The FIA has confirmed that it will expedite plans to conduct further tests of closed cockpit concepts for use in open-wheel racing in the wake of the death of IndyCar Series driver Justin Wilson.
Wilson died as a result of severe head injuries he sustained when he was struck in the head by flying debris following a separate accident at Pocono Raceway on Sunday.
His death has renewed the debate about the development of closed cockpits in top-level single-seater racing, which has bubbled along since 2009 when Formula 2 driver Henry Surtees was killed at Brands Hatch after being struck in the head by a flying wheel.
Just a week later at the Hungarian Grand Prix, then-Ferrari driver Felipe Massa suffered major head injuries when he was struck in the helmet by a damper spring that fell off the back of Rubens Barrichello’s car during qualifying.
In the final race of the 2011 IndyCar Series, two-time Indy 500 Dan Wheldon was killed as a result of head injuries he sustained in a multi-car pile-up at the Las Vegas Speedway.
More recently, Formula 1 mourned the death of Marussia driver Jules Bianchi, who passed away nine months after suffering head injuries when he collided with a recovery vehicle at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
Open-cockpit racing is considered an intrinsic part of the tradition of open-wheel racing, and that the risks of motorsport are well understood and accepted.
While there is no suggestion that a closed canopy design would have prevented or reduced the likelihood of any of these drivers’ injuries or deaths, the FIA had previously conducted a range of tests to evaluate the benefits and risks of introducing the concept.
It had previously conducted tests with a polycarbonate fighter-jet style clear canopy, but identified two major risks: the structure shattered in certain impact tests, and it also launched certain debris high into the air where it could potentially pose a danger to trackside spectators.
The biggest concern of the concept, however, was the risk it posed in being able to extricate a driver in certain accidents, such as when a car was upside-down or if there was another car on top (as was the case in the collision between Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso at this year’s Austrian Grand Prix).
The risk of these factors was considered greater than the benefit afforded by the canopy protection designs, putting the concept on the backburner once again.
Many F1 teams and fans are resistant to the idea of a closed cockpit or canopy because of the view that open-cockpit racing is considered an intrinsic part of the tradition of open-wheel racing, and that the risks of motorsport are well understood and accepted.
The discussion around greater cockpit protection was, coincidentally, brought up again with the FIA last week – before Wilson’s accident – and the governing body has subsequently signed off on further testing to be conducted.
The latest idea is for cars to be fitted with a series of different-height vertical blades around the front of the cockpit to deflect debris; the design would not impede a driver being able to get out of their car, but would evident pose a visibility challenge to a driver from within the cockpit.
Mercedes has also put forward an idea of a halo-style protection design that could be fitted around the cockpit (pictured above), which the FIA has agreed to evaluate.
Image via Giorgio Piola