the results can be catastrophic, so millions of dollars have been spent on research and development.
Combining materials such as the SAFER barrier, which uses steel outer walls with a highly kinetic-absorbent inner foam block, makes for an excellent barrier. And the construction methods used are well tested. The absorption of energy and the projected reaction of a barrier to being struck at high speeds are both taken into consideration when designing a safety barrier.
Armco barriers, which are easily designed and manufactured from a readily available material like steel, are a widely used option. Tecpro, which uses reinforced plastic blocks to create an excellent barrier that can be quickly repaired, is also easily produced, and offers great protection to drivers.
Tire walls, the most low-tech of the barriers around today, are made up of rubber tires. But even this simple barrier has had an upgrade recently, with tires now stacked up with an inner sleeve made of polypropylene that is highly shock-absorbent and holds the tires together.
One of the first barriers used in motorsports was the straw bale. These were large bundles of hay tied together to make bales that would be positioned around the track, and any driver losing control would hopefully hit the bale and have their crash slowed down.
Straw bales were dangerous, however, because hitting these unsecured, dry, and highly flammable bales of tinder was often as bad for the driver as the crash itself. One horrifying example of straw bales in use was the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix when Lorenzo Bandini lost his life from a fire after a crash.
Bandini, driving for Ferrari, was in second position in the race when his car hit a guard rail, flipped, and began to leak fuel. The flip threw the Ferrari into the straw bales, which then caught on fire. Bandini suffered third-degree burns to over 70% of his body before he was rescued from the wreckage, and sadly passed away from his injuries.
Thankfully, hay bales were banned soon after this tragic accident, and motorsport slowly became more safety conscious. Until this point, many drivers wore open-faced helmets and often drove in short-sleeved shirts to keep them cool while driving, something unthinkable in the modern era.
Catch fencing is another now-defunct type of safety barrier, which is probably a good thing given the many near-misses this type of barrier created for drivers. Catch fencing was implemented to stop cars from going off track by essentially catching the car and preventing it from crashing too badly.
In principle, the idea was sound: An ultra-flexible mesh fence that, once struck, would lose its shape entirely as it folded around the car, preventing it from breaking up or flipping off track. The reality was somewhat different, as the crash would often pull out the poles holding the catch fence in the ground and fling them around at high speeds.
Catch fencing was eventually banned by F1 due to safety concerns. Several drivers were struck unconscious by flying poles or became entangled in the mesh fencing. Carlos Reutemann was almost choked to death in 1981 by the fence becoming so entangled with his vehicle and his windpipe that he had to be cut free by quick-thinking F1 marshals.
Low-Tech Doesn’t Always Mean Low Quality
Tire barriers have been a staple of F1 safety barriers for decades and remain so today. Cheap and flexible, tire barriers are now strapped together to make the entire tire wall a part of the impact zone. A flexible cover at the front reduces the chances of a car clipping a tire and bouncing away.
The smoother outer cover allows a race car to slide along at an angle, or, if going nose-first into the tire wall, stops the car by absorbing much of the impact force. A polypropylene insert inside a stack of tires helps to absorb even more energy, which makes this form of barrier one of the simplest and safest around.
Tire walls are still widely used, although as barrier technologies such as SAFER and Tecpro advance, time will tell if the humble tire wall remains forever. But since the 1970s, this simple yet effective barrier has saved the lives of numerous drivers.
Some Formula 1 circuits use SAFER Barriers, but not all do. Tecpro Barriers and tire walls are widely used as well. These options allow race organizers to make each track as safe as possible for drivers and fans alike by customizing the barriers to specific parts of the track as needed.