Medical helicopters, Nurburgring, 2020

F1 drivers briefed on alternative medical evacuation plan after cancelled sessions

2020 Eifel Grand Prix

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Formula 1 has put new medical evacuation procedures in place to avoid a repeat of Friday’s cancelled practice sessions at the Nurburgring.

Drivers were briefed on details of the new procedures after first and second practice were abandoned as fog around the circuit prevented the use of the medical helicopter, meaning the sessions could not start.

Under FIA rules, it must be possible to transport an injured driver in need of hospital treatment to a suitable facility within 20 minutes. None of the Renault Clio Cup or Touring Car Legends support race sessions at the track we able to go ahead either.

The location of the modern Nurburgring is particularly prone to experiencing foggy conditions. Therefore the race organisers plan to transport casualties a short distance by road, where they will then be transferred to a helicopter, which should be able to complete the remaining distance in better visibility, while ensuring the time limit is satisfied.

Williams driver Nicholas Latifi extended his sympathies to spectators who spent all day at the wet track without seeing any cars on track.

“I feel sorry for all the fans who were out in the cold and wet waiting for us to get some on track action, but that’s how it goes sometimes,” he said. “Hopefully the conditions will be better tomorrow and we can make up for it.”

Better weather conditions are expected over the next two days at the Nurburgring, meaning the new back-up plan may not be needed. The next F1 session at the track, third practice, is due to begin at 12pm local time.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
Keith Collantine
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20 comments on “F1 drivers briefed on alternative medical evacuation plan after cancelled sessions”

  1. How long has the 20 minute rule been a thing? I know I’ve heard it cited over the past few years, but I also feel like I’ve seen quite a few races where visibility would have been terrible for flying.

    1. The thing is, if it “just” rains a helicopter can manage @knewman. The issues are mainly with fog which obscures the view, hiding hills obstuctions like power lines, towers etc and with high winds or forcefull gusts of wind which can make it unsafe to fly.

      The idea is to get an ambulance to drive out of the “vally” where a helicopter can then get on without being in the fog. The rule has been in place for quite a few years, I’d say its been at least 2 decades already.

    2. On one visit maybe 25 years ago, the Sunday morning Warm-Up (remember them?) was cancelled because of thick fog. The helicopter unable to fly. Seated high in the main grandstand opposite the pits I couldn’t even see the track. Thankfully the sun burnt the fog away eventually.

      1. Ah yes, race day warm-up on Eurosport :)

        One of my visits to Spa had Practice 3 cancelled, also because of fog

      2. If that was 25 years ago, it was the Europe GP of 1995, IMO one of the best races in the last 40 years.
        Also, I miss the warm up also, that some driver/team find a completely different and perfect setup and manages to climb from the back of the grid or the opposite, some front team messing up and loosing ground on race trim.

    3. @knewman the idea is that it is meant to be 20 minutes by the chosen means of transport – whilst a helicopter is often used to meet that time, if a road journey can be completed within that timeframe, then that would be considered an acceptable alternative.

      It was one of the reasons why a number of observers were very critical of the FIA’s handling of Suzuka and the 2014 Japanese GP when Bianchi’s fatal accident occurred – because the circuit promised that they could transport drivers by road to a medical facility within that time frame, when in reality it took over twice that time for Bianchi to be transported from the circuit to the hospital.

      The exact timing isn’t immediately clear, but certainly Watkins was insisting on medical transport helicopters being made available for medical staff in the late 1970s. There are reports that, following Peterson’s death due to medical complications that were, in part, due to delays in medical treatment, Watkins asked Ecclestone to arrange for an anaesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter to be available in the next race in the United States, with Ecclestone duly arranging it.

      Although an exact 20 minute rule might not have come in until later, it does seem that the pressure from Watkins and Ecclestone – it does have to be said that Watkins has said that his success owed a lot to Ecclestone providing the political musclepower to get changes made – meant that, by the late 1970s, there was an expectation that circuits would provide medical transport helicopters for quickly transporting those who needed medical treatment.

    4. @knewman The 20-minute rule has been around since Sid Watkins introduced it in, I think, 1982 (it took a few years for Sid and Bernie to convince the last straggers to comply, but once the FISA-FOCA war ended in mid-1981, the circuits lost their leverage to protest any measures the duo suggested). Originally, it was aimed at the road ambulances, but the expected proximity between track and major hospitals nowadays mean that we won’t see a F1 air ambulance given instructions (even hypothetically) to fly over 20 minutes (that part of the regulation is nowadays used to prevent backsliding). The original reason for the rule was to oblige the vast majority of circuits to hire private air ambulances for the F1 drivers, because they are extremely expensive.

      The main problems for the air ambulance are (in no order) fog, very low cloud (any significant cloud below 1000 m, or lots of it between 1000 m and 2000 m), heavy wind (though we’re talking near-gale-force, so rarely a showstopper in itself for F1) and (for venues not set up for it) night.

      Also, I am in no way convinced that the alternative system is in compliance with the letter, let alone the spirit, of the regulations. The 20-minute rule for road transport is door-to-door; there is no exemption that permits hybridisation of the journey. If the alternative helipad is 3 km from the track, then that’s 6 of the 20 permitted minutes just going from the track to the helipad. Add 2 extra minutes to transfer the patient from the ambulance to the helicopter, as well as the 2 minutes it took to get from the circuit medical centre to the circuit gate in the first place (if I recall, the circuit medical centre is the point from which all this is measured), then the helicopter would have only 10 minutes to travel the remaining 64 km. 384 km/h is stretching the abilities of a medical helicopter – and for most models, it stretches it beyond its physical capabilities. (250 km/h is a more reasonable number to calculate with; so the post-transfer leg of the journey would then be 15 minutes and 38 seconds, rather than the 10 the FIA is requesting of it).

  2. So with this plan, the race could go ahead even if the weather on Sunday was to be the same as today? Nevertheless, under these track conditions, anything can happen.

  3. I don’t understand. If the problem for the helicopter was the landing visibility once at the hospital, as I heard from somebody on twitter, (in response to people asking why the tv helicopter was able to fly), how does transporting drivers by car to another helicopter nearby make any difference? It still has to land on the same hospital with the same visibility, so where’s the catch?

    1. I believe the issue is with the location of the circuit and the build up of fog.
      The direct route to the hospital may require the helicopter to encounter limited visibility and there are aviation rules that strictly dictate operating conditions for VFR. It is a supposedly fail safe system designed to prevent abuse of safety regulations. If you are operating under VFR you cannot take off in bad visibility however under IFR there would be no problem what so ever. The fact the circuit cannot initiate an IFR take off, then no flight is possible even though in reality, you can easily convert between modes.

    2. Ranover Debumps
      9th October 2020, 23:44

      Medical Helicopter flights are the most risky flights in the USA. Most Med crashes are weather related. Throw in darkness, unfamiliar terrain and the inherent determination to complete a life saving mission and you have the ingredients for bad things happening.

    3. @alfa145 Exactly. Ted Kravitz did a video where he explained the helicopters could take off perfectly fine, but they would not be able to land at the hospital with poor visibility. Since they would not have the required system at the hospital to aid them in landing.

  4. AS usual, safety is of Paramount importance, until commercial requirements ……..

    I’d also like to know, in general terms, what are teams plans for (extended ?) FP3 to enable a sensible QP and race set up?!

    1. AS usual, safety is of Paramount importance, until commercial requirements

      I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. They’re still upholding the 20 minute timeframe, and they canceled two events in accordance with these transport requirements while working out a way to maintain that timeframe.

    2. Why would they extend FP3?
      The less data the teams have, the better the race will be.
      They have way too much practice time normally. One 1 hour session is more than enough for a qualifying session and the race.

      No other series in the world wastes so much time on practice only to then be surprised when the races are controlled, predictable and boring.

  5. More relevantly why is it set as short as 20 minutes given there is already a highly equipped medical team at every venue? Seems an overly short time to me.
    In “real life” most people would be incredibly lucky to get to hospital after a serious crash in anything close to 20 minutes and they wouldn’t have the onsite medical team either. I would have thought a longer period would be perfectly reasonable.

    1. David, it is because the highly-equipped medical team cannot handle every possible emergency – some of the accidents possible in a high-powered single-seater require access to lifesaving equipment only found in a full hospital, in a very short timeframe. As such, insurers do not allow these unusually powerful vehicles to be raced without appropriate safety protocols in place, funded by the circuits.

      We always wish that the facilities are not needed. Every so often, we do not get our wish.

  6. Seems a very outdated rule for what is now a super safe event.

    1. Given the events of Spa last year, I seriously doubt anyone in the paddock would take such a sentiment seriously.

  7. SKY F1 TV were saying yesterday that the specific problem was landing the chopper @ the hospital – NOT a fog problem @ the circuit. Specifically the problem was that GPS/ radar could be used to take-off and travel, but the Hospital helipad did NOT have the tech equipment to land.
    I am obviously missing something????????

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