Rick Mears on cockpit protection for open-wheel racecars

IndyCar legend Rick Mears discusses with Motorsport.com the practical issues involved in the safety devices proposed for open-wheel racecars, and considers the unintended consequences. David Malsher reports.

Following my op-ed calling for IndyCar and Formula 1 to adopt closed cockpits, I turned to one of the most reasonable and smart racers in history for his comments on the matter of cockpit protection.

Rick Mears, a three-time series champion and four-time Indy 500 winner, was a survivor at a time when speeds were moving faster than safety improvements to cars and tracks. And of course he has the limp to prove it, having pulped his feet and ankles against the barrier at Sanair, Canada, in 1984. (Praise the Lord for doctors Terry Trammell and Steve Olvey and the CART Safety Team of the time.) 

Yet Mears is about as well-balanced regarding safety discussions as anyone I know – not vehemently opposed to closed cockpits on principle, but also warning of the practical issues and consequences of such a move.

“You always want to go forward on the safety aspect of racing,” he says first. “You can’t predict everything but you can learn from each thing. It’s impossible to plan for every type of angle, every type of impact, every type of double impact, triple impact. And people tend to forget that’s often how a crash can be, especially if you’re in a race and you’re surrounded by cars; there’s a strong chance there’s going to be more than one impact.

“You look at [Josef] Newgarden’s shunt at Texas. There’s the impact where [Conor] Daly’s car hits him initially, there’s his impact with the wall, there’s the damage done dragging upside down along the track, and then a third impact as Daly’s car sends him to the wall again. Now, if you change just one element of that at the start, like a slightly different angle of initial impact from Daly, then it’s a chain reaction – the shunt all the way through becomes slightly different.

“So that’s what I mean; it’s impossible to plan for everything. And so some things have to be learned ‘in the field,’ to a point. Everything gets taken back and analyzed, and thankfully people are aware that it’s an ongoing learning curve that will never stop.

“But you’ve also got to be careful in that you can change one thing, one aspect, and cause two or three side-effects that you don’t necessarily want. So whatever happens, however the safety measures evolve – and they inevitably will – you need to take thorough, thorough, thorough consideration of every possibility you can think of.

“How big and heavy do you have to make the cars in order to have new safety facilities fitted? For a car to contain a sort-of cocoon structure that’s strong enough to withstand getting into the fence upside down at 220mph, it’s likely to be considerably heavier. And so the forces on it are also increased by the extra weight of the car as a whole. So do the SAFER barriers and walls need to get stronger now? Does the catchfence need to get reinforced now? That’s just a couple of examples.

“And before we go any further, I’d like to point out that a huge safety improvement that would require nothing done to the tracks or the cars' tubs is to reduce downforce so the cars aren’t going through the corners so fast, so that when they hit the wall, it’s as if the wall is softer and the car stronger.

“Like we talked about last fall – like we often seem to talk about! – downforce is the enemy of racing. And the best thing we can do, a fundamental thing, is make sure the cars aren’t hitting the walls so hard that they explode and create debris for all the other drivers. And the best way to do that is reduce downforce, so you reduce corner speeds.

“Once you remove that excess lateral load, you’re giving the driver back the feel he needs. And, although that’s not the discussion here, you’re increasing straightline speeds too [because of less drag], so there’s a much bigger difference between straightline speed and cornering speed, so the car is more demanding to drive.

“And one of the things I maybe didn’t say strongly enough in that story last year is that the same principle is important on road and street courses, too; I’m not just talking about ovals. With less downforce and higher top speeds, you’re also increasing braking distances, and giving a driver the chance to outbrake the other guy, so you’re improving the racing, too.”

By doleful coincidence, one of the current-era aces who came closest to emulating Mears in wisdom and thoughtfulness about the sport and its health, was the late Justin Wilson. And Rick, a man who understands the checks and balances of life, is still left shaking his head at the freak circumstances of the Briton’s fatal accident at Pocono last year.

“Justin was doing exactly what he should have done,” says Mears. “Slowing down because of the debris scattered across the road, and because the track had gone yellow. And just 1mph faster or 1mph slower and that nosecone misses his cockpit altogether. It was almost unbelievable terrible luck. Now there is a circumstance where you can say, yes, with a very strong fully covered cockpit, Justin would maybe still be here.”

So what are the potential issues with a fully-closed cockpit?

“Well, my first worry would be vision distortion," says Mears. "The screen would have to be at a similar angle as a jet fighter canopy to get the deflection you’re looking for. It would be at such an angle that it’s going to be like taking a window pane and holding its top edge above your head and the lower edge way out in front of you, ahead of the steering wheel. Having it laid back like that is much better for deflecting debris but worse for vision, because for the ‘glass’ to be thick enough to be useful in the event of an accident, you’re now dealing with much more refraction and therefore more distortion.

“You could dictate the shape of the windshield where it’s nearer vertical… but now you’ve got a steep angle where the debris will try and penetrate rather than just glance off.

“Then there’s the distortion side to side. People will say sportscars don’t have that problem, but that’s because the curvature is spread over a much wider beam, so you’re looking through much flatter glass. In Indy cars and Formula 1 cars, you’re dealing with a much tighter radius, more like a jet fighter. But unlike the jet fighter, in a racecar your judgment is measured in inches, whereas a pilot is looking at something way, way out there.”

Good points all, and that’s before the car’s even left the design shop. Throw in the usual problems encountered in a race weekend and there are more issues that would need solving with closed cockpits.

“Do you put a de-fogger in there for temperature changes and wet races and so on?” asks Mears. “And also take a look at cars after a race, at the way sand and grit has gone through the paint and surface of the fiberglass. Now imagine if it was doing that to this thick, laidback ‘glass’, for want of a better word. You’ll now have even more distortion from the chips and little bits of damage. Then there’s potential for oil getting thrown onto it.”

Setting aside the idea of the windshield but trying to retain a covered cockpit, I put to Mears the idea of the cars adopting the automotive equivalent of the crash-helmet used by one of his old rivals, Gordon Johncock. It was strange looking device, with a minimal slit aperture for Johncock to see through.

“Hmm, well… A small slit works when it’s close to your face like on Gordy’s helmet,” says Mears. “But from a distance – like the distance between a driver’s head and the front edge of the cockpit – that won’t work. It wouldn’t give you enough perspective or peripheral vision.

“Think about when you’re at the doctor’s office for an eye test. If he makes you look through a pinhole and holds it right up to your eye, you can see everything. Pull it just two inches away and you can’t see through it – the hole’s too small. So how big does the slot have to be when it’s as far away from the driver’s eyes as the front of the cockpit?”

Mears then adds: “The important thing to remember is that if it’s not your day, it’s not your day. I got my eye damage that way. I had my visor cracked open not even quarter of an inch, so in a direct line there was no gap in the opening. But a little stone hit the rubber seal at the bottom of the opening and bounced up into my eye. Now you could fire a million little stones at me and not one of them will behave that way. There was absolutely minimal chance of that happening… but it happened.

“The thing is, the only way to make zero odds on anything happening is to not race – or race in a way that nobody would watch. That goes back to what I said earlier, about not being able to plan for every circumstance. We have to learn and modify but also stay aware of what might happen because there are no perfect solutions – and we can’t afford to adopt something that we then discover has unintended negative consequences.”

The Halo device, as seen being tested on Formula 1 cars, is not something that has won Mears over, although he acknowledges it could stop larger debris and help the driver avoid injury in the sort of incidents where cars climb over each other.

“Sure, if it’s built correctly, it’s absolutely going to help in certain set of circumstances,” he says. “But through my career, I had so many things come at me and the majority of them were on an upward trajectory – not straight at me and not downward into the cockpit. And so I’ve had things pass close over my head that, had the Halo been there, may have hit the underside of the leading edge of it and ricocheted down at me. Now that’s not a reason to dismiss the concept altogether, obviously, but it’s definitely something to consider.”

As mentioned in my previous column, I’m convinced such devices have been conceived by those trying to delay the inevitable day when closed cockpits will be seen as the only answer. Is it time, I ask Mears, for IndyCar and the FIA to turn to someone from outside the sphere of racing to take a look at the safety cell concept with totally fresh eyes – and with no vested interest nor preconceptions?

“Well, we’d have to give them a box to work within,” he warns, “because, hell, without any guidelines or knowledge of racing, I could design something that would withstand every racing crash we’ve ever seen – but it would be a tank! Just like an engine manufacturer could build you an engine guaranteed to last half a million miles but it would only rev to about 800 and it wouldn’t go very fast…

“So I think race engineers are the ones to come up with the solutions ultimately, because they understand the parameters and demands of the sport. You look at dragboats, where they have a self-contained safety cell system that has an oxygen supply, so when the cell goes underwater after an accident, it allows the driver to survive until the safety team gets there. It’s really neat.

“To me, that’s just one example that shows race engineers have great minds for a given task. And they’re also probably some of the best at considering all the consequences and coming up with the scenarios where they have to weigh up the good and bad points of any device.

"And the drivers should be involved, too. They’re the ones with the most to lose.”

I’m surely not alone in thinking Mr. Mears himself should be part of any open-wheel safety committee, too. By his own admission, he may not have all the answers, but he certainly poses the right questions.

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About this article
Series IndyCar , Formula 1
Drivers Rick Mears
Article type Commentary
Tags aero screen, cockpit protection, halo, safety