The open cockpit dilemma has reignited as a result of the tragic passing of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson. The FIA has previously investigated closed cockpit designs in the past, after a near miss on Fernando Alonso at the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix, where Romain Grosjean crashed and flipped over Alonso’s Ferrari, narrowly missing the Spaniard’s head.
Now the issue of driver safety continues as a string of major accidents has either seriously injured drivers or killed them. Most notably, Jules Bianchi succumbed to injuries he sustained at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix where his Marussia skidded off the tarmac and into a recovery vehicle. Bianchi was travelling at a reduced speed due to the sector being under yellow flag conditions, however, the speed was still fast enough to launch the JCB recovery vehicle a few centimetres into the air.
In the FIA’s accident panel findings, they concluded that an enclosed canopy would not have provided sufficient enough protection as the force of the impact was too great.
“It is not feasible to mitigate the injuries Bianchi suffered by either enclosing the driver’s cockpit, or fitting skirts to the crane. Neither approach is practical due to the very large forces involved in the accident between a 700kg car striking a 6500kg crane at a speed of 126kph. There is simply insufficient impact structure on an F1 car to absorb the energy of such an impact without either destroying the driver’s survival cell, or generating non-survivable decelerations.”
In similar circumstances, Maria De Villota sustained severe head injuries during a testing session with Marussia where she was at the end of completing a straight line test run when she collided with a stationary truck in the service area. According to witnesses she was travelling at approximately 50 – 65km/h at the time of impact. De Villota lost her right eye as a result of the incident and then passed away a year later due to a cardiac arrest which was linked to her 2012 accident.
In 2011, Dan Wheldon lost his life in a 15-car accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway after his head hit a fence post. As a result of the accident, IndyCar announced that they would no longer race in Las Vegas.
Felipe Massa suffered a fractured skull when he was struck in the head by a suspension spring that had fallen off Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn. His initial condition was described as life-threatening but stable.
Henry Surtees, son of 1964 F1 world champion John, was killed by a loose wheel in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch.
With these recent examples near misses and death as a result of open cockpits, what exactly is stopping the introduction of a closed cockpit?
The FIA has conducted several tests over the past few years with limited success, finding flaws in design concepts like the fighter jet style canopy. The polycarbonate material could shatter on high impact, or, could act as a launch pad for debris, potentially risking the safety of spectators.
As for driver safety, while they may be out of harms way from immediate smaller debris, it presents difficulties for the driver getting out if the canopy is damaged or in an awkward position. It also prevents medical crews from attending to drivers due to time spent opening the canopy which could be potentially damaged.
The results have forced designers to think outside the box and invent a protective system that will shield drivers from impact as well as not hinder their escape from the cockpit. Currently, drivers must be able to exit the cockpit within five seconds.
Mercedes F1 took a different approach and conceived an enclosure around the cockpit which can deflect debris and allow the driver an unhindered escape from the cockpit. The ‘halo’ style concept does have its flaws, however, as the drivers vision will be compromised from the carbon fiber structure.
Also, there is still a substantial gap between the blades surrounding the cockpit, that fallen debris from other cars could easily find its way through to the drivers helmet, just like Massa’s incident in 2009.
The halo ring concept wouldn’t have saved Surtees’ life either as there’s also a large gap on the top of the protected cockpit. The loose tyre would still have made contact with the top of Surtees’ helmet. So although the idea of the halo-styled roll structure is good for fans and keeping the heritage of open-wheeled racing alive, it doesn’t directly address the safety situation.
Even if a way is found to implement a fully functional canopy, the risks and dangers of motorsport will always be present, and that’s a factor that every driver accepts.
Images via Giorgio Piola and Getty Images