Some people think closed cockpits would guard against head injuries in F1, but I fail to see how.
In the shadow of the Jules Bianchi accident at the end of the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, there has been some talk about how this kind of tragedy can be prevented in the future. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bianchi has been in the hospital fighting for his life.
He struck a recovery vehicle at a very high speed. The recovery car was attempting to remove Adrian Sutil’s Sauber, which had hydroplaned off of the circuit one lap prior. Bianchi’s car struck the rear of a tractor, lifting it off of the ground, and causing catastrophic damage to both the Marussia and Bianchi's head.
F1's impressive safety record
Safety has always been one of the FIA’s top priorities and they have worked hard to prevent these types of accidents. It’s true that the sport has seen an extraordinary amount of fatal accidents in its history, but it is from these accidents that some of the world’s most important safety features emerged. After the death of the immortal Ayrton Senna, the sport was able to get the world’s leading engineers together and succeeded in making the sport a much safer place.
You can't protect drivers from an accident that no one can foresee
Wesley Branton on Bianchi's crash
With twenty years of fatality free racing, F1 has gained one of the best safety records in the industry. Although it is impossible to completely eliminate the threat of death, the frequency in which they occur and the overall possibility of them taking place has been greatly reduced.
You can't remove all the risk
Despite their best efforts, it is impossible to remove all risk from motorsport. Every time a driver straps into a car, they are putting their lives on the line, no matter how safe they may feel. It's a risk that these drivers are wiling to take in order to do what they truly love. Senna highlighted just how important racing was to him ... “Racing, competing, it's in my blood. It's part of me, it's part of my life; I have been doing it all my life and it stands out above everything else.”
So what can be done to prevent accidents of the same magnitude as that of Jules Bianchi?
Closed cockpits? They would do more harm than good
In recent media, various outlets have endorsed the use of a closed cockpit. There are two main designs for this: First, the standard clear roof over the regular cockpit. Second, the use of a solid bar stationed directly in front of the driver, used to protect the driver’s head in a front collision. However, the use of these safety devices may prevent more of a hazard than safety.
In the case of the full roof, this device could potentially slow a driver’s escape time. If there is a hard impact to the roof, it may flatten; causing more injury to the driver or it may obstruct his exit from the vehicle. In the case of the front roll-over bar, this device would obstruct the driver’s view and in the event of it detaching from the body of the car, it could become a potentially sharp, spear-like projectile that could strike a driver’s head. After mulling it over, it becomes clear that a closed cockpit car could cause more danger than it would prevent.
Hit the safety ceiling
But if closed cockpit cars aren’t the option, what can be done to prevent another serious accident? In my opinion, the sport has virtually hit the safety ceiling. Anything else they do would start compromising the product, or potentially be a wrong step away from what F1 cars have always been. The bottom line is that these kind of accidents can't be predicted. A car hitting the back of a tractor, a spring striking a driver's head ... It's very difficult to fight back against bizarre situations like that.
You can't protect drivers from an accident that no one can foresee. By adding more safety features to the cars, you also risk creating new hazards, as I demonstrated with the closed cockpit designs. It’s the idea that for every positive, there is also negative.
The realistic response to the Bianchi crash
Of course, as with any accident, there is something that we can learn from Bianchi’s and some regulations that can be modified to prevent such an outcome in the future. Things like reassessing how much rain may be on the track before the race is red flagged, deploying the safety car when machinery is on the track, expanding the size of the caution zone under a local yellow or even adding safety guards to the safety vehicles to prevent cars from moving underneath them. These are just a few of the ideas that have been thrown out there in recent days.
There's no one to blame
As for those of you that are looking for someone to blame for the accident; don’t bother. Blaming people will not undo this terrible accident, nor will it help Bianchi. What’s done is done. The only thing that we can do is try to learn as much as we can about the factors that led up to this accident and make changes to regulations in an attempt to ensure that this never happens again. Formula One will always carry a risk and death in motorsport is unavoidable.
We can reduce the risk, but we will never be able to fully eliminate it. As for Jules Bianchi, I wish him a full and speedy recovery. I would like to give my best to his family, friends and loved ones, as they go through this extremely tough situation. I would like to remind the members for the Formula One community to respect their privacy. I have hope for Jules. He can pull through this.