Closed cockpits: Most in favour, but who can solve downsides?

There is a groundswell of public opinion that closed cockpits are now a must for single-seater F1/Indy-style racing cars of the future. Charles Bradley looks at the pros and cons.

Much has been written on the topic of whether single-seater/open-wheel racing cars should be fitted with a canopy or deflector-shield device – and the nature of the accidents that led to the deaths of Justin Wilson, Jules Bianchi, Maria de Villota and Henry Surtees in recent times make that hard to argue against.

It's a very simple sentiment to express: simply fit a canopy on the cars, like a fighter jet or racing powerboat – job done, surely?

Alas, no. To devise, prototype, test and implement a system, that's a massive undertaking that will not happen overnight. And nor should it.

Safety systems must be proved to work, not implemented simply because they might. From the mid-1960s to 1993, gradual steps made the cars, the tracks, the race organization, the drivers and the fans safer.

Then came tragic weekend of Imola '94, following which we had some unwise kneejerk reactions (just ask Pedro Lamy about his Silverstone testing shunt). The tragic losses of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were not in vain, however, as they proved a catalyst a great many safety improvements – all of which were well thought-through advances. We got a true step-change for the better.

As with many things in life, the big developments were introduced at the top and trickled down the motorsport ladder. From rudimentary seatbelts and rollbars, through to the very latest carbon crash structures and ingenious head/neck supports, we've seen a constant drive to save lives.

After every significant accident, the FIA launches an investigation, and there are steps in safety all the time. Next year, for example, it will mandate high-speed cameras in all F1 cars, not for TV purposes but for accident analysis.

Another advance built on scientific fact, which can also lead to greater steps further down the line based on the evidence of recordings.

The big 'pro' of closed cockpits

An extra level of driver safety

Simply put, a canopy or deflector shield of structural solidity would enhance a driver's chances of survival given an impact from a sizeable external object, such as a loose car part or stray wheel, that would otherwise strike their crash helmet or visor.

How useful they would have been if fitted in the cases of Dan Wheldon or Jules Bianchi, where the rollhoops of their cars were viciously torn off by the violence of their respective accidents, is totally unknown.

But in Wilson's case, something that would had deflected the detached nose section of Sage Karam's car, even at a tiny degree of angle, perhaps even if the safety device was itself torn off in the impact, might have made all the difference to his outcome.

It is for this reason that motorsport should pull its greatest minds together and pursue a solution that will decrease the likelihood of direct strikes on a driver's head.

I visited Arai's helmet test centre in Holland a few years ago, and was mightily impressed by its products abilities to stand-up superbly to impacts. They constantly evaluate damage to all of its helmets and visors, and constantly improve the design whenever they feel they can do so. Again, it's all based on scientific fact and understanding.

Perhaps the true question is this: Is it really good enough in this day and age for a crash helmet to be a racing driver's first line of defence?

The 'cons' of closed cockpits

Deflection

Apologies for painting this bluntly: what would be better, one dead driver or multiple fatalities of fans in the grandstand? Having seen the video of the FIA's canopy tests, it's clear that a wheel and tyre striking a simple fighter jet-style solution creates a major problem in terms of launching the object further into the air and – potentially – over a debris fence. Or towards marshals, photographers, other drivers…

You can argue that any part of the car might do this, but the bulbous nature of a jet-style canopy certainly appears to act more like a ramp than most other surfaces of the car (apart from its round tyres, of course).

This, in my mind, is the number one sticking point that has to be resolved, which is why the Mercedes 'halo' concept, as well as the suggested so-called 'blade' system, have me intrigued. I'm hopeful that they might lead to a useable solution one day.

Can a certain structure be designed to perhaps always deflect a flying object to a far lesser degree than a full canopy would? So it wouldn't always send it flying high into the air?

Extraction

The FIA has carried out extensive tests to ensure that cockpit openings are just that – so their size allows for an injured driver to be removed without risking further injury, primarily to their spine and neck.

Any canopy would require a substantial locking system, but would require quick release in event of an accident – or worse, a major fuel fire (rare, but recall Simona de Silvestro getting trapped in her burning IndyCar at Texas in 2010, and again in practice at Indy a year later).

It's the reason F1 drivers have a 5s 'jump-out' test, to ensure they can extract themselves in an emergency – a fully-loaded F1 car carries a huge amount of energy between its fuel cell and hybrid systems.

It is imperative that a driver can A) escape the cockpit quickly and B) if they are seriously injured, to be extracted by medical crews without being impaired by new structures.

Any solution would have to answer this, 100 per cent. Because this is a point that has the potential to actually make things worse for the driver's welfare, rather than improve their safety.

Vision restriction

Ask any LMP1 driver what the hardest thing about driving their cars is, and they'll tell you it's the restricted vision caused by the windscreen. And that's before the screen gets bug-splattered, or requires a wiper system for when it rains.

Cleaning the windshield is the first job during any endurance-race pitstop; can you imagine that happening in a 2.4s F1 stop? However, clever people can certainly solve this one, I'm sure, with tear-offs or self-cleaning systems like the onboard cameras have.

One downside of the 'halo' solution, or a forward rollcage structure, is the inevitable bar (or bars) in the driver's line of sight. But top-level racing drivers are good at adapting to restricted vision (driving in thick spray, for example) and their well-tuned brains could mentally 'fill-in' any obstruction.

It might take a while to get used to, but that's what testing is for.

Conclusion

Nobody wants to see people die or get hurt in racing cars. Open-wheel machines, in their traditional nature, have always had the potential for drivers' helmets to be struck by debris. Everyone who's ever driven one can't fail to have been startled the first time a rubber 'marble' was flicked up by the car in front, and clonked their lid.

But when you consider the tragedies the befell Wilson, Bianchi, de Villota, Surtees – and way back with Tom Pryce and Alan Stacey – combined with serious head injuries sustained by Felipe Massa and Cristiano da Matta, they're reminders of a problem that has never been solved in open-wheel competition.

Formula 1 and the FIA comprise a lot of smart people, and they have achieved so much in the same of safety. In America, we've seen the HANS device and SAFER barriers emerge and undoubtedly save many lives. Time to get their heads together?

Someone out there must have the right answer. It's time to do something motorsport is very good at: spend money, innovate, test and arrive at a solution that eliminates all those three 'cons' before that huge 'pro' that we're all after can truly be delivered.

What we should never do is give up trying, we owe that to Justin Wilson et al.

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Series Formula 1 , IndyCar
Article type Commentary