Closed Cockpits Are Not the Answer to F1's Worries

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Closed Cockpits Are Not the Answer to F1's Worries
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

After two chillingly similar accidents in two weeks have killed one driver and left another seriously ill in the hospital, there is bound to be talk of safety.

And one concept that seems to be being brought up by fans, drivers, and team bosses is a closed cockpit.

However, despite the shocking nature of recent events, a closed canopy F1 car is certainly not the answer.

Now, just to clear this up, I’m not saying this on aesthetic value. Personally, the mental image I have of a closed cockpit F1 car is far from ugly, and bear a striking resemblance to WWII fighter planes or the current machinery in the Red Bull Air Race (without the wings of course).

However, I much prefer the closed coupe Le Mans prototypes, so I might just have a thing about roofs.

Obviously, the idea of having something to stop or deflect debris before it reaches the driver appears to negate the chances of such accidents occurring again.

However, the practicalities of having a closed-cockpit F1 car boggle the mind when you begin to think about them.

Of course, the primary concern is safety. After all, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that having a roof between you and safety may not be a good thing.

Now, start putting a car in every conceivable position and situation you can. Upside down, on top of another car, on fire, filling with smoke or embedded in a tyre wall.

Very quickly the list of boxes any canopy needs to tick becomes long and contradictory.

You need something strong enough, perhaps up to the same standard as the main tub, to deflect the kind of debris that has sparked this debate, yet F1 teams, always after the smallest advantage will want it as light as possible.

You’re going to need something secure when the car is traveling at 300 km/ph, you don’t want it flying off, or even opening, mid race, yet easy to remove once the car is stopped.

It has to be able to be opened easily from both the inside and outside. On the inside by a driver potentially blind from smoke or other gases, put Kimi Raikkonen in a canopy car when he had the KERS/Fire extinguisher/whatever problem in practice for Malaysia that had white smoke billowing up into the cockpit.

The locking mechanism has to be simple enough for the marshals to operate quickly, with potentially every team having the same mechanism.

When a car is on fire, a driver incapacitated, the vital seconds track workers spend remembering whether the car has a canopy which opens from the left, right, slides forward or opens after knocking three times and the password is “sausages.”

Can you see a dozen or so coming up with the same mechanism? No.

Look at the range and variety in the cars that took to the grid in Melbourne in March. That’s what happens when F1 teams get a new rule. They couldn’t even agree on a KERS system, with BMW opting for a flywheel originally.

And that’s before you consider the designs that will appear in junior formula.
They would have to open from every conceivable angle. What would happen in a car with a canopy that opens on one side when that side of the car is damaged?

In a situation when every second is vital, you can’t have track workers waiting for the Jaws of Life to free a driver.

OK, and what if it rains?

The curvature that an F1 canopy would need (if we are preserving the level of vision afforded by an open cockpit) would render normal wipers useless, so what happens if it rains.

Well, fans of Touring Cars will be familiar with the chemical solution, often called Rain-ex, that a team will squirt on a windscreen to help the rain run off the screen quickly. But that’s not fool proof.

Those cars have a wiper to work with the chemical, and you can’t expect a driver to pit just to have the chemicals applied if an unexpected rain shower appears.

And what about other things that will affect vision. What if a driver is behind a car dropping one of the various vital fluids in F1 cars?

His vision is stuffed.

What happens if a driver goes off and has his front wheels kicking up grass and dirt, not to mention the ever-present rubber marbles, onto his screen.

Worse still what if a driver is behind a car that goes off, and has the lifting power of four wheels throwing rubbish at him.

Of course, the obvious answer is screen tear-offs. A bigger version of the visor tear-offs we’re all used to seeing dispatched by F1 drivers several times a race.

A whole screen tear-off exists in NASCAR, so it is possible, but unless a driver is going to come in every time his vision is blocked by oil, water, grass or anything else, ruining his race, then having half-blind drivers going round is as much a safety risk as the potential for flying debris injuries.

Then there is the fact that having a screen in front of you doesn’t automatically mean you’re safe. Look for footage of Australian Touring Car driver Craig Lowndes encountering a loose tyre at Bathurst. Even with a screen and a roof, the deformation is likely to make a closed cockpit F1 car very uncomfortable to say the least.

In the recent NASCAR restrictor plate melees, the cars of Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, and Kasey Kahne all showed considerable deformation, and a hole in Edwards’ case, in their screens after impacts.

Of course, the designs of V8 Supercar or NASCAR screens would be a million miles removed from F1 canopies, but the damages suffered in these cases show that a canopy is not the guaranteed fix it seems to be being made out to be.

The problem is that we are in danger of knee-jerking to a safety conclusion, something everyone agrees is bad, on the back of two (fairly) freak accidents.

If Henry Surtees has been three feet (milliseconds) behind where he was last Sunday the tyre would have bounced either harmlessly over his car, of landed on the nose of it, with Surtees, limping back to the pits or pulling off the track with a damaged front wing or front suspension.   

If Massa had been six inches to the left of where he was the spring would have missed his helmet, glanced off the engine cover and maybe hit the rear wing, and the worst we’d be speaking of is Massa starting the Grand Prix 10th because of rear wing damage ruling him out of qualifying’s final session.

Of course, we’re not, and what happened happened, but everything should be kept in perspective.

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