Since the 1950s, motorsport has been a place where new technologies are available before they come to the wider market; LED headlamps were actually developed for the 24 Hours of Le Mans before being introduced into the automotive sector.
As a result, in championships all over the world, the levels of safety are much greater and the advancements in technology is partly the reason to thank for this.
Kevin Harvick is the 2014 NASCAR Series Sprint Cup champion and has been professionally competing since 2001 when he made his Sprint Cup debut. Now, he races a Ford Mustang. During his time spent in the paddock, he has seen the vast evolution as far as gear and equipment is concerned. This spans from seemingly small innovations like a nine-point seat belt harness to new lightweight helmets and cameras that feedback real-time footage to the team.
“I have seen the evolution and the effort that our industry has put into safety - the helmet has been one of the bigger impacts for me because I have had some issues with my neck,” Harvick tells Eurosport. “My helmet now is much lighter and quieter - it is 20 decibels quieter than the helmet that I wore before. That helps with communication and fatigue on your neck. I have no more neck issues and I do not think I have a hearing problem anymore because I can actually hear inside of the helmet as opposed to just hearing the engine noise!”
Photo credit: Stewart-Haas Racing
Harvick has had a long and successful career and he is now one of the most recognisable faces of NASCAR with his name in the top-10 of the most decorated drivers of the series. He puts the trust of his life in his gear and equipment when he goes racing.
“You are basically sitting in a cocoon that is moulded to your body.
I tell people all the time that I am more comfortable in my race car than I am in my street car because it’s built for me.
“It is those big high-impact wrecks that you try and prepare for so you make sure all that stuff is right - you are making sure you have the nine-point harness that we wear from a seat belt standpoint or the type of foam that you’re using in your headrest to make sure you do not get a concussion during an impact.”
Now, motorsport is at a remarkable place where the use of groundbreaking science is being implemented to aid performance.
NEW TECHNOLOGY FOR A NEW ERA
The FIA - the governing body of Formula 1 - introduced an array of technology to enhance safety and performance. One of the biggest new innovations is the implementation of LED lights into an F1 car’s cockpit dashboard to alert the driver of changing track conditions - for example a safety car or a red flag.
Another new exciting advancement comes from the motor company Ford, who is currently in the process of developing a helmet that is able to measure brain activity which can be translated to driver performance.
This device is called the EEG helmet and uses the brain’s alpha waves to indicate how well a driver is doing over any given part of the track or rally stage.
“We have been working on this for two or three years,” says Yates Buckley who is the Research Lead at Unit9 - a company that is aiding Ford to develop this remarkable piece of equipment. “The birth of it was to try and get some insight into what it is like from the point of view of the driver, what it is like to be a driver and what is happening in the mind of the driver while they are competing.”
The science behind the invention is to look at EG - electroencephalogram - which measures brain waves, something which would not traditionally relate to motorsport at all. Quite frankly, this fascinating invention is one that would have never been paired with traditional motorsport.
“We have had to reinvent the way we record EG,” Buckley says. “When you measure EG in the hospital, you have this big room. There is no interference and you sit in a very still position. Even those little gel containers cannot translate to a race track - it is bulky and heavy and susceptible to noise from the surrounding environment.”
They are now at the stage where this device has been tested on drivers, including FIA World Rally Championship driver Gus Greensmith.
“We have had to build a measurement tool kit which can allow us to take apart the relationships between the driver, the car and the track and tease out information about what is going on,” Buckley says. “That has been the core of the effort - trying to build readable metrics and what is useful for the driver to help them.”
Greensmith - who drives for the Ford-backed M-Sport team - has been involved in the project since its early stages and thinks this is a “tool” which will aid his driving ability in the future. It is evident that he is intrigued by this new method of measuring performance.
“I have been doing some of the initial testing at M-Sport’s testing facility,” Greensmith says. “I was wearing the helmet and they were studying the alpha waves and the results. It was really interesting to see exactly what information it gave me.”
As a driver, he would be able to determine the level of fitness he possesses and what areas of the rally stage or track he needs to dedicate more focus to.
“There are so many exterior factors that impact your concentration,” Greensmith tells Eurosport.
Being able to have a baseline and compare this from the beginning of the stage to the end of the stage - in terms of a split time or large drop offs, then you can look at the data and see your concentration pattern.
The EEG helmet is at the stage where Greensmith and other drivers have been testing it on rally stages so the researchers can gain vital information from the experiments.
“The feel of it felt no different to another helmet,” he says. “I would absolutely make use of it as it would help me as a driver and the engineers to improve the car. We would be able to identify things a lot quicker in terms of why we are not performing or why we are performing really well. The quicker we identify these things, the quicker we improve or the quicker we make bigger steps forward in the future.”
Aniruddh Ravindran has a background in biomedical engineering in neuroscience, working as a Research Scientist within Ford’s Brain-Machine Interfaces research team.
“It is all about recording electrical activity of the brain,” Ravindran says. “You can measure this from any part of the brain and these signals can be analysed to understand what the brain activity means.”
This research is not necessarily new. According to Ravindran, scientists have been looking into this for the past century to diagnose disorders and diseases of the brain. However, the new aspect is concerned with brain function and motorsport and using the two to enhance driver performance.
“Most of the research and effort has been in the academic area and medical field,” he says. “The technology to record the brain activity has evolved quite a lot. Currently, there is now hardware available where you can just wear a cap on the head and attach the electrodes to record electrical activity of the brain. By looking at these signals, you can tell a lot about what is going on. It is really moving forward from medical spaces to commercial spaces.”
It may be a few years before we see racing drivers wearing Ford’s EEG helmet during events, but the progress that has been made with the concept is astounding.
From talking to Ford drivers Harvick and Greensmith, it is clear that motorsport’s attention has been on improving safety. Now those advancements have been made, companies like Ford can use science to enhance driver performance in the future whilst ensuring the athletes are still as safe as possible in the long run.
By Helena Hicks