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Closed cockpits in Formula One: A positive step?

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In the wake of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson's sad passing, we analyse how closed cockpits could benefit the sport of Formula One.

 IndyCar’s Justin Wilson passed away a day after sustaining head injuries at the Pocono Raceway 

Issues with cockpits and safety have been thrust into the spotlight once again following the tragic death of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, who was critically injured at the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania after debris from the car of driver Sage Karam hit him in the helmet. He passed away in hospital hours later. 

FIA Formula One’s Race Director and safety delegate Charlie Whiting said that the organisation was aiming to look at changes to cockpits in the sport with a view to making racing safer for drivers, in light of Wilson’s passing.

We investigate closed cockpits and how they could possibly prevent future deaths in motorsport.

Preventable deaths

Henry Surtees, the son of legendary British F1 racer John  – the oldest living Formula One racer of all time – was 18-years-old when he passed away in 2009 of an on-track head injury.

Following a hit in the head from a wheel that had come loose from the vehicle of his competitor, Jack Clarke, Surtees lost consciousness entirely. It was estimated that the wheel assembly that had come loose from Clarke’s car had weighed nearly 30 kilograms, the entire impact of which had been sustained by Surtees’ head. He fell unconscious with his pedal still on the accelerator, ramming into the barrier at the circuit.

Surtees died in hospital later that day after being airlifted to hospital. 

Spanish driver Maria de Villota, testing for F1 team Marussia, sustained head injuries following a collision with a stationary crane during testing at the Duxford Aerodrome in the UK. The head injuries she sustained resulted in the immediate loss of her right eye. Tragically, de Villota would suffer complications from the same accident a year later, and was found dead in her hotel room of delayed complications from the accident.

More recently, IndyCar lost one of its luminaries in the form of British racer Dan Wheldon in 2011. Wheldon, racing in the  IZOD IndyCar World Championship at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was involved in a 15-car accident that sent his vehicle flying into the air. He would die of what was described as “blunt force trauma to the head” after his head hit a pole lining the track at the speedway.

Accidents in Formula One

Formula One has seen its fair share of severe head injuries preventable by closed cockpits, although not all of these have been fatal. Perhaps one of the few freshest in F1 fans’ memory is that of Brazilian driver Felipe Massa in 2009

Massa, then with Scuderia Ferrari alongside two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, had been trailing the Brawn of his compatriot Rubens Barichello at the Hungaroring when a spring came loose from Barichello’s car, hitting Massa squarely, and forcefully, in the head. Losing control of his vehicle, the Brazilian spun into the tyre He was described as being in “critical condition” for the next 24 hours, and underwent emergency brain surgery. 

The accident would have been completely prevented in a closed cockpit. 

Most recently, F1 lost one of its youngest, quickest rising talents in French driver Jules Bianchi, who sustained serious head injuries following his accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. It would be the diffuse axonal injury he sustained to his brain that would render him comatose for the remainder of his life, which ended last month. Arguably, with Bianchi’s death however, there were several other factors which came into play, the absence of any of which may have resulted in no accident at all.

The FIA said they were investigating the possibility of ‘fighter-jet style cockpits’ in F1, but so far had not found a style where the benefits outweighed the cons. Currently-ruling champions Mercedes, who look set to take the title this year as well, have also made recommendations for cockpit changes. The team put forth a design for a ‘halo’ or hoop-style canopy over drivers’ heads to protect them from stray objects on the track. 

A spokesman said plans for the tests had been in place prior to the death of Wilson, which indicates perhaps that this was one of the changes brought about in the wake of Bianchi’s tragic demise.


Weighing the pros and cons 

Graphic artist Daniele Sanfilippo‘s rendering of what a closed cockpit F1 car might look like 

Closed cockpits will bring with them their own extensive set of risks. Although they would greatly reduce the risk of direct impact to drivers, they also bring several negatives. 

Most crucial among these is the extrication of drivers in emergency situations. The first few seconds after a high-impact accident, as those in Formula One often are, are crucial to the survival of a driver. Even a split-second delay, as would likely be caused by the presence of an external barrier in driver access, could mean the difference between life and death. 

With closed cockpits also comes the risk of fire. Although there have been no fire-related incidents in Formula One in the recent past, this could be an issue, especially considering that several F1 teams have been having repeated engine and power unit issues, and these could snowball into bigger safety issues.

It is likely, however, that cockpits with easy ejection plans will be devised. Among an idea that could possibly work could be the the attachment of the canopy via explosive bolts, which are remotely operated and incorporate pyrotechnic charges to generate force. 

The bolts are remotely activated, and once electric current is generated, split into two – thereby undoing themselves. This remote operation could be handled by pit crew or race stewards and marshals, and would also remove the risk of delay in the potential rescue of a driver. 

Pyros, as they are colloquially known, also offer the advantage of being lightweight – and have been tested to be far more reliable than mechanical screws and latches. They are currently largely used in aerospace engineering, and NASA uses several pyrotechnic mixtures and alloys in fasteners for its spacecraft.

While a fair number of purists in the sport argue that F1 in its purest form should be kept open-wheel and open-cockpit, reliability and structural changes will doubtless make motor-racing, which has seen a spate of deaths following a relatively calm number of years, safer. 

Extensive testing will need to be employed following consultations and theorising, which according to the FIA is already in progress. This puts the time frame in which changes will be effected as relatively in the future, so perhaps Formula 1 can expect design changes within the next 5 years.


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