Closed Cockpits in F1: Necessity or Knee-Jerk?

In light of the tragic death of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson on Monday, the debate regarding whether or not Formula 1 should introduce closed cockpits in order to ensure the safety of drivers has flared up again.  

While Formula 1 has undoubtedly made great strides in terms of safety in the past two decades, with innovations like the HANS system (to protect the driver’s neck during impact) and the concept of the “survival cell” that remains intact even as the rest of the car disintegrates, much has been done to ensure that modern-day drivers walk away unscathed from accidents that would have resulted in injury or death twenty-five years ago.  

A good example of this is Max Verstappen’s accident in Monaco earlier this year, with the Toro Rosso youngster unharmed even after a particularly nasty incident that was uncomfortable to watch.

However, while the sport has become far safer, the driver’s head remains particularly exposed and vulnerable to injuries. 

Improvements in helmet design and construction have certainly reduced the risk of head injuries to an extent but as the eventually fatal injury sustained by Jules Binachi in Suzuka last year show, they are not infallible. The death of Justin Wilson and the horrible injuries suffered by Felipe Massa at the Hungarian Grand Prix of 2009 simply reinforce this point.  

Thus, the debate on whether or not Formula 1 needs closed cockpits is clearly valid. However, as with all things in a sport as complex as Formula 1, the answer is not simple, with arguments both for and against the closed cockpits idea.

The case for closed cockpits:

The greatest and most obvious advantage of closed cockpits is safety. Formula 1 could take a revolutionary step in a bold new direction which could change the face of the sport and subsequently influence other open-cockpit series to do the same.  

Frankly, it would be a move on a safety front of a magnitude comparable to the introduction of the new, 1.6 litre turbocharged engines last year. Formula 1 cars are, as mentioned above, incredibly safe, but this makes it easy to become complacent and to stop looking for progress.  

Williams Technical Director Rob Smedley believes that closed cockpits would be relatively easy to implement given the available technology, and the FIA has already performed tests in order to see how a closed canopy or even a titanium roll hoop would react to heavy impacts.

Closed cockpits and even closed wheels do not necessarily need to spoil the aesthetics of a Formula 1 car, as Adrian Newey showed when he designed the Red Bull X2010, a beautiful F1 car that ignored the F1 rulebook and featured both a closed cockpit and closed wheels.  

The drivers, who will of course be responsible for piloting the cars of the future, with or without closed cockpits, are also not against the idea. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, to name two of the big names in the sport, have agreed that the idea of closed cockpits is worth investigating as long as it does not detract from the quality of racing and the overall experience.

From a sporting viewpoint, the closed cockpits would become another area of technical development. Teams would have to adjust to the challenge of designing a closed cockpit that meets the FIA’s demands with regards to safety and does not breach technical regulations but is as aerodynamic and light as possible and integrates well with the rest of the bodywork in order to ensure maximum performance.

The argument for closed cockpits is simple, but appeals to reason: it can make the sport safer, it is possible with the latest technology and the people who drive the cars have no problem with it, so why shouldn’t it happen?

The case against closed cockpits:

For every reason put forward in favour of closed cockpits, however, there is a reason against the idea given by its detractors.  

For one thing, questions remain about the actual effectiveness of a closed cockpit solution, and whether the life of Jules Bianchi in particular could actually have been saved by a closed cockpit, or whether the closed cover would simply have collapsed on top of him, possibly worsening his injuries.  With the high costs of competing in Formula 1 being a constant source of concern for more than half the grid, it stands to reason that pumping money into finding the best closed cockpit solution possible may not be a feasible course of action for many of the stakeholders in the sport.

It is also important to consider what happens after an accident takes place. In fairness, head injuries in Formula 1 remain a rare occurrence. If a driver is involved in an accident and suffers an injury, any kind of jamming on the part of the switch that opens the closed cockpit could leave the driver trapped in a car after suffering an injury, or unable to escape from a car that is on fire.  

A good example of this is the accident between Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso in Austria this year, with the Spaniard’s McLaren-Honda ending up on top of the Finn’s Ferrari.  Had the Ferrari been equipped with a closed cockpit, it is quite conceivable that Räikkönen would have been trapped in his car, unable to receive immediate attention from medical professionals concerned for his health and well-being.

Furthermore, concerns about visibility, particularly with regards to drivers being able to see what is next them, must not be ignored. Many collisions that occur in the sport are as a result of drivers misjudging the amount of space available to them to position their cars. A further reduction in visibility is only likely to worsen this problem.  

A closed cockpit solution would have to be carefully thought out in order to allow for good visibility, to deal with a variety of different impacts at different points of the cover as well as ensuring that water can be quickly cleared off the cover in the case of wet races.

Consideration should be given to the “spirit of Formula 1”.  The legacy of some of the most advanced cars ever built feature an open cockpit with the instantly-recognisable helmets of icons such as Senna and Schumacher peeking out and the clearly visible steering inputs made by the driver as he fights an oversteering car into a corner.  

These are little things that we may take for granted, but seeing the way the driver is pushed back into his seat under braking or the way the driver’s head bobbles around as he comes charging through Raidillon at Spa all contribute to the legacy, myth and larger than life circus that is Formula 1.  

Watching the LMP1 cars at Le Mans earlier this year was, in a word, fantastic. However, it becomes very easy to look at those cars as highly-powered drones that glide by you rather than viewing them as machines, pushed to the limit by human beings trying to find out how far you can push before you cross the line.

The idea of getting into a highly-powered car and racing around a circuit is inherently dangerous, and this is part of Formula 1’s attraction. While nobody wishes to see a driver seriously injured, there is no use in running away from the fact that the danger of Formula 1 is a part of the spectacle.

Conclusions:

Due to the continued push for greater safety in Formula 1, it is more likely than not that closed cockpits will eventually be introduced in Formula 1 and subsequently in other open-cockpit motorsport categories, be that within the next five years, ten years or in the longer term. While Formula 1 can never be made entirely risk free as long as people willingly step into such powerful machines, we should always strive to keep the stars of the show as safe as possible.  

However, before jumping on the safety bandwagon, careful consideration should be given to the practical, sporting and financial implications of closed-cockpit Formula 1 cars and the direction in which they would take the sport.

Adriaan Slabbert

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