Safety in Motorsport: a Guide to Fire Extinguishers

fire extinguisher under racing seat

The dangers of fire are ever present in motorsport. With onboard fuel and electrical systems being the most likely place for a fire to originate, along with the heat that can build up within the engine bay, it doesn’t take long for a fire to take hold and tear through a car.

When you spend countless numbers of hours (and money) preparing your car, the last thing you want to see is all that effort – quite literally – going up in smoke.

This is why it is necessary for all cars that compete in motorsport to have a fire extinguisher installed. Not only will it prevent a fire from destroying your car, the main purpose is to protect the driver and/or co-driver should they end up trapped in the car following an accident, so it goes without saying that a properly installed fire extinguisher can save your life.

So, what do you need to know when looking for the right fire extinguisher?

Whether you are preparing a car to compete in motorsport, updating an old or out of date system or even looking to protect your pride and joy, choosing a new fire extinguisher can prove to be a very arduous and confusing task.

The decisions that await include whether to go for an electric or a mechanical system, plumbed in or handheld, and the size of the bottle you need to extinguish the fire without taking up too much space inside the car or adding too much weight, either.

Needless to say, that given the range of extinguisher systems available, it is very easy to select the wrong system for your requirements.

So, in order to help with making that all important decision we have put together a guide to understanding all the options and what to look out for when selecting the perfect system for your needs.

The dangers of fire are ever present in motorsport. With onboard fuel and electrical systems being the most likely place for a fire to originate, along with the heat that can build up within the engine bay, it doesn’t take long for a fire to take hold and tear through a car.

When you spend countless hours (and money) preparing your car, the last thing you want to see is all that effort – quite literally – going up in smoke.

This is why it is necessary for all cars that compete in motorsport to have a fire extinguisher installed. Not only will it prevent a fire from destroying your car, the main purpose is to protect the driver and/or co-driver should they end up trapped in the car following an accident; so it goes without saying that a properly installed fire extinguisher can save your life.

So, what do you need to know when looking for the right fire extinguisher?

Whether you are preparing a car to compete in motorsport, updating an old or out of date system or even looking to protect your pride and joy, choosing a new fire extinguisher can prove to be a very arduous and confusing task.

The decisions that await include whether to go for an electric or a mechanical system, plumbed in or handheld, and the size of the bottle you need to extinguish the fire without taking up too much space inside the car or adding too much weight, either.

Needless to say, that given the range of extinguisher systems available, it is very easy to select the wrong system for your requirements.

So, in order to help with making that all important decision we have put together a guide to understanding all the options and what to look out for when selecting the perfect system for your needs.

Understanding the motorsport regulations

All of the current motorsport regulations for use in the UK are outlined in the latest Motorsport UK Yearbook, however these can be hard to understand at first glance.

In its most basic form, the key points are as follows:

  • All vehicles must have a fire extinguisher installed.
  • It must be able to be deployed by the driver when in a typical seating position either manually (using a handheld extinguisher) or by a mechanical or electrical (plumbed in) triggering system.
  • The fire extinguishant type must be either AFFF or Clean Agent. Dry powder extinguishers are prohibited.
  • All new cars that have not been log-booked must be fitted with fire extinguishers that are compliant with either FIA Technical List 16 or 52.
  • Current log-booked cars can continue using MSA specification fire extinguishers until 2022 and must be serviced in accordance to the manufacturer’s guidelines or every 24 months, whichever comes first.

For the plumbed-in fire extinguisher systems, the minimum amount of extinguishant required is defined by the FIA homologation. This means that there isn’t a specified minimum amount of extinguishant required per se. However, for rally cars, there is a requirement to be fitted with a List 16 fire extinguisher with a minimum capacity of 3Kg.

For hand held fire extinguishers, the minimum capacity is dependant on the type of extinguishant.

handheld fire extinguisher

The table below details the minimum requirements for the various types of extinguishant available.

Type of extinguishant Minimum quantity of extinguishant
AFFF 2.4 Litres
FireSense 2.4 Litres
FX GTEC 2.0 Kg
Viro3 2.0 Kg
Zero 360 2.0 Kg
Extreme 2.0 Kg

As this table only displays the minimum size requirement for each extinguisher, it is worth bearing in mind that the larger capacity extinguisher that you get, the better your chances of extinguishing a fire completely.

With regards to what size and type of extinguisher suits a particular type of car, please refer to the table below for the requirements for each form of motorsport. Bear in mind that for circuit racing, single seaters or sports prototypes may require an extinguisher which has a slimline bottle.

Motorsport UK Category Extinguisher Type
Autocross and Rallycross Requires a Medium Plumbed-in extinguisher for discharge into both cockpit and engine bay
Circuit Racing (Periods A-F)
Period A – Cars before 1/1/1905
Period F – Historic and non-historic cars between 1/1/1962 and 31/12/65
Requires a Medium hand operated extinguisher for discharge into both cockpit and engine bay.
Circuit Racing (Other than periods A-F) Requires a Medium Plumbed-in extinguisher for discharge into both cockpit and engine bay.
Rallying Requires a Large Plumbed-in extinguisher for discharge into both cockpit and engine bay. Also required a relevant FIA hand held extinguisher
Cross Country Not required
Sprint, Hillclimb and Drag Racing Not required, but recommended by Motorsport UK to use a Medium plumbed-in extinguisger for discharge into cockpit and engine bay
Trials Requires a Small hand operated extinguisher
Autotests Not required

If your car is currently equipped with an MSA-approved fire extinguisher and you are looking to compete on international events, you will need to ensure that your extinguisher is in accordance to the relevant FIA approvals.

It’s also worth mentioning that all plumbed in fire extinguishers must be fitted with an anti-torpedo tab as part of the mounting bracket to stop the bottle from escaping in the event of an accident.

Servicing a fire extinguisher

It is vitally important to ensure that your fire extinguisher is properly maintained and serviced. After all, you don’t want a fire to break out and, when activating the extinguisher, find out that nothing has happened.

Each manufacturer will have their own set of guidelines with regards to the servicing schedule, but you will need to ensure that your extinguisher is serviced every 24 months as an absolute minimum.

For the new FIA homologated fire extinguishers from either List 16 or 52, these will need to be serviced by either the manufacturer themselves or one of their agents. If an FIA extinguisher is not properly serviced by one of these entities, this will void the homologation of that particular extinguisher.

  • As it happens, we are service agents for Lifeline, SPA Design, OMP, and Sparco fire extinguisher systems so if your extinguisher needs a service, give our sales team a call and they will be able to assist you.

If your FIA homologated fire extinguisher is overdue a service, you will need to contact the manufacturer who will determine if the amount of time that it is overdue is too long or not. If they decide that it is too far gone, you will need to replace your extinguisher.

If your car is fitted with a non FIA-homologated fire extinguisher and is overdue a service, this will need to be done prior to scrutineering at your next event, and then serviced every 24 months from then on, up until the end of 2021.

Choosing and using a fire extinguisher

As we mentioned earlier, there are a couple of options when it comes to the different types of fire extinguisher available in motorsport, with how they’re used being one of the biggest factors. So, what are the differences between the types of extinguisher activation?

hand held foam spray fire extinguisher

Handheld

Firstly, handheld extinguishers are to be secured in an easily accessible place within the cockpit of the car. This is usually either under the driver’s seat, or in the passenger footwell when there is a co-driver in the car.

They are supplied with a bracket which must be fixed to the car with at least two bolts while the extinguisher is held in place using quick release straps, allowing easy access for the occupant. The extinguisher has its own nozzle and is discharged using a hand operated trigger system following the removal of a safety pin.

Plumbed-in

A plumbed in fire extinguisher is a more permanent fixture of a race car. They are designed to be secured firmly in place using a bracket, from which the bottle is never removed apart from when it is being serviced.

They are available as either mechanical or electrical systems which refers to the way in which they are activated.

A mechanical system is activated via a cable system which has a T-handle on the operating end. It is a requirement that there is a cable within reach of the driver as well as, for the large extinguishers, one mounted on the exterior of the car. This is normally located close to the battery isolator and marked with the appropriate “E” symbol for ease of access by the marshals.

Electrical plumbed-in systems replace the pull cables with electronic buttons. It is recommended that the electrical power source is separate from the other circuits in the vehicle as an extra safety measure. It is also a good idea to have a provision for checking the integrity of the triggering system.

As the name suggests, a plumbed-in extinguisher is connected to a pipework system with nozzles on the end. The direction of the pipework and the angle of the nozzle is up to you, but it is recommended to direct the extinguishant towards the more common areas for a fire to break out, namely induction, exhaust, ignition and fuel systems.

On the subject of nozzles, it is not advised to add extra nozzles to your extinguisher system. If your chosen fire extinguisher is supplied with 6 nozzles, adding an extra 2 in a bid to obtain better coverage will actually detract from the performance of the extinguisher. This is down to the set pressure inside the bottle. By adding more tubing and outlets this pressure is reduced and you will find that the extinguishant will cover less area.

In terms of which type of activation method is the best to choose, it is recommended by Motorsport UK that the fire extinguisher is an electrical triggering system. However, it is down to the individual application as to which will be best suited.

It is also worth noting that all plumbed-in extinguishers also feature a safety mechanism to prevent accidental activation, you will need to remember to remove this every time that your car goes out on track or stage.

The different types of extinguishers

AFFF

This is a foam based extinguishant which, not only has excellent fire knockdown capabilities, is also environmentally friendly. AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam) is a liquid in base form, but once the extinguisher is activated and fired through the nozzles, this creates a light foam. Once this foam lands, it leaves a layer of film on the surface to help prevent re-ignition from heat or sparks.

As AFFF extinguishant is most effective when applied directly to the source of the fire, the location of each extinguisher nozzle is very important. It is worth spending a little extra time making sure that each nozzle is pointing precisely where you might need the foam to cover.  

Clean agents

Also known as gaseous agents, this particular type of extinguishant offers the most effective fire suppression available and most systems utilise a type of gas called Novec 1230.

O-Zone and environmentally friendly, this type of gas blocks the chemical reaction of the fire or removes the heat to knock down the fire at a rapid rate. As it is a highly pressurised gas, once the extinguisher has been triggered, the suppressant is quickly dispersed into the engine bay and cockpit in a non-directional manner. Meaning that the gas is able to cover a larger area in a shorter amount of time.

Fitting an extinguisher with this type of fire suppressant is highly recommended and offers the best possible protection from the dangers of fire.

In conclusion

So, if you are preparing a new competition car or looking to update the existing fire extinguisher system, now you know what to look for when selecting your next system.

It is worth remembering, that if your competition car represents a significant investment of both time and money, there is real merit in fitting the very best extinguisher that you can afford. This way not only are you kept safe, there is a better chance that you will be able to save the car should a fire break out.

If you have any further questions about fire extinguisher systems, our experienced sales team are on hand to answer them and provide recommendations on which system to use.

Note: all facts and figures quoted in this article were correct at the time of publishing and may be subject to change depending on regulation changes.