Lateral Impact Thinking

Date published: February 28 2015 - Editor

There’s nothing F1 likes more than a great big rumour. So when Fernando Alonso’s McLaren clattered into the inside wall after Turn 3 at Barcelona a week ago – with little or no video footage to show what went wrong – the situation was right for some ferocious speculation.

The precautionary airlift to hospital gave the story immediate 'front-page appeal'. And when the routine check-up turned into an overnight stay – and then another one – the stories started to gain traction. The most lurid of them had been that Fernando Alonso had been unconscious when he hit the wall, that unconsciousness having been brought about by:
Theory A: An electric shock
Theory B: Fumes from the battery.

With no in-car camera to see Alonso's hands on the wheel (or swiftly taken off the wheel at the time of impact) random theories thrived. Sebastian Vettel, who had witnessed the incident from his following Ferrari described it as a 'strange accident', which helped people believe that something was amiss.

Part of the paddock’s insatiable appetite for rumours is down to the teams' desire to micro-manage their drivers' press statements and what they release to the media. Commentators lament the loss of characters like James Hunt or Gilles Villeneuve who said exactly what they thought. And so the pressure to find a flaw in McLaren’s official line was strong.

McLaren put the accident down to a gust of wind on what had been an incredibly windy day and pointed out that it had also caught out Carlos Sainz Junior (or as Eddie Jordan likes to call him "Another Carlos Sainz"). The parallels between the two didn't exactly help. McLaren were talking about the best driver in F1 who has spent  many years pounding round that particular turn and comparing him to a rookie.

The team explained that Alonso's telemetry showed he was braking right up until the moment of the crash and hence was fully conscious. And the fact that he suffered temporary amnesia about the accident is really no big deal. A colleague was cycling home the other evening and suddenly found himself on the deck in a quiet London road, with a broken foot, surrounded by people  saying "are you all right, mate?"

His bike was hardly damaged. He cannot remember what happened, but from the reaction of pedestrians it was a solo accident. He was kept in UCL hospital overnight but a lack of telemetry means it will remain a mystery. But that could have been a gust of wind.

Autosport (and formerly the BBC's) technical editor Gary Anderson weighed into the argument with characteristic suspicion. He's never come across as a big fan of the team ever since he criticised  McLaren for spending ages to change a gearbox, not realising times had moved on since he was Jordan Technical Director. Martin Whitmarsh politely pointed out that it was at least three wigs ago since teams could change gearboxes in the speed that Gary had in mind.

Writing in Autosport, Gary railed: "Take Fernando Alonso's crash. A statement was released saying that there was no change in the aerodynamic loads on the car, it was because of a gust of wind. But wind changes the aerodynamic loads – that's why the driver has to deal with sudden understeer or oversteer and all of a sudden is in the wall. While there's a degree of McLaren trying to clarify what happened given some of the inevitable rumours that do the rounds, it's simply not true that there was no change. Why say these things? It makes you question the mindset in the team."

Perhaps they just meant there wasn’t a failure, Gary?

What should clearly be taken into account is the sheer lack of running that Alonso has had on the 2015 Pirelli rubber. Familiar corner, yes, but unfamiliar tyres. Lewis Hamilton has already talked about how incredibly difficult it has been to get the 2015 Pirelli tyres to work in low temperatures. And in trying to extract performance, he’s spun the car off into the gravel. So has Nico Rosberg and so has four-times World Champion Sebastian Vettel. And they've all done it after many many more laps experience of the 2015 tyres than Alonso had managed in the stuttering McLaren-Honda.

The most important consequence to draw from Alonso's accident is the safety implication. The FIA were already in the process of attaching cameras to cars when two or more are testing together, so the accident will only re-affirm that step forward.

The second consequence was the head impact. Right across sport there is a growing awareness of the effects of concussion on sportsmen and women. In rugby, in football, players are being taken off the pitch and taken out of the game when they have had a clash of heads or a serious knock. The same degree of caution is being extended in motorsport.

Lotus driver Romain Grosjean talked about the kind of impact Fernando suffered. " We need to get the drivers safety a bit higher when it involves a lateral impact. If you hit the wall sideways, the wishbones are not designed to break in that way. If they stay in one piece, the energy has to go somewhere , and that's in the driver."

So that will certainly have given the F1 technical group something to think about. Nico Rosberg's phenomenal 1:22 lap in Friday testing has shown that F1 cars could be over three seconds a lap quicker this year, heightening the focus on safety.

It's still two weeks to go till Melbourne and given Fernando Alonso's fearsome ability to defy the odds, it's very unlikely he won’t be there. The bigger question at the moment is what shape will his car be in…?

Andrew Davies