Closed cockpits aren’t a perfect solution – but they may be an improvement

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Cockpit heights were raised in F1 last year

Cockpit heights were raised in F1 last year

The untimely death of Henry Surtees in a Formula Two race last weekend has re-opened the debate about whether single-seater racing cars should have open cockpits.

Surtees was killed when a stray wheel from another car struck Surtees’ crash helmet.

We’ve had discussions here before about whether single-seater cars should continue to have open cockpits (see the comment thread here). There are potential disadvantages to covering them up, but are they now outweighed by the benefits?

The reasons why cockpits have been left uncovered in the past are clear: they allow drivers to extract themselves from a car that could be on fire or in a dangerous position more quickly than if it were covered.

In much the same way drivers once raced without seatbelts – the prevailing wisdom (which, for a while, was sound reasoning) being that in the event of a car rolling over it was safer to be thrown clear than than trapped inside.

Seatbelts, of course, have been mandatory for decades. Should we similarly re-appraise our view of closed cockpits?

Weighing up the safety question

The safety argument against closed cockpits hinges around whether they make it harder to a driver to get out of a car in an emergency.

The FIA currently mandates a minimum length of time a driver must take to get out of his car. It may not be possible to evacuate a car in that time with a cockpit cover, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a broken cover might prevent the driver from being able to get out.

There could be other complications, for example, in wet weather conditions.

Arguing in favour of cockpit covers – and assuming they can be made strong enough to withstand the sort of accident that claimed poor Surtees – one would start by asking how often these days do you see a driver needing to vacate a car in a hurry?

The sight of drivers abandoning burning cars is far rarer than it once was. On the few occasions it still happens it tends to be in the case of a pit lane fire, in which case closed cockpits would surely make the driver safer.

Are drivers now at greater risk of injury from flying debris than being trapped in their cars? I suspect they are, but a better means of assessing the risk would be to look at how many recent examples there have been of drivers’ heads being struck by debris and weigh them against the number of occasions when drivers have needed to extricate themselves from a car quickly, when having a cockpit cover might have hindered their escape.

Steven of Checkpoint 10 lists some of the recent occurences of crash helmets being hit by objects. To these we could add Martin Brundle in 1994, who was hit by a wheel which was still attached to Jos Verstappen’s flying Benetton. How many similar accidents have there been in recent years, and how many times might cockpit covers have threatened driver safety? Please volunteer any suggestions of your own in the comments.

No reason not to?

There are also arguments against cockpits made on non-safety grounds: mainly, that it would change the fundamental nature of F1 cars (and other single-seaters), reducing harm their appeal. Several people made that case here when we discussed the topic following David Coulthard and Alexander Wurz’s crash in 2007.

Do such arguments hold water when drivers’ lives are at risk? Or would bringing in closed cockpits be an over-reaction to a tragic but freak accident?

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139 comments on Closed cockpits aren’t a perfect solution – but they may be an improvement

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  1. Achilles said on 22nd July 2009, 7:15

    I think the coroners report that determines the exact cause of death, is needed before a discussion about closed cockpits would be appropriate, there were many parts attached to that wheel, any one could have been factors.

  2. Andrew said on 22nd July 2009, 7:26

    I think this was just a freak accident. Closed cockpits aren’t necessary.

  3. Jonesracing82 said on 22nd July 2009, 7:40

    this was a freak accident! if the wheel was even 50cm either side or higher, it would have missed him completely!
    i am suprised wheel tethers arnt mandatory on all single seaters! this would have stopped the wheel from flying loose in the 1st place…..

    • Tom said on 22nd July 2009, 9:05

      i read that they were on the f2 cars but failed in this particular incident. i could be wrong though. you’d think it would be mandatory. maybe the tethers need to be revised even for f1. some wheels do still fly.

      • sato113 said on 22nd July 2009, 13:15

        you’re right, there are wheel tethers on f2 cars. just failed this time. i read jonathan palmer saying they were built to f1 standards with tethers.

  4. The_Pope said on 22nd July 2009, 7:57

    Jonesracing82 – I agree, though tethers *were* used in that race. I read somewhere, though, that they aren’t as strong as those in F1 and thus failed in this one case :(

    I would vote against enclosed cockpits – the drivers already have much more protection than in the past, and we haven’t had a death in 15 years (plus Senna was killed by his steering column, so roof or not, he would’ve died).

    Open-top racing adds driver personality to the experience – the waving, the angry gestures, the celebrations at the end of a race… close-top racing takes away the face of racing, and they just because anonymous cars zooming around, like BTTC, NASCAR et al

  5. savage said on 22nd July 2009, 7:57

    I think these cars were equipped with tethers .
    Jason Plato the touring car driver tested the Caparo t1 on fifth gear which is not to dissimilar to an F1 car with a closed cockpit and was burnt when the engine caught fire and i wondered if an F1 car was made closed cockpit would that not just add an un-necessary risk ? .
    This was an unfortunate accident.

    • Stubie said on 22nd July 2009, 14:28

      I do believe the Caparo in the Jason Plato test was open cockpit. I think the complication in Jason’s case was his not wearing his inflammable flightsuit (although, for a “production road car”, that should not have been necessary)

  6. Adam Tate said on 22nd July 2009, 8:01

    Wheel tethers are mandatory in F2. And just think of how sexy the Caparo T1 is with it’s closed cockpit, it looks much better that way than it does with the open one. If F1 cars can be made to look that good with closed cockpits, it’s fine by me!

  7. PrisonerMonkeys said on 22nd July 2009, 8:06

    While Surtees’ death was a tragic accident, it was just that: an accident, and I think people are over-reacting to it. I am by no means a student of physics, but I do know that there were so many variables in play in the accident that having closed cockpits isn’t going to do anything.

    Take the last time something like this happened, when Jacques Villeneuve crashed at Melbourne and a marshall died. The tyre from the BAR was forty-six centimetres wide. The gap in the fence was forty-seven. If Villeneuve, Schumacher or even the guys immediately in front of them had been going faster or slower be even five kilometres through the turn beforehand, the accident would have been very different.

    Surtees’ accident is the same. The tyre from Clarke’s car hit him directly. If Surtees had missed the apex way back at Druids’ (assuming the rest of his lap had remained exactly the same), the accident would have been different. Strengthening wheel tethers and having enclosed cockpits is not the answer because motorsport has inherent dangers. You simply cannot account for every possible scenario. It’s like saying “I’m not going to go outside today because a meteor might hit me”. We go outside all the time and meteors don’t hit us, and that same meteor can still hit my house and kill me just as much as if it had hit me outside. If you look at the accident again, Clarke’s wheel hit Surtees directly. The timing, speeds, positioning and conditions for both cars had to be perfect in order for that to happen. If Surtees has been going five kiloemtres faster, the tyre would have hit his engine cowling. If Clarke had been going five kilometres slower when he left the track, there would have been less energy in the impact and the tyre would have followed a completely different trajectory.

    Enclosing the cars might make the Safety Brigade happy, but motorsport is already safer than its already been. The problem is that Newton throws something at you that you never see coming, regardless of how good your design is.

    • FLIG said on 22nd July 2009, 10:37

      Now here’s a bloke saying smart stuff! I won’t add anything because it’s not needed, I’ll just second him.

    • Tiomkin said on 22nd July 2009, 10:47

      Totally agree, the key word is ‘Accident’, an unforeseeable tragedy. Wrapping people in cotton wool might stop it happening. But then eventually something else will happen. It’s called risk.

    • Nirupam said on 22nd July 2009, 10:54

      I could not agree more..nice smart analysis.

    • Jonathan said on 22nd July 2009, 11:34

      You cannot seriously be equating the risk of getting struck by a tyre in a motor race to the risk of getting struck by a meteorite when you step outside your house. Weighing up the costs and benefits of risk prevention is a delicate business, and the precise details of the case matter.

      Because the risk of a meteorite impact on your head is low, the expected costs of preventative measures outweigh the expected benefits. This is not so clear in the case of motor racing, when we are talking about a situation where the risks are higher, and the costs don’t always outweigh the benefits.

      Take the Villeneuve example. A 46cm tyre through a 47cm gap. How unlucky! But why the Hell were the gaps wider than the tyres? Would it have been costly to remove that risk? No, it wouldn’t, and the marshall would still be alive.

      • Charlie said on 22nd July 2009, 12:08

        10 people die on UK roads each week. That’s a lot more than have died from motor racing. But you still drive a car on UK roads? (Apols if you’re not in the UK, but the point is relevant).

        Accidents happen. Unfortunately.

        • VXR said on 22nd July 2009, 12:42

          10 people die on UK roads each week.

          Each day actually ! Amounting to around 3,500 fatalities per year.Or about the same number that died on 9-11 !

          Be careful out there !

          P.S. I am not Max Mosley ! LOL

      • The reason why the gap was wider than the tyre was because the tyre bent the gap out of alignment during the accident with the kinetic energy it possessed. The gap was designed to be only 40cm, which would have kept a 46cm object out.

        There had evidently been an attempt to remove the risk before the accident, but it was only once it happened that the attempt was revealed to be insufficent. Regrettably, a lot of safety development is done that way simply because people haven’t learned to predict everything yet.

    • patrickl said on 22nd July 2009, 12:53

      I’m surprised so many people fall for this overly simplified and erroneous analysis.

      The fact that risks are small doesn’t mean they are non existent.

      A remark like “it’s safer now than before” doesn’t say anything.

      There is only a small chance that you get into a car accident. Yet you wear seat belts (or at least are required to do so). Why?

      The only reason a safety feature should be rejected is if it’s unreasonable (overly expensive or unworkable in real life) or if it’s counterproductive (creates other safety issues).

      To be honest I don’t even see the need to race in open wheel cars. The whole principle is ridiculously dangerous. Cars flip and wheels fly off way too often.

      • Martin said on 22nd July 2009, 23:22

        Then why watch it. Why follow it in the forums?
        It obviously has some attraction for you to be here commenting.
        I like open wheel racing the best. I believe you must be better than other forms of motorsport because you have no room for erro in side by side racing.
        I like other forms of racing but F1 and other open wheel events are what I spend money on.

        • patrickl said on 23rd July 2009, 11:19

          Some people like(d) gladiator fights to the death or bull fights. Doesn’t mean that it’s safe.

      • marc said on 23rd July 2009, 13:54

        I like open wheel racing for the precision it requires but it seems odd that the cockpit sides are becoming so high. The Coulthard incident showed a risk, but I have seen others where rear wheels have come to rest in the cockpit, spinning in the the driver’s face. Wouldn’t a partly enclosed cockpit make more sense than the high sides? Something like a windscreen (with structure) that pops out with the section of the cockpit that pops out now.

    • Wesley said on 22nd July 2009, 23:13

      I am going to jump on PrisonerMonkeys band wagon and say that was very well summed up.You make very smart and insightful comments mate.

    • Martin said on 22nd July 2009, 23:17

      excellent statement of the situation and the sport. It is inherently dangerous. People will get hurt and others will be killed. It is the nature of the sport. People need to quit trying to save the lowest common denominator in these events.
      Sometimes bad things happen to good people, it is sad but true. We do not need to continuee to neuter the sport. Enough of that has happened since Ayrton Senna.

      • patrickl said on 23rd July 2009, 11:21

        Excellent indeed. It’s unsafe so who cares if a few more die. Why even think about further improving safety …

    • dwp said on 24th July 2009, 11:01

      Of course it was an accident, by definition, as it wasn’t deliberate. The issue isn’t whether it was an accident but whether closed cockpits would increase survival in this and other accidents that would subject a driver to serious or lethal injury. Underlying this is a question of if they would increase survival should or should they not be required.

      I think your second paragraph is irrelevant as that accident had nothing to do with open cockpit safety.

      Moving to what I call the “if” paragraph. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of ifs, but I think the one that counts is if nothing is learned from this then that is a true tragedy. I do not think that we here have all the information, or the knowledge if we had the information, to make a rational decision as to whether to leave the cockpit open or to enclose it. Perhaps with the application of sufficient technology the driver in an open cockpit can be protected from direct frontal impact by tyres, birds, or other objects that are detected as high risk for a frontal impact. Again, I think what counts is that this be studied and options be evaluated. If there is a compelling reason to implement changes then that should be done.

      Yes, motorsport is already safer than it’s ever been but I don’t think you are suggesting that the end has been reached and there is no need to make it safer if the opportunity exists.

      Finally, for me, I think there may be safety drawbacks to enclosing. I do think the idea of detection and deployment of a deflections shield could be considered. Also, take a close look at those tether failures.

  8. As sad as Surtees’ death is, this was indeed a freak accident.

    On, I believe, the Autosport forum, I read a post asking how many other drivers were in that race, or at Brands Hatch that weekend, or racing on other circuits in the world, who weren’t hurt? One of them sadly happened to be at that spot at that exact time, and didn’t survive.

    Motor racing is still a dangeours sport. But that’s what makes it stand out among other sport-like activities. To quote E.M. Hemingway: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games”.

    I pray for God’s comfort to the Surtees family.

  9. Sush Meerkat said on 22nd July 2009, 8:09

    what about when Kimi’s KERS decided to explode? and filled his cockpit up with putrid acid smoke, unbreathable smoke by the way.

    Or last year at Melbourne I think it was, Jarno Tulli’s Toyota batteries exploding and leaking acid onto his bum. I remember him jumping out of his Toyota in the pit box.

    • Chris said on 22nd July 2009, 9:04

      I was going to bring this up.

      All the fire suppresent cemicals are unbreathable

      Unfortantly if you bring in a closed cockpits you just open up another load of problems.

    • I was going to bring this situation up. Kimi could have died if the cockpit were closed.

      Also, how strong would that cockpit cover be? Surely it would break into piece upon being stuck by a flying tyre.

      The risks closed cockpits would bring would by far outwheigh the problems it solves.

  10. gabal said on 22nd July 2009, 8:15

    This should be a safety issue, not an aesthetic one. Joe Saward says in his blog about this subject that wheel tethers are double-edged sword. Wheels can and will come off (we saw it in F1 as well) but if you increse the strenght of tethers in case of an accident you can rip off the whole side of a monocoque…

    • dsob said on 23rd July 2009, 10:26

      Been reading the comments. Have to jump in here.

      but if you increse the strenght of tethers in case of an accident you can rip off the whole side of a monocoque…

      Increased-strength wheel tethers might indeed pull the suspension away from the body, or even pull off parts of the body, but the driver’s cocoon has it’s own integrity.

      Witness Kubica’s horrifying crash in Canada. That car disintegrated, the whole rear of the car ripped away, as well as the nose. But the driver cocoon remained intact. Indeed, the biggest piece left of that car WAS the driver cocoon.

      By ALL means, let’s look into better tethers for wheels before we talk about covered cockpits.

      The odds of that tire coming down precisely on Surtees’ head are astronomical against, making it what I would term a “freak” accident.

      And if you notice in the video, TWO tires came fully away from the cars. The one that hit Surtees, and the matching left rear on Surtees’ own car after hitting the barrier in the runoff.

      TWO left rears came fully off the cars, two tether failures on two different cars. Let’s look at the tether systems first, before anything else.

      The last person to die from a head injury was 25 years ago. Yes, there may have been some close brushes, but no deaths. That means the safety measures currently in force are serving the intended purpose.

      • dsob said on 23rd July 2009, 10:51

        Keith, we really need that “Edit” feature, lol.

        In my post, “25 years” should have read “15 years”.

        Sorry for the typo, folks.

  11. Very unfortunate, but this is racing and this guys know that death is an inevitable part of it.

    Accidents happen and we CAN’T account for all variables that go into play.

    Yes, we can try and make it safer (stronger tethers) but we can’t change the cars into russian tanks.

  12. DGR-F1 said on 22nd July 2009, 8:19

    I think this is more an argument for strengthening the wheel tethers in all forms of open-wheel racing and taking more of the safety features used in F1 cars into the other series.
    Having a completely enclosed cockpit would create a completely different car, neither open-wheeler or saloon, with different aerodynamics to either of them.
    F1 drivers are getting pretty anonymous anyway, since we can only identify them by their helmet designs – I think we are soon going to have saloon car style driver’s names on the sides of the cars, since the drivers are pretty much hidden away by all the safety features as it is…..

    • Tom said on 22nd July 2009, 9:07

      like mclaren’s west cigarette advertising removal. i can’t see how a closed cockpit would work. would it be like a fibreglass dome or something? similar to the batmobile???

      • mp4-19b said on 22nd July 2009, 17:55

        i loved west!!! the best livery ever. hope we get back tobacco adverts back in formula one. kick out all the telecom & banking investment companies. they are un-appealing to the human eye. especially ING. baby vomit livery. yuckk!!

  13. alan said on 22nd July 2009, 8:21

    I think we need to be looking more at the stray wheel than the open cockpits

  14. The death of Henry was terrible.

    I think we all need to think on how many open cockpit races actually take place across the world and how many accidents there are like this.

    It is extremely rare for a freak accident to happen like this. Rather than looking at closed cockpits, i think, in the case of F2, the wheel tethers need looking at. Wheels flying off like that shouldnt happen. Looks to me like the tethers were nowhere near strong enough to cope with that sort of impact. Its not the first time its happened in F2 this season. How often do you see that happen in F1? Its very rare for wheels to come flying off like that even after a very heavy impact.

    As mentioned in an earlier post, DC was in a very close incident a couple of years back with a car literally flying over his head. Again, this is a rare occurrence and fortunately nobody was hurt in this occasion.

    These guys that are here to race know the risks involved with racing cars. It is a dangerous sport and far safer today that it has ever been. I am not sure closed cockpits is the solution though as I feel that it will open another can of worms.

    • Tom said on 22nd July 2009, 9:11

      yeh, more chance of being killed walking down the street.i agree about the tethers as well.

    • gabal said on 24th July 2009, 17:36

      If we are thinking about the same accident then it was David Coulthard flying over Wurz – that is why there are increased cockpit sides in place now.

  15. Closed cockpits would be difficult to keep clean I think, from oil, water… now the drivers have laminated tear off visor, so they can have a clear view almost anytime. (Or it will make certain driver panicing)

    At some races they have already very high cockpit temperature now. With a closed cockpit I don’t know.

    • Tom said on 22nd July 2009, 9:10

      that’s what i was thinking too. also, it could be quite disorientating for drivers under lights like in singapore.

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