Skip to content

Closing the Cockpit

October 25, 2011

© FIA.

Over the past few days, I have been coming across a number of messages safety in motorsport.

Following Dan Wheldon’s recent passing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, that is only natural.

It appears many believe that closed cockpit racing may well be the way forward for motor racing – and in time, they may very well be right.
However demanding safety features be implemented without the numbers to back them up can be equally as dangerous.

Earlier this year, the FIA began investigations into the possibility of using closed cockpit units to protect drivers in case of flying debris.
The test saw two varieties put through their paces – a polycarbonate windscreen and an F-16 fighter jet canopy made from aerospace-specification polycarbonate. The project saw a Formula 1 wheel fired upon each shield from short range at approximately 140 miles per hour.

Where the windscreen shattered upon impact on two occasions, rendering its potential usefulness redundant, the jet canopy merely deflected the errant wheel away, leaving the cockpit area unscathed. This result, however, brought problems of its own.
With the wheel successfully deflected away from the cockpit, it continued to travel through the air, eventually landing several hundred metres away.
The face of the problem changed instantly, as the potential of non-competitor injuries and fatalities became apparent.

Of course, the loss of Dan Wheldon was a black moment for motorsport; however the death of a fan or track worker could destroy the sport forever.
It must not be forgotten that three fans died at the CART US 500 at Michigan in 1998, while another three fans perished at an IRL event in Charlotte the following year. In Formula 1, two trackside marshals died due to injuries caused by flying wheels in 2000 and 2001 respectively.

There is plenty of potential in closed cockpit single-seaters, but as with every safety feature, the positives and negative elements need to be thoroughly investigated before they can be implemented.
Without doubt, this will eventually be done, but it needs to be done in the right way.

From → Features

8 Comments
  1. Nick (@Twiger) permalink

    Surely if it hits any other solid element of the car like the nose or airbox it would do the same thing?

    Remember that the wheels in F1 are now double tethered so they should not come off on the racing line quite so readily.

    The bigger risk is from smaller debris like the piece which hit Massa, or the car becoming inverted and hitting an impediment.

    There is a risk of the wheel flying off, but it is well worth taking. A wheel hitting the driver would have a high % chance of killing a driver. the chance of a wheel coming off in the direction of the person and injuring them would be a lot less, killing them even more so.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      Just because a wheel is less likely to come off does not mean it will not. If motorsport is to treat safety with a heightened degree of safety, then it must also consider the potential drawbacks of safety measures and act accordingly.

  2. Nick (@Twiger) permalink

    You are taking an incident where there is a high chance of a fatality (wheel onto helmet at high speed), then advocating not implementing it because it doesnt reduce the chance of a fatality (to a 3rd party) to absolute zero?

    Motorsport will never be 100% safe, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get as close to it as possible.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      Exactly. Motorsport can never be completely safe, but it would be foolish to rule out the potential consequences of an action, which is what some are advocating.
      If a closed cockpit is to be implemented, it needs to be done with the safety of all in mind.

  3. Steven Roy permalink

    If a wheel is travelling at 140mph then it doesn’t matter what it hits you will get the same result. We have seen wheels fly off in the past and it is always an incredibly dangerous situation but absolutely nothing to do with closed cockpits.

    To me there are three obvious problems with closed cockpits. How do they keep the temperature inside the cockpit to a survivable level? How do they stop the canopy misting or picking up debris that affect a driver’s visions? Tear offs are an option but a driver can’t take tear offs from a canopy. And most importantly how does a canopy affect access / egress from the cockpit.

    The wheel test is a total red herring. I am starting to believe this is why the FIA posted video of the test.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      Exactly Steven, which is why the canopy project must continue to be tested. Half measures cannot and should not be introduced as safety features, which is why continuous examinations of these theories is so important.

  4. 100% with you on this one, Leigh. It’s possible that the canopy solution will be the way to go in the coming years, but it’s just not something that can be spliced onto the cars in IndyCar or F1 starting at the beginning of the 2012 season while making no changes to other systems on the cars (like, say, if the manual canopy release fails in a crash where there’s fire, because I seriously doubt that any of the F1 teams with their 2012 designs probably 90%+ complete at this time, that the teams could also add in automatic ballistic releases or any such thing…maybe by 2013, if canopies are mandated, but 2012 is a pipe dream by people who have no engineering background) or making changes to the tracks (as you point out, fences will likely have to be comprehensively changed, because if we’re going to increase the safety of the drivers, it can not come at a decrease in the safety of the spectators). This is a years long process. That doesn’t mean that it can’t start now, it just means that nobody should expect massive, concrete changes from March 2012. People are just going to have some patience here while ALL factors are taken into account.

  5. Steven Roy permalink

    Graham Rahal posted a series of tweets on closed Indycars yesterday and he addressed the fire hazard.

    For everyone asking about fire. Closed cockpit may be better. When we get burnt its from the flames flowing over the sides..

    http://twitter.com/#!/GrahamRahal/status/128568424740831232

    It is important to remember that the only thing that really burns in an Indycar is fuel and that is separated from the cockpit by a bulkhead so the only way fire can get to the driver is through the cockpit opening.

    There is certainly a load of work to be done before this can be a requirement but to me Indycar should have McLaren or someone with serious resources working on it for a car to be introduced in 2014/2015.

    I have argued for a while that the way to sort out F1 is to get a few top ex-designers like Gordon Murray, John Barnard and Gary Anderson and have them draw up a new set of regs from a clean sheet of paper for 2015 and I think Indycar should be looking at something similar.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: