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

  1. If you want to have closed cockpits, put ejector seats inside the cars, so the problem of a driver being stuck inside the cockpit would be moot.

  2. saab said on 22nd July 2009, 10:16

    Arguments like motorsport is dangerous, death is a part of it, etc, are just stupid. Why do we watch racing? Because the drivers are daredevils and bad accidents will occur? Then I can think of other spectacles where people take even bigger risks. I don’t want to see accidents. I want to see good racing. Looking at very old accidents and thinking “what would have been” is pointless since the car itself is so much different today and the chain of events can’t be compared. Speculating that people would have survived if the medical treatment was better is also is dumb line of reasoning. With full hindsight we all know better.

    The problem with flying wheels in open-wheel formulas is one that will probably never be solved. F1 demands tethers, but still we see wheels fly away even for minor accidents. Instead of spending money on that, a “dumb” solution with some sort of bar protecting the driver is the way to go. I don’t think the reasons for an 100% “open” cockpit are that valid anymore. And how come no one questions the drivers ability to quickly get out of an ordinary race car (WTCC, Nascar, Le Mans type, etc)? Another problem with open wheel racing is cars flipping over. We almost saw that again during the F2 race. Some sort of extra protection minimize the risk in those kind of accidents as well.

    • Jonathan said on 22nd July 2009, 11:57

      Good post. Everyone else on here seems to just accept the risk of death, but why should we? Motorsport has got a lot safer and can become safer still. Innovation is the key. There is no point being conservative.

      Tethers are better than nothing, and if it’s true that the F2 cars have weaker tethers than the F1 cars then that’s an outrage. What goes for F1 should go for the other formulas. And if the best tethers still break, make stronger ones.

      • pSynrg said on 22nd July 2009, 23:08

        Travelling at high speed brings with it an increased chance of serious injury and as we have seen recently, death.
        I’m not saying that this is acceptable – it’s simply a law of physics that when hard, fast moving things slow down very very quickly and come into contact with a person or indeed vice versa something has to give.
        No, the only way to stop serious injury or death is to stop moving at high speeds. Best stop racing then?
        Or better still – control the ‘knee jerk’ response and realise that it is an inherent risk.
        With hindsight non of our famous dead drivers would have the accident again…

      • Martin said on 22nd July 2009, 23:34

        You risk death every day. Most risk less than others but all risk death in some form or fashion.
        The argument that it is dangerous is not stupid. It is inherently obvious. The facts that parts flying off of cars that are travelling over 300kph are just as lwthat as bullets out of guns. We are just lucky that virtually no one is hit by these parts. Several years back there was a CART race in Michingan I believe and during the accident a wheel flew off the car and landed in the grandstands, injuring several and I believe it killed 1, we all also remember the Mercedes at LeMans that took mercedes out of motorsports for 2 decades, so even watching the race has its own set of dangers. Driving in it just amplifies the levels, and when things go bad then bad things happen.
        These are people that race for many reasons and they know of the dangers.
        The attitude that we can have the same type and level of racing is being extremely naieve.

  3. Siwongo said on 22nd July 2009, 10:21

    One accident like this in god knows how long, there’s no point of changing things just because of this one thing. Yeah, its sad that its happened, but people dye in sports everyday, it happens, I think everything in F1 regarding safety is fine.

  4. PinballLes said on 22nd July 2009, 11:08

    I think something like the roll cage used on Top Fuel Dragsters would probably work. It would probably protect the drivers heads without totally enclosing the cockpit.

    • HounslowBusGarage said on 22nd July 2009, 11:22

      That’s what I was thinking.
      In the event of a crash, how quickly can a Dragster driver get out?
      I’m not keen on the fully enclosed idea for reasons of heat retention, rain clearance (would require wipers) and access by marshalls in an emergency. But a roll hoop in front of the drivers head (as well as behind) might work.
      If it was designed properly, it might be possible to decrease the height of the cockpit sides at driver head level, and allow the driver slightly more peripheral vision into the bargain.

      • dsob said on 23rd July 2009, 14:28

        Hi Hounslow

        In the event of a crash, how quickly can a Dragster driver get out?

        About as quickly as you can install a puppy into your boot using only your feet and a shoehorn clenched between your teeth.

        I speak from personal experience. It isn’t done quickly, or even gracefully, and requires the help of one’s crew to do it properly and without spraining muscles.

        The opening line of the Hippocratic Oath is “First, do no harm.”

        I hope FiA keeps that in mind as this investigation into poor young Surtees’ death continues.

        This is a time for cool heads and rational realistic decisions, not emotion-fuelled reaction.

        Sorry, I know you didn’t comment on that last part, it just came to mind.

        • HounslowBusGarage said on 23rd July 2009, 20:39

          No problem, dsob.
          I was just trying to think of how to protect at the front of the cockpit without resorting to a closed cover. As other posters have suggested a ‘forward’ roll hoop might work if the opening straight ahead was made less than the diameter of the front wheel of the car.
          The current regs are that a driver must be able to remove himself from the car without removal of any bodywork or structure apart from the steering wheel. So currently the FIA open wheel regs preclude any kind of canopy or roof.

  5. Ethnic_Tension said on 22nd July 2009, 11:08

    A a closed cockpit solution, if not executed correctly could cause more harm than good. For starters you would need an explosive bolt system in order to blow the top off if the direver needs to exit quickly. There is also the added complexity of what happens if the accident is significant enough to warp the safety cell of the car causing the canopy to jam or to become unremovable without aid. As many have said before me, freak accidents will continue to occur regardless of the progress of safety.

  6. The sight of drivers abandoning burning cars is far rarer than it once was.

    Remember cars may drive with a greater amount of fuel next year :)

  7. CoolGav said on 22nd July 2009, 11:29

    There’s no need for a closed cockpit. The only addition that I think is possible, is a small bar over the helmet. Angled ~45° forwards from the high sides that are present, with a quick release. Just giving that bit more protection and slowing a wheel down before it strikes a helmet. It might deflect a flying car enough to avoid helmet contact. Or make the helmets larger, and give them a greater controlled deformable volume.

    Of course, motor racing is dangerous! We don’t want fatalities and serious injuries, but it’s part of the job. The same as being the refueller for Massa!

  8. If you look at how many single-seater racing series there are in the world, and count up the number of times drivers in those series have been struck on the head, I’d say its a very rare occurence.

    It might sound pretty unsavoury so soon after the death of a racing driver, but motorsport needs to retain at least some element of danger. The human body wasn’t designed to whizz around at 190mph and its a testament to modern technology that we are able to do these things with a relatively low level of risk.

    There will always be freak accidents – just as in any sport – and I don’t think we should start throwing wholesale changes at the cars to try and prevent them.

    Just my opinion.

  9. Bernard said on 22nd July 2009, 12:19

    F1 is safer than it has ever been and getting safer all the time, but that doesn’t mean it is safe or will ever be safe. I don’t think it will ever happen but if an enclosed cockpit was introduced for increased driver protection, I would think a similar design to a dragster rollcage as opposed to a full ‘canopy’ would be most appropriate.

    In this instance (and all open wheel racing), better wheel tethers clearly should be highest on the priority list.

  10. VXR said on 22nd July 2009, 12:54

    You can only tether the wheel by so much.If the tethers are too strong you run the risk of a wheel getting caught in armco or whatever and ripping out the entire corner of a car and therefore putting its driver in jeopardy.Not strong enough and you have wheels bouncing uncontrollably all over the place.

    At the moment they are a compromise between the two.They stop the wheels from having too much momentum when they do come off,but don’t compromise the safety of the driver whose car it came off.

  11. Bartholomew said on 22nd July 2009, 13:40

    Maybe, instead of closed, they could have a double roll – bar : one vertical, another one at a 45 degree angle looking forwards.

  12. Ronman said on 22nd July 2009, 13:43

    I think if you quantify the occurrences of such accidents and do the math, you’d be faced with a harsh truth that open wheel racing is as safe if not safer than closed car racing. (taking in mind rallying, nascar, LeMans, Touring cars in general).

    I felt very sad about young Surtees’ early passing. especially that he was not implicated in the initial crash. But we must accept that this sport has its dangers. since 1994, advances in safety have made death almost non existent in F1, and i understand the will to overreact, but that is it.

    When you are running in a car at 200kph, it’s dangerous, things might happen, might be fire, crash, lost wheel… or even a stray dog… but that is the risk the drivers are willing to take.

    in the past racing cars was almost likened to playing Russian roulette, it still is, but that revolver has one hell of a big Cylinder.

    Rest In Peace Henry Surtees

    • Patrickl said on 22nd July 2009, 23:39

      That doesn’t make sense at all. Open wheel cars are very much more dangerous than closed cars.

      Open wheel cars adds a lot of extra risk like cars touching wheels, wheels braking off, drivers exposed etc etc

      Some types of racing indeed introduce other risks due to their environments, like driving on roads with trees and ravines next to them (rallying) or racing next to concrete walls in an effort to create as much crashes as possible (NASCAR), but that has nothing to do with the safety of the vehicles themselves.

      • Ronman said on 23rd July 2009, 7:28

        Indeed Patrick,

        but i wasn’t meaning the safety in relation to the vehicle, but to motor sport in general. the risk is their whatever discipline you are competing in, things happen when you defy physics. even Karting has some risks.

        i think in terms of car design and safety, true, open wheel drivers have less of a buffer, but the safety cell they are strapped into is at the moment one of the safest creations ever (at least in F1), it’s debris that is the main concern here, and failing wheel tethers, but that is a risk we need to take, or else we race GT games on PS and Xbox….

        • patrickl said on 23rd July 2009, 11:29

          Touring cars have the same protective cell structure. For instance, a DTM car has a carbon fibre monocoque inside it.

          It’s also not just debris that is the risk, but open wheel cars are much more prone to flying off and hitting something with the drivers head. Like Jeff Krossnof. His car got launched on another cars wheel and flew off into the fence. A closed wheel car wouldn’t have flown away to begin with and even if it hit a fence the driver would have some sort of protection (the roof).

          Touring car drivers die because they hit something at high speed or if they are stranded on track and get hit by another car at high speed.

          Same risk exists for open wheel cars, but then open wheel adds a whole load of extra risks.

          Obviously people are willing to suffer these risks. Otherwise they wouldn’t be racing in rally cars, NASCAR or open wheel cars.

          Still that doesn’t mean the risk doesn’t exist or that care should be taken to reduce risks (or damage) as much as possible.

          • dsob said on 23rd July 2009, 14:03

            not just debris that is the risk, but open wheel cars are much more prone to flying off and hitting something with the drivers head. Like Jeff Krossnof. His car got launched on another cars wheel and flew off into the fence

            I don’t recall that Krosnoff’s death was attributed solely to head injury. I think his wreck has gotten mention in this thread because it was quite a spectacular wreck, and plays to people’s emotions.

            Emotions in these times are bad things. Analytical thinking is what’s needed.

            Obviously people are willing to suffer these risks. Otherwise they wouldn’t be racing in rally cars, NASCAR or open wheel cars.

            Glad you mentioned NASCAR. They have not only an “enclosed cockpit”, they have a full body with a King-Kong strength rollcage. And drivers have still been killed in NASCAR.

            No matter what the motorsport series, if they go fast enough, race on the edge long enough, there are going to be fatalities.

            So, as someone asked earlier, is the answer then to stop racing altogether? Of course not, that is the emotional knee-jerk reaction, as that person indicated.

            Is the answer then to enclose the F1 cockpit? Perhaps (though I don’t really think so)-but the air conditioning unit is really going to change the weight bias on the cars.

            Or shall we just look into why 2 tethers on 2 different cars in that F2 race broke ? And deal with that?

  13. John H said on 22nd July 2009, 14:22

    More research into manufacturing teathers that actually work is what’s necessary.

    You just have to see Kubica’s crash at Melbourne this year to see that they aren’t working.

  14. Choltz said on 22nd July 2009, 15:34

    Maybe they should allow drivers to pick if they want to drive with a lid on or not, like in the NHL, players choose if they want a visor to protect their eyes from pucks and sticks. Drivers know the risks when they get into the car, I would be interested in what the current F1 drivers would have to say about a cover.

    Forcing closed cockpits would be an over-reaction imho.

  15. DMW said on 22nd July 2009, 16:06

    No one has pointed out that a current formula of high-powered cars have enclosed cockpits, and have addressed various logistical issues, e.g., rain clearance, condensation, fire retardation, escape time.

    LMP cars and their predecessors have had modern polycarbonate enclosures and roll structures for a long time. They work. And I’ll point out that checkpoint’s list did not include Michele Alboreto accident in testing, attributed, I believe, to his Audi’s failed roll hoop. The double hoop structure on an enclosed sports prototype is extremely effective.

    I think enclosing the wheels is another related safety measure, to prevent cars flipping after contact and allowing structures to keep wheels in place.

    Of course, this would make F1 cars look more like the XJR-14 and similar, which would be OK with me.

  16. CroF1Fan said on 22nd July 2009, 16:13

    One in a million accident, guy just had a bad luck!

  17. Max should resign now!!! said on 22nd July 2009, 16:37

    Since it’s a safety issue I would ask the drivers first and if they would agree I’d go with a closed cockpit…BUT ONLY if it’s a transparent “jet fighter” looking cover. I don’t know I think you guys know what I mean If it’s there then I should barely see it.

  18. What I was trying to say on Checkpoint 10 (which, by the way, I thank you guys for visiting) was that this was no freak accident. Most collisions involve flying parts or overturning cars, and once in a while you *will* have something flying at the driver’s helmet. When you just look at the list of fatalities, it seems to me a very common way to die is to hit something with your head while flipping or being hit. I think this actually tops the list for predictable and preventable tragedies, more so than failure to get out of a car quickly.

    The other common racing death was the basilar skull fracture, the risk of which has fortunately been reduced by the HANS device.

    As DMW mentioned, Le Mans prototypes have had enclosed cockpits for years and they work. Probably the canopy saved the lives of the Mercedes drivers whose cars flipped violently at Le Mans in 1999.

  19. Antifia said on 22nd July 2009, 17:07

    I think we could go one better. Lets do away with real cars all together. In the current state of technological knowledge, the FIA could build a super simulator for a 24 starters grid. Perfect mock cockpits would be put in place and moved around the world just for the fun of the event. The races would be on TV, but ticket could be sold so that people could come to special venues where they could see the drivers racing their simulators while seeing the race on a screen. Each team in the championship would be allowed to sell ad space in their cars and would have to pay for their drivers and engineers (yes, we would still have pit stops and all). In fact one could give them more than just the opportunity to tune the car – They could be given specific bits of the software that they could “optimize”, while restrained some set of rules (for instance, they could come with different wing desings). If the physics of the simulator are top notch, this would provide quite some ground for performance differenciation. And just think about the possibilities regarding tracks – we could have the old Nurburgring and the old Spa back!! No worries about safety or the necessary logistics to cover a 23 km track. Environmentaly correct. Cheap. Super safe. And would allow the pool from which drivers are selected into the sport to grow exponentialy. Great stuff.

    • hollus said on 22nd July 2009, 18:20

      Amen man.
      I am just thinking of how soccer players have sudden heart failures (they wouldn’t if they weren’t running in the first place) and how many people die in sailing races or horse races.
      I nearly stopped watching for good, and indeed stopped for some races, after Ayrton Senna’s death. But I still watch F1 and I still watch soccer. Nothing is perfect.

  20. Brian said on 22nd July 2009, 17:11

    I don’t like the idea of enclosed cockpits because like many have already said, it would prevent a quick escape for the drivers.
    It would also mean that the cars would have to be completely redesigned. I imagine that the cockpit would looke strikingly similiar that of a fighter plane, and they seem aerodynamic enough! lol
    This was just a freak accident though, no one persons fault. He probably didn’t even see the tire or he thought he would get passed it. It was accident, a sad one, but then accidents usually are. Here in Ontario Canada, a woman and her husband were eating lunch and a piece of cement landed on her head and killed her. Its sad, but things happen, she didn’t put herself in dangerous situation, Surtees did, he knew the risks, but he died doing something he loves. Not many people can say that.

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