Grand Prix focuses attention on motorsport safety innovations

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford
News editor

Formula 1 remains a valuable tool for raising the profile of engineering, although it’s still not actually attracting talent into the discipline

The first topic of conversation at Centaur Towers this morning surrounded F1 racing driver Fernando Alonso’s seemingly miraculous escape from injury following a nasty prang at the Melbourne Grand Prix.

Alonso, who drives for McLaren-Honda, was attempting to pass Haas’s Esteban Gutierrez on turn three, lap 16 when his front right wheel came into contact with his opponent’s right rear wheel.

From the safety of our armchairs, we saw how the resulting barrel roll appeared to fold Alonso’s car into smaller and smaller parts before coming to rest.

The resulting debris was scattered so extensively that it prompted a red-flag stoppage, yet Alonso walked away relatively unscathed.

“The reason I’m still alive is probably thanks to all the fantastic work the FIA has done over the past 10 or 15 years to improve safety, work they continue to do,” Alonso commented. “And I’m also grateful to everyone at McLaren, who built me such a strong and safe car.”

Eric Boullier, racing director at McLaren-Honda added: “Before I say anything else, I want to praise two things: the structural integrity of modern-day Formula 1 cars, and the safety features of modern-day racetracks. Fernando’s shunt was a big one, and the fact that he was able to walk out of his car after such a heavy impact is impressive indeed.”

At the conclusion of the race Mercedes took 43 constructors’ and drivers’ championship points and The Engineer’s April 2016 cover feature will look at the engine modifications making these early achievements in the F1 season possible.

At all levels of the F1 race, engineers have done their best to give drivers the tools they need to stay safe and win, or just stay safe in the case of Alonso yesterday.

It isn’t, of course, a sector that fails to attract new talent but there are plenty that do and some perplexing conclusions were drawn last week from an international survey of 16-17 year olds that found UK teenagers interested in technology but not so keen to pursue it as a career.

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering’s Create the Future Report surveyed ten of the world’s largest economies and found that UK teenagers’ interest in technology (85%) outstrips the global average of 81%. Despite this, just over a fifth (21%) said they were interested in translating that interest in technology into a career in engineering.

According to the results, the highest motivator (36%) to becoming an engineer was the opportunity to create new innovations, have an impact on society and make a difference to the world. These factors ranked above career opportunities, income and security and respectability.

Just below three quarters (72%) of young people thought climate change and depleting energy resources (73%) are major concerns for the future, with half feeling optimistic that engineering can address these issues in the next 20 years.

Despite this, around 30% of potential engineers were put off the career as they felt an engineering degree was too hard, too expensive and that they lacked adequate funding for training.

A mountain of debt is hardly the most enticing reason to enter higher education, although it seems to be the default position for schools across the country to push their brightest down this avenue.

If National Apprenticeship Week showed us anything, it was that a little deferred gratification can go a long way, should someone wish to stick with his or her chosen STEM related discipline and do the academic study after they’ve done the tools.

And as for engineering degrees being too hard? Per capita, there won’t be too many people that breeze – academically unchallenged – through their time in higher education, and surely the entire point of such an enterprise is to be challenged?

A few decades ago F1 drivers successfully lobbied for safety changes at F1 racetracks and since then the sport has maintained an upward safety trajectory that is currently seeking to improve things further with the so-called Halo Cockpit, as our Secret Engineer columnist discussed recently.

Politics off the track and engineering challenges on the track have seen F1 reach a level of safety that was unheard of in the ‘50s, ‘60 and ‘70s but outside of sport there are global challenges that need engineers to step up and help with providing solutions.

By way of a further example, this spring sees Hybrid Air Vehicles launch Airlander 10, an aircraft they describe as “an ultra-endurance comms and monitoring platform for cargo without need for airports or other infrastructure”, and in Wales, plans are moving forward for a 320MW tidal lagoon Swansea Bay that will be designed to provide energy for 120 years.

In last week’s budget, George Osborne announced plans for Crossrail 2 in London; trials of autonomous lorry ‘platooning’ and driverless cars to take place by 2017; a £15m ‘connected corridor’ of infrastructure between London and Dover that will be able to communicate with in-vehicle systems; and a High Speed rail link between Leeds and Manchester.

All of these endeavours will in some way improves people’s lives, improve infrastructure and benefit the economy and let’s just hope they aren’t seen as a little bit too difficult or tricky, or we might all get trampled in the rush for a cave.