(Photo by AlLes/Pixabay)
As drivers of standard motor cars, we wear safety belts at all times. Racing drivers, however, have much more extreme needs, wearing safety harnesses that ensure not just safety but comfort. It is quite astounding actually that up until the 1960s, safety belts and harnesses still hadn’t been invented and we drove cars with nothing securing us at all.
Since the 1970s, safety in Formula 1 has advanced so much that is incomparable with yesteryear. Back in the last century, F1 drivers died every season at the wheel, and many of these deaths could have been prevented if safety harnesses had been worn. Back in the 1950s, even championship race drivers simply weren’t strapped in place. They preferred to run the risk of being thrown out of the car on crashing than being trapped in the cockpit.
Certainly, prior to 1961, when roll hoops still weren’t mandatory, there was no point in being strapped into the cockpit of the car, if on rolling it, the drivers head would simply be removed. However, the biggest fear that drivers had that stopped them from wanting to wear safety harnesses was the fear of being stuck in a burning cockpit. It really is quite hard to believe just how much vilification Jackie Stewart received when he pushed for driver safety in the 1960s. The opinion of many was that F1 was simply a dangerous sport and that one of the risks involved with taking part was death, saying that drivers had a choice not to compete if they didn’t like it!
The Formula 1 Six Point Safety Harness
Stewart however persevered in his bid to improve driver safety, and by 1969, when he won his 1st World Championship title things were starting to move in the right direction. In 1972, a six point safety harness became mandatory. Aside from this important change, fuel tanks were now becoming harder to deform and the cockpits of cars were all-enclosing.
Fire-proof race suits became the norm as did stronger helmets. And, after his inversion in his BRM in 1966 at the Belgian GP, where he became pinned to his steering wheel, soaked in fuel, he also started to always carry with him a spanner to remove the steering wheel should another event like it occur. What must be emphasized though is that in an F1 car, the safety harness isn’t just there for the purpose of restraining the driver in the event of an accident.
How much G-force does an F1 car have?
A Grand Prix driver can experience G-forces of up to five times as much as the force of gravity when he breaks sharply into a hairpin bend, the safety harness here ensuring that he is kept firmly in his seat. Without the harness, the feet of the driver would slip off the pedals, and their body would be thrown forward into their steering wheel. A good quality safety harness also prevents fatigue, fixing the driver more firmly into his bespoke seat, the harness ensuring that they don’t have to brace themselves against rearward, forward, and sideways forces that occur on cornering, accelerating, and braking.
Whilst a seat belt in a standard motor car simply runs from the B pillar of the car to the central buckle and across the lap, a safety harness is far more secure. A six point harness included six belts that all meet at a metal buckle that is positioned to be just under the navel of the driver, ensuring that it is far safer and secure than a standard safety belt. A quick release mechanism which engages all six belts in one go also ensures that the driver can get out of his cockpit instantly should he need to do so.
How a six point safety harness works
F1 drivers use six or seven point harnesses to strap themselves into the cockpit of their cars, a similar set up to that found in fighter jets.
Two leg straps, two shoulder straps, and two pelvic straps allow the driver just enough movement in order to be able to steer the car and to reach the buttons and switches that are in their field of vision.
In racing cars, the driver is tightly pushed into his seat, with the aid of a mechanism that fastens the 6 or 7 belts. In the event of an accident or emergency, the driver must be able to leave the car in a maximum of five seconds, the time stipulated in the regulations. This is made possible as all the belts can be released with one twist of the hand. The tasks for the belts are clear; in the event of an accident, the belts should work with the mandatory HANS (head and neck support) to absorb some of the impact energy whilst protecting the driver from smashing into the steering wheel.
Asides from this however, the belts must be extremely tight in order to be effective at high g-forces and extreme high speeds. These g-forces are experienced by the drivers on braking, accelerating, and cornering. The driver himself cannot tighten his belts; this must be done by a mechanic before the race begins.
How do you fit a six point safety harness?
Comfort is relative in F1. If the belts don’t hurt at all, they are not tight enough.
So, why don’t the drivers fasten their own belts? This is all to do with the way the driver is sat in the cockpit. His body is low, his legs raised, and he has limited space by his arms with which to manipulate the safety belts. In a narrow cockpit, there is no elbow room for the driver, the six point harness straddling the shoulders of the driver, going around his waist, and up through the crotch to meet in a buckle.
On one hand, the belts in the six point harness have to be strong enough to protect on impact; however they must have enough give in them to ensure that the driver isn’t injured by the belts in the event of an accident.
To ensure that this dilemma is solved, the manufacturers carry out extensive tests to check the elasticity and strength of the materials used for the belts. Belts are generally made from textile fibre polyester with laterally woven mono-fibres. These fibres act like tiny springs that ensure the belt stays flat when strapped, the load being distributed over the whole width of the belt. The tabs and fittings of the belts are generally manufactured from titanium. In the event of an accident, it must be possible to get the driver out of the car still strapped to the seat if is deemed necessary by the emergency services.
Formula 1 six point safety harness dimensions
For a belt to be approved by the FIA, the straps need to be between forty-four and seventy-six millimetres in width. For HANS usage, only this width of the strap is allowed. When the straps used are HANS Use only, in order to comply with regulations set out by the FIA, a HANS device must be worn. In order to be FIA approved, the straps across the lap can be either 76mm wide or 50mm, this depending on the preference of the driver. Straps that go across the crutch are 44mm in width. Single-seater D crutch and loop straps have a loop that is 25cm on the end of 5-centimetre webbing to thread the strap through the D rings.
In accordance with 8853/98 FIA standards, all the fastening points of the belts must withstand loads of 14.7 kN, this being the equivalent of around 1.470 kg. So, multiply this by 6 or 7 straps, and this equals a total of 8.820 kilograms that is almost 9 tons.