When Carlos Sainz Jr. lost control of his car in practice for the 2015 Russian Grand Prix, the data recorder in his car captured an impact of 46G into the track safety barriers, burying the nose of the vehicle.
A medical team had to extricate Sainz with limited data. His radio had been damaged, and there was no communication from the cockpit. Was he conscious? Dr. Ian Roberts, the Formula One medical rescue coordinator for the International Automobile Federation, known by its French abbreviation FIA, had no way of knowing.
Accustomed to “abnormal saves,” Roberts and his colleague, Alan van der Merwe, a former race car driver, were able to assess Sainz and have him removed from the barriers and then from his car. He was sent to the medical centre for precautionary checks; he was fine.
Formula One is a data-rich sport, and its cars are covered with hundreds of sensors that tell a team what each component is doing, including where the wheel is turning, how much rubber is in contact with the track surface and how close the engine might be to failing. Data on the driver, on the other hand, has been in short supply.
That inspired Roberts and van der Merwe to come up with a device that would give them a better picture inside the cockpit after an accident. They began to develop a battery-operated portable sensor designed to monitor the driver. The sensor had to be durable, fireproof, flexible and unobtrusive.
This year, Formula One drivers are wearing that sensor in their racing gloves. Data from the sensor transmits to an iPhone app and gives medical crews remote and advance information on the driver’s condition. The small biometric readers transmit pulse oximetry, or blood oxygen, data via Bluetooth. The readers are flexible and fire resistant up to 1,800 degrees Celsius (3,272 degrees Fahrenheit) for 22 seconds.
“What we’re recording are oxygen levels, heart rate and motion,” van der Merwe said. “We’ve arrived at those for the simple reason that they are the most valuable metrics that we can get from a single device.
“We could have easily chosen many other metrics to measure,” he said, noting that Roberts needs information on complications, such as trapped airways and loss of consciousness. “Things that will allow Ian to actually make a decision during a rescue.”
When not serving as the medical rescue coordinator, Roberts is an anesthesia and intensive-care consultant. He previously was chief medical officer of the British Grand Prix.
“The priorities are A’s, B’s and C’s,” he said, referring to airway, breathing and circulation. “If any of those are altering the metrics that we can measure, they will all be affecting in some way. So, if the airway is blocked, they’re not breathing, or they’ve not got a circulation, you will see this in some shape or form with the pulse oximetry.
“We often talk about the biggest bang for buck, and that’s what essentially we’re getting. You can get all those things, but we would need to have many more modalities to measure all of these at the same time. We didn’t really want to cover the driver with as many monitors as you get in an operating theatre. Which one would you choose? That’s the one that will give you most information with the least intrusion.”
But while the A’s, B’s and C’s are the immediate priority in a trauma situation, additional information can help a medic make better decisions.
“In some ways Formula One is one of the most extreme laboratories, but it’s also one of the most predictable and controlled because we understand the domain,” van der Merwe said. “We can really picture what is going to happen and has happened, so it’s almost the ideal development platform.”
Designed to survive the worst that a Formula One car could offer, the device has attracted interest from outside motor sports.
“I don’t know whether it’ll happen this Everest season, but it is going to happen; we’re going to have sensors on some of the climbers going up there,” van der Merwe said.
With the biometric gloves compulsory in Formula One starting next season, and being introduced in the FIA’s other championships in the coming years, the amount of data generated by the device will become usable for research and development. Van der Merwe and Roberts hope it will become a valuable research tool.
“The things that we’ve chosen for the monitor in the beginning are things that might have immediate value while we’re literally on the scene, whereas I think most of the demand longer term is that they come from things that are traditionally very difficult to measure,” van der Merwe said.
“They might not have instantaneous value, but they’re things like heat stress or brain injury, things that are not very well understood. We know they’re there, and we understand what their effects are, but we don’t know how to measure them, we don’t know how to detect them reliably.
“I think that’s where most of this benefit is going to lie,” he said. “Yes, we’ve invented something that is very portable, it’s always on them, it’s ready to use. What we’re starting to put our minds to now is how we can take those harder parts of the problem that we’ve solved and apply them. Pulse oximetry is actually quite a widely used thing. When you look at things like brain injury and temperature, nobody’s really able to do that on a large scale.
“That’s where we think this is actually going. The end goal is actually not boxes or software, it’s data and what the data means to you. Essentially, the hardware is a means to an end. It’s a necessary evil. The ultimate goal is generating data which gives you more insight with that decision-making process.”