Have you ever found yourself wondering why certain race series don’t take place at specific circuits? Track layouts that look awesome and are a blast in your favorite car on a simulator but don’t ever seem to happen in reality?
More often than not, it comes down to safety. Not that a track is dangerous, but that each series has its own set of safety requirements and regulations that some venues — usually iconic, older tracks — don’t quite meet and would have to spend a lot of money to adhere to.
And it’s not as simple as bringing the track up to scratch for one series, because that can lead to adaptations that rule out others. But there’s a solution that is starting to gain a bit of traction, that you’re just as likely to see at your local club track as you are at America’s Formula 1 circuits, and you may well have already seen it elsewhere without realizing…
Geobrugg has been developing protection systems since 1951, originally focusing on natural hazards where it tested rockfall barriers, energy absorption and slope stabilization. As strange as it may seem, those drapes that protect the highway from landslides in the likes of California and Oregon, or even the protective fence at the Hoover Dam, played a part in racing solutions.
Around 15 years ago this Swiss-based company started applying its principals to motorsports, and as standards changed to mandate more performance-based products at racetracks it was called upon more regularly — including in Austin.
“When Geobrugg started we had a permanent installation with a permanent debris fence, and we had that system installed at the Circuit of The Americas,” Jochen Braunwarth, Geobrugg’s director of motorsport solutions, tells RACER. “But at the same time they had a shortcut where they needed a mobile debris fence, and at that time we were unable to provide it because we didn’t have that solution.
“That triggered the entire process internally that if we want to be active and provide good service, we need to provide all of the different products.”
And so a mobile debris fence was researched, designed and manufactured. These fences must pass strict FIA tests to be used on an F1 circuit, including catching a 780kg (1,720 lbs) sphere fired from a cannon at 60kph (37mph) and a full-size car impacting at 120kph (75mph) at an angle of 20 degrees.
That caught the interest of old circuits as well as new, with Silverstone announcing last year it would be moving fans some 15 meters closer to the action on the Wellington Straight courtesy of the mobile solution.
“At Silverstone it’s a combination of new simulations that they have run that are different for MotoGP and Formula 1. They are sure that for Formula 1 they can go closer, but potentially for MotoGP they need to move back. So they decided to go for a mobile solution so they can do both — they have the flexibility to get closer for F1 and put in a larger grandstand, and if they have to they can switch back to the old configuration.
“This is what COTA did last year for the first time. In certain areas they moved closer for Formula 1 with the barriers that they installed with a mobile debris fence, and moved back to the previous position for MotoGP. So with the flexibility of our solution they have the ability to add more spectators to the venue.”
The first mobile debris fence was installed at the Red Bull Ring and now it’s top of the Geobrugg product line, because it offers more flexibility for existing circuits. Whether it’s an FIA or FIM event, it’s easier for the circuit if they have to change configurations to go with a mobile system, but also to reduce maintenance.
“If you have a car crashing into a guardrail you have to stop the session and repair the guardrail — and if it’s a track day you have to send out an invoice to reclaim the money — but if you have a concrete wall it’s maintenance free to a certain extent. You might have a little more damage to the car itself but you don’t have to stop the session or repair the wall.”
As well as COTA, Geobrugg has installed solutions at the likes of Virginia International Raceway, The Concours Club, Road America and the M1 Concourse. “But some of those were smaller projects,” Braunwarth admits.
“Then the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville happened and that triggered a change — that race in combination with the Miami Grand Prix are crucial to our success now in the American motorsport market because people were able to go to the venue, have a look at the system and be impressed by the fact we only need two weeks to install the entire Music City Grand Prix. Previously they had to close the streets for four to six weeks and had more problems with residents, but now they can really shorten that time.
“NASCAR came over to look at the installation in Nashville and Miami and immediately said, ‘This is the system we would like to go for.’ It’s the first system that is performance tested in the North American market, and from a visual appearance it is much nicer to look at compared to what was done at some other venues.”
The Chicago street circuit is set to use a Geobrugg solution, while it’s also in line to be part of F1’s latest U.S. venue in Las Vegas too. The example of Miami makes it possible for the mobile fence to be seen by the Vegas organizers and train people to understand it, as they need to open sections at night to allow traffic to go through — as will be the case at Detroit’s downtown IndyCar venue.
And while Geobrugg can now list 15 of the 23 F1 venues as customers, Braunwarth says the entire U.S. industry is an area of focus at all levels.
“It’s the biggest racing industry market in the world with the most circuits, so we would love to come up with a unique solutions for the dirt ovals and grassroots racing. We have done a dirt oval before, but they operate on such tight budgets so we need to develop a solution that is better than what they have and still affordable.
“Our slogan is, ‘Safety is our nature,’ so our biggest target is to provide safety in as many places as possible, and we don’t care if it’s a small country club and they do 50 meters to protect a playground near the venue, or we do a Formula 1 project, or IndyCar or NASCAR. Whenever there’s a critical area we would like to support any venue.”
It’s not just the mobile fence that Geobrugg has made progress with. After Dan Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011, the idea came up to have a post-less fence, but an effective solution doesn’t exist. So focus turned to increasing post spacing and from the usual four-meter (13 ft) specification it managed to come up with a six-meter (20 ft) design that allows faster installation, is more environmentally friendly and has less visual impact for a spectator or a driver.
“The best fence is the fence you don’t see,” Braunwarth adds.
But if you do notice roadside protection on your next drive, it could well be related to something that is helping racetracks host your favorite series.