Next-gen IndyCar should have a closed cockpit

Motorsport safety progress should not be held back by tradition. David Malsher argues that leaving drivers exposed is an unnecessary, archaic, arcane anomaly in a sport that prides itself on being cutting edge.

Next-gen IndyCar should have a closed cockpit
Sergio Perez, Sahara Force India F1 VJM09 with the Halo cockpit cover
Sergio Perez, Sahara Force India F1 VJM09 with the Halo cockpit cover
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB12 with the Aero Screen
Sahara Force India F1 VJM09 with Halo cockpit cover
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF16-H running the Halo cockpit cover
Red Bull Halo concept
Red Bull Racing RB12 with the Aero Screen
The Red Bull Racing RB12 fitted with the Aero Screen
The Blue Flame rocket car as driven by Gary Gabelich

It’s time for open-wheel racing on both sides of the Atlantic to stop tying itself in knots trying to come up with a cockpit-protection solution that still allows a series to describe its cars as open-cockpit. It’s time, in other words, for both IndyCar and Formula 1 to mandate closed cockpits.

The possible improvements to head protection we have seen tested in F1 so far – the aeroscreen and the Halo – are very worthy efforts that are big steps in the right direction. But I’d still say they have been invented by folks who have the ball-and-chain of tradition hanging from their designing wrists.

If you doubt me, ask any physics professor who is not hidebound by racing culture to come up with a cockpit format that best reduces the risk of cockpit intrusion. He or she would assuredly not come up with either the aeroscreen nor the Halo. Instead, the result may look a little like a combination of both – and with a lid.

Those who say such a device would reduce the gladiatorial image of the racers in the cockpit may not have noticed that when Don Schumacher Racing’s Top Fuel dragsters acquired fully-enclosed cockpits, there was not even a hint of protest from the NHRA fans. Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher are as much revered now for strapping into 330mph missiles as they were beforehand. The fact that these heroes are safer than before is not seen as a bad thing.

Racing should always be risky; that is part of why this sport is so compelling. We watch elite athletes demonstrate why they are the best of the best – the same reason we watch any sport – but with the added frisson of knowing the risks they take can have big win-or-bust consequences.

But it’s therefore only right that the vast majority of those risks should be the responsibility of the drivers. And if the majority of IndyCar’s and F1’s recent head injuries and near-misses taught us anything, it’s that those affected are rarely culpable. The fatalities of Justin Wilson and Dan Wheldon, the head injuries incurred by James Hinchcliffe at GP Indy 2014 and Felipe Massa at Hungaroring in 2009, and the lucky escapes by Fernando Alonso at Spa in 2012 and Helio Castroneves on pitlane in Pocono a few weeks ago were instances where the driver’s fate was largely out of his hands.  

The looks

For some, the sheer aesthetics of a covered cockpit will always be a drawback. And I’ll grant that neither the Halo nor the aeroscreen are visually enticing. The Halo on the current breed of F1 car looks as out of place as those seemingly huge rollhoops that have been added to ’50s and ’60s open-wheelers for historic racing. And the aeroscreen looks fine from the side, but absurd from head on, its ‘window’ area far too wide for the body. In fact, it looks like open-wheel racing’s equivalent of the hideous early Daytona Prototype, which resembled R2D2 sitting on an upturned bathtub.

But remember, those devices are after-market add-ons. A design in which a closed cockpit was fully integrated at birth could be made to look very sexy, and wouldn’t need to look as radical as Adrian Newey’s Red Bull X-1 project. One of the most sexy cars of all time, Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame Land Speed Record car of 1970, had a fully enclosed cockpit. Something akin to that device, but with its dome reduced in profile and height by use of modern materials and construction techniques, could be faired seamlessly into the rear bodywork.

And that sleekness would have a practical purpose too, not only transferring the load applied by any foreign objects trying to enter the cockpit, but also presenting fewer protuberances on the car that could catch against the ground or catchfence. The most frightening aspect of Josef Newgarden’s accident at Texas Motor Speedway was the fact that the rollhoop failed. But I’m also not sure it’s even reasonable to expect a rollhoop to withstand the huge forces caused by digging into a surface – be it SAFER barrier or pavement – while the rest of the 1600lb car is trying to continue at 200mph. By transferring the load over the far bigger surface area produced by a closed cockpit which is flush with the rear bodywork, the chances of such a collapse would be massively reduced.  

Pop-up hoops

Back in 1989, Mercedes’ fourth-generation SL road car pioneered the pop-up rollover hoop. The idea was to maintain the aesthetics of a clean convertible – as opposed to a cabriolet or targa top – but with the safety measure ready to deploy from its B-pillar location, should the car threaten to overturn.

An adaptation of the idea is one that could perhaps be considered by those desperate to maintain open cockpits for open-wheel cars. But set the two hoops longitudinally – so that in passive mode, they are part of the cockpit side protection on the right and left, but when elevated in active mode, will arch from the front of the cockpit up to where the air-intake is currently located. (From head-on, the deployed hoops would form a V). Using sensors again, they would snap up into position when the car reached a critical angle of elevation and would transfer impact load in the event of a flipover, while still allowing a driver to wriggle out from his upturned car.

They would also have an additional benefit in more innocuous-looking accidents. I’m surely not alone in fearing for drivers whenever they go head-first into tire walls. The car’s nose often penetrates whatever’s holding the tire wall together, so that the car goes cockpit-deep, burying the driver in vast quantities (and weight) of tires. If these hoops had a manual trigger which a driver could hit once he was past the point of no return – in the same way that drag racers hit their chutes – the odds of him being struck in the helmet by tires would, I believe, be vastly reduced.

But such a mechanism would doubtless add a lot of weight to the vehicle, and it would in no ways be superior to a fully closed cockpit. Nor could a proximity sensor be made instantaneous enough to halt another car’s debris flying at the driver at 200mph.  

The fire hazard

One regular argument against fully enclosed cockpits is “What if the car is upside down and on fire? How would the driver escape?” Well, for one thing, such occurrences have become exceedingly rare thanks to progress in fuel cell construction, and the devices that protect them. Secondly, it tends to be the engine-end of the car that catches light, rather than the cockpit area. OK, pitstop errors have seen fuel spill onto and/or around the driver… but again, a closed cockpit would have prevented this.

And if the car is upside down and not on fire, the need for a driver to extricate himself rather than wait for the safety team to arrive is irrelevant. Following Alonso’s shunt at Melbourne this year, where his car came to rest on its side against a barrier – at a similar angle to Newgarden’s Texas wall interface – several people were quick to allege that Alonso would not have been able to climb out by himself had the car being running a Halo. To which my response was, “So the hell what?” Unless Fernando is claustrophobic – in which case, he’s chosen a strange career – it made no difference whether he wriggled out by himself or awaited marshals to turn his car shiny side up.

Marketing and performance opportunities

It's probably cynical to bring marketing into a safety debate, so I will confine myself to this: whichever is the first open-wheel series to quit turning a blind eye to the obvious – and, frankly, inevitable – is going to present itself with a great opportunity to boast about it. 

But before anyone decides I’ve gone panicky or soft in old age, and who believes I’m trying to make racing 'safe', I'd say greater driver protection would allow a series to start pushing the performance envelope once more. In IndyCar's case, that would mean stripping downforce and boosting power on all types of track. With better driver protection, you can start to allow the cars to go 260mph in a straight line at Indy and only 210 through the turns. You've exchanged a pointless risk for a risk that is entirely in the control of the driver. 

In Formula 1's case, making the cars inherently safer would allow circuit designers to come up with courses that don't require acres of asphalt runoff, and grandstands that can be built closer to the track in the turns, not just the straights. So, less Bahrain, more Monaco. Again, negotiating the perils of the course faster than his rivals would be something in the control of the driver, but he would be better protected in the event of a huge screw-up or a component failure. 

And on a sidenote, a closed cockpit design should be so superior aerodynamically to an open-cockpit shape, that the straight-line speeds are going to go up appreciably without the need for a single more horsepower.

Final thought

Whatever readers may think on reading this story, I do regard myself as a purist, and the element of danger is part of my attraction to racing. I like the fact that racecar drivers are putting more on the line than the golfer who might get a twinge in his back or the tennis player who might get an achy elbow. Part of racing is dodging bullets as well as firing them. But a driver’s sheer impotence in protecting his head from random gunfire means he's having to take an unnecessary risk rather than one to do with his own skill or bravery.

I also cannot understand those who rigidly hold the belief that open-wheel cars should remain open cockpit. No one yelled in protest when drivers switched from linen to hard helmets, nor when they switched from t-shirt and slacks to wearing overalls and eventually fireproof overalls. And yet according to the curmudgeons, that’s back when men were men, of course….

More recently, in the 1980s, when IndyCar and F1 drivers finally had their feet moved behind the car’s front axle, that was just seen as smart. Same with switching from tube frame chassis to carbon fiber, then introducing higher cockpit necks, and added anti-intrusion panels on the sides of cockpits.

So why, when cockpits have been made stronger and safer in design in all other areas, is leaving the driver’s head unnecessarily vulnerable decreed necessary and part of the fabric of the sport?

Like it or not, motorsport never comes under closer scrutiny from the outside world than when there is death or serious injury. It’s a sorry truth that more words were spilled by media outlets over the death of Justin Wilson than the combined output of online and print journalism describing all his race wins and regular giant-killing performances.

So the next time a serious head injury occurs and the non-specialist media starts asking perfectly reasonable questions about what racing will do to try and prevent the recurrence of such incidents, would you want to be the one who explained that we cannot use fully enclosed cockpits because it would go against tradition?

Next week: Rick Mears gives his perspective on cockpit protection


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