The 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona delivered great racing. It also made
hearts skip a beat when Memo Gidley barreled his GAINSCO Corvette Daytona Prototype into the back
of Matteo Malucelli's Risi Ferrari F458. The crash was every bit as destructive as it looked on TV. But to my nerdy, analytical eyes, it didn't look
deadly. Thankfully, Gidley and Malucelli proved that true—although injured, they'll both recover.
The cynical can say, "I've seen worse."
Credit modern safety technology and luck, but I'd like to additionally thank physics. Gidley's car was traveling well over 100 mph when it crashed into the slow-moving Ferrari, but critically, the impact didn't stop the DP, nor did it change its
direction. This spread out the deceleration forces over a longer period of time, greatly reducing the force of impact.
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Furthermore, the front of the DP hit the back of the Ferrari. The fore and aft portions of any car provide the most energy-absorbing, crushable material. Kinetic energy from the crash was converted to other
forms as it crushed and flung parts off of both cars, reducing the forces that reached each driver. The Corvette's driver's side then hit the Ferrari's right side. So the Ferrari, or parts of it, passed
through the left side of Gidley's car, exposing his left to the most harm. This caused his more serious injuries.
For Malucelli, the main force of the impact was transmitted to him from the initial rear-end hit. The Ferrari, shunted from behind, went through an extreme acceleration—the G-forces were greater than what Gidley's car suffered in deceleration. The result for Malucelli was massive whiplash, which in turn knocks
the brain hard into the front of the skull. That's bad, and it explains his severe concussion. But again, because the Ferrari had ample room to accelerate—and,
critically, not change direction—the impact force was greatly reduced. More of the energy from the crash was spent moving the Ferrari forward instead of crushing the driver.
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I'm a big nerd. And only big nerds look at a dramatic accident like this and first think about the various forces involved. But this is an example of cars
working the way they should: breaking apart and absorbing energy so that the drivers don't have to. More importantly, the crash happened in a way the kept the biggest
forces from ever occurring in the first place. The impact force goes way, way up if one suffers an immediate and massive deceleration, like hitting a wall
or a tree.
Sadly, one man gives a great example of the two different types of accidents I'm referring to. At the 2007 Canadian GP, Robert Kubica slammed
into the wall at close to 180 mph and came to a stop well down the road, the BMW Sauber in millions of million-dollar pieces, but he was okay. The impact was spread out over a series of smaller hits, giving the car time to break up and dissipate the forces involved:
However, in , Kubica's impact was much bigger and the injury far worse, despite the overall speed being much lower. Here's an animated recreation of that incident:
The point is, when accidents take time to end and when the sheet metal crumbles, it's usually a good thing. Gidley and Malucelli
crashed dramatically but in a way that let physics do its work on their cars instead of them. We're thankful it wasn't worse, and we hope they both have a speedy and complete recovery.