Fire Safety in Racing Vehicles
Since the automobile was first invented, drivers have been racing to see who’s a better driver and whose vehicle is the fastest. As vehicles have become faster, the danger to drivers, crew and spectators has increased.
One of these ever-present dangers is fire.
In the early days of motorsport, drivers would race vehicles with little to no protection. Formula 1 was officially classified in 1946 and safety seemed to be the last thing on people’s minds. Vehicles in the 40s did not carry fire extinguishers, due to reluctance to add weight, and drivers wore everyday clothing. Crew safety was at a minimum, resulting in even minor fires getting out of control. Fuel tanks within vehicles were simply panels of aluminium riveted and sealed together, prone to rupturing in a crash and the valves would leak fuel if the vehicle rolled.
When the first fire protection measures were finally introduced in the 60s, they were minimal. The first of which were manual fire extinguisher systems which needed to be engaged by the driver – something rarely done after a disorienting crash.
However in 1975, in an effort to protect drivers, the first fire proof suits were introduced. Modern day Nomex suits can withstand temperatures of 850 degrees C for up to 11 seconds. To put that in real terms - lava burns at between 750 and 1000 degress C.
Today, motor racing’s primary concern is, quite rightly, the safety of the drivers and other persons around a race track. No changes to the sports are considered without first considering the safety implications and dangers to drivers, spectators and track personnel. Racing has evolved hugely since its inception, with new safety procedures and methods being implemented.
Modern racing vehicles have automatic internal fire extinguishers which will fill the cockpit and engine bay and extinguish any fires and are mandatory requirements in many of the racing sports. These extinguishers are triggered when the system senses a fire within the vehicle, often well before it gets out of hand and before the driver realises there could be a problem.
Fuel management has evolved too. Motor sports now require the use of fuel cells, rather than fuel tanks. Originally, fuel tanks were precisely as you might find them in an average car, simply metal or plastic boxes which hold the fuel. Modern racing fuel cells are externally similar, however inside the box is a flexible yet strong bag which holds the fuel. This prevents it from leaking, even if the box splits. The fuel cells are also filled with special foam, which prevents sloshing and limits the flow of fuel in the unlikely even a leak should occur. Emergency fuel cut-off valves are also now located inside and outside the cockpit, as well as electrical shut offs to ensure that fuel does not leak and get ignited.
Look around a modern race course and you will see endless fire safety devices, no matter where you look. Fire safety vehicles are on constant standby and every single member of staff is never more than a stone’s throw from an extinguisher. It’s diligence like this that helps avoid disaster when accidents happen, such as in the Williams pit fire in 2012, caused by an electrical issue from a recently crashed vehicle. Due to the diligence and training of staff in the safety measures, and fire extinguishers supplied by Red Box Fire Control, potent significant injury and property damage was avoided.