Seatbelt monitoring : safe and secure

A new digital device has been developed to ensure racing drivers’ seatbelts are always fastened securely, whether they are changing cars in Formula E or replacing a team-mate in sports cars
FIA, Motorsport, Mobility, Road Safety, F1, WRC, WEC, WTCC, World RX

It only lasts for two seconds, but the blue light on the nose of a Formula E car (activated during the pit-stop) has become one of the most important additions to the electric racing championship. It tells the team (and the Race Director) when a driver’s seatbelt has been fastened to the perfect amount of tension to keep them safe. This has enabled the championship to reduce pit-stop times and increase the excitement for fans.

The Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety, the research partner of the FIA Institute, has been working with British motor sport and engineering group Prodrive to create this measurement device, which registers when the correct load has been applied to ensure the driver is strapped in properly. It then communicates with the data logger in the car, informing the pit crew and giving the all-clear to race control.

Originally, researchers had been working on this device for other championships, but then Formula E came along with its unique car changes during pit-stops.

“The initial target was actually to address a potential safety issue in the World Endurance Championship,” explains Laurent Mekies, the Global Institute’s General Manager Research. “When there is a necessity for a driver change during the pit-stop, they try to do that as fast as possible, but we need to ensure it is also as safe as possible.

“In Formula E we had a similar but probably a more pressing need due to the fact that the drivers are actually changing car themselves mid-race. As this is the only thing that they do in the pit box there is therefore a large amount of pressure on the teams and drivers to do that quickly.”

This is why the devices were introduced into Formula E  rst. Each device is housed in a small box the size of a smartphone and two are attached to a driver’s shoulder harnesses. When the belts are being pulled tight they push against internal springs, and once the appropriate amount of force has been applied a micro-switch is activated, initiating the blue light on the car’s nose.

“It’s a simple device that triggers at around 13kgs of force on the shoulder belt tightening strap,” says the Global Institute’s Senior Research Advisor Peter Wright, who is leading the project. “There is a display in the car to help the drivers and mechanics know that they have triggered it.” 

The device was engineered and produced by Prodrive’s technology department under guidance from Wright and was introduced at the start of the second Formula E season last October.

“The introduction has been remarkably smooth and we didn’t have a lot of pushback against them,” Wright says. “I think the teams like the fact that they can then go for a fast car change and get their drivers out onto the track again quickly instead of sitting there waiting for the time period to come to an end.”

As a result, compulsory pit-stop change times were reduced by around 10 seconds per race in the 2015/16 season. However, it did not lead to the championship scrapping the time limit altogether as concerns remain over teams taking higher risks in their quest for faster stops.

“When we introduced the device, we did not remove the compulsory pit-stop time because we felt it could lead the teams to unnecessary risk-taking not only in the driver change but also in and around it,” says Mekies. “But we reduced it so that we kept the competitive aspect of the pit-stop.”

Although there have been no reported incidents of a Formula E driver trying to leave their garage before triggering the device since it was introduced, the FIA stewards at every ePrix would be able to apply a penalty if any such attempt was made.

“All the information is logged in real time and is accessible for the stewards,” says Mekies. “Therefore if it was felt that someone had done something wrong there would be enough material in the regulations to award a penalty.”

The logical progression for this device is to incorporate a system to detect if a driver has loosened their belts before arriving at their garage (to try to gain a time advantage) and a phase two module is in development. “We’re implementing a simple alarm that could say whether the adjustments have been changed,” explains Wright.

While the second iteration of the belt device is still very much in its infancy, there are plans to introduce it into the categories it was originally conceived for: WEC and sports car racing.

“What the current device doesn’t do is record if a driver loosens his belts,” says Mekies “But this is a need for Formula E and especially WEC in order to stop drivers there from potentially loosening their belts on an in-lap or in the pitlane.”

If technical development for the updated belt device goes well, it could be introduced into Formula E and endurance racing series for the 2017 season. But its applications could be wider still: “If you think about categories like cross-country motor sports,” says Mekies, “you want to ensure that the guys who compete there stay tight for the length of the day over long special stages. In that case you need a device which is able to detect if the guys are untying their belts and that’s what the phase two device is aiming for.”

This article comes from FIA Magazine Auto #16. You can read the full magazine here.