Trackside view: improving street race spectating

Formula E’s debut season could be described as little more than an absolute triumph. The series provided some of the best racing that many fans have seen in years, a thrilling final-race title decider and took in some of the most glamourous locations around the world.

However, the latter point is something that I have been thinking on since the conclusion of the inaugural championship. As anyone who attended the race in London, good vantage points for the on-track action were few and far between, often hidden behind acres of chain-link fencing.

The problem extends to Formula E’s TV coverage, where the street racing approach has necessitated the use of concrete barriers and heavy catch-fencing, meaning the venues have lost some of their character, as only the advertising hoardings are visible from ground shots – not the landmarks that make the host cities so unique and appealing.

So with the likes of Paris joining the championship this year, what more can be done to bring the cities hosting races to life for TV viewers and race-goers?

Seeing through the problem

Watching the next generation of Formula E cars pound round the Donington Park circuit during testing demonstrated two things – a better view of the action can be achieved, but only at the cost of increasing the distance between the cars and the fans.  Something that no one wants.

Could the solution be something as simple as using strengthen plexi-glass alongside race tracks to provide both protection and a good view of racing for those attending races, as well as a clearer view of the atmosphere and backdrop for those watching at home?

Over recent weeks I have spoken with a number of manufacturers of motorsport safety solutions and producers of, amongst other things, bomb-proof glass to understand whether this is a potential solution or a mad-cap idea.

While it quickly became apparent that there are glass solutions available that would provide both a better view and protection for fans, it is clear that such a solution would be at odds with the primary function of track-side safety barriers.

Striking a balance

My exploration into this subject led me to Geobrugg – a safety barrier manufacturer who specialise in motorsport solutions, who have collaborated with the FIA to create barriers for both permanent and temporary race tracks.

As the only company to have successfully tested their debris fence under the supervision of the FIA Institute, they are the ideal commentators on this matter.

Jochen Braunwarth, Motorsport Director at Geobrugg AG, addressed my question of whether toughened glass would meet the necessary requirements of racing safety:

“The intention of street circuits is to bring the race to the spectators and the idea is perfect, but of course spectator safety stays a top priority on every agenda, and should remain so.”

“The task of a barrier is to protect the spectators and to stop a race car with acceptable g-forces on the driver. During an impact the energy must be absorbed. The only option is by deformation – either the car would be deformed or the barrier.”

“Glass wouldn’t be able to absorb the energy and no transparent material comes to mind to build a catch fence which is invisible and allows a perfect view.”

“Unfortunately the truth is that the best view of a race circuit is watching on TV or having a grandstand seat above the debris fence. The second option is, of course, the preferred choice as you will have a good line of sight and the feeling of the race.”

One future solution could well be the use of graphene as transparent tensile wire, but this option is yet to be explored and would be unfeasibly expensive until mass production of graphene becomes commonplace.

Evolving solutions

With transparent materials clearly not a viable option due to their inability to dissipate energy, I asked Braunwarth if a compromise can be struck between greater visibility for fans while maintaining safety integrity.

“With our high tensile wire mesh ROMBO G80/4 we are trying to improve not only the safety for the spectators by also try to work on improving the view of the race itself. This can be achieved through larger post spacing or increasing the spacing of cables or steel struts.”

“Geobrugg has received special approval for permanent installations to increase cable spacing to 50cms instead of 25cm. The result is a much better vision of the race for spectators while also providing an increased safety level.”

A clearer view for Formula E

Braunwarth informed me that Geobrugg will continue to work with the FIA to review options to improve viewing for spectators. But what can Formula E do in the meantime.

The London ePrix made clear some solutions that would be easy to implement. A greater number of grandstands for fans would provide more opportunities for a clearer view of the action, while deploying big-screen TVs at key spots around the track would help fans stay up-to-date on the race around the track.

The training of the overly-officious staff in London was also another clear problem and negated the feel-good atmosphere that had so carefully been constructed.

In short, there is no simple solution, but hopefully this will provide some food-for-thought on how the FIA and FEH can better provide an indication of the atmosphere for fans watching the races at home.

The 2015/16 Formula E Championship commences in Beijing on 24th October.

Do street tracks need to offer better viewing for fans? How would you strike a balance between safety and spectating? Please leave your comments below.

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