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. todd said on 22nd July 2009, 9:20

    it only takes a replay of kubica’s crash in canada to realise how safe the cars really are.

    henry’s death was tragic, but the drivers know they are in a very dangerous sport. no one wants to see these guys get hurt but it’s motor racing, there’s always going to be some kind of danger. people will crash, people will get hurt.

    if you close the cockpit there will just be other ways drivers will get hurt when there’s a crash.

    lots of other series’ are closed cockpit and they still sustain injuries. its not the solution.

  2. Mike said on 22nd July 2009, 9:34

    Universal and stronger wheel tehers would be far more logical and less controversial (amongst drivers) than cockpit covers. these days It is already very difficult to extricate an injured or unconscious driver from single seaters of nearly all current formulae. Covers would only worsen that situation. I’d be surprised if many F1/GP2/A1GP/F3 drivers would support covers.

    • I don’t understand how wheel tethers can be designed to withstand the massive shearing forces present in impacts between car and wall. For any design there will be a range of angles, impact speeds etc. that the wheel tether will not be designed for, and the same will happen.

      Wheel tethers are designed to keep the wheel attached to the car in the event of things like suspension failure. They cannot be expected to keep the wheel on the car in every conceivable situation. Surtees’ death was a tragic accident, unavoidable in the circumstances.

  3. Juhhi said on 22nd July 2009, 9:37

    Dangerous sports, so this kind of things happens sometimes no matter how well safety things are arranged.
    Even If they drive with unarmed tanks, the tanks could crash, other one starts to burn inside while the other one is blocking way out.
    Still, freak accident….and too young man is gone now…it´s never easy…

    never.

  4. Tim said on 22nd July 2009, 9:47

    Overreacting to the death of a racing driver, no matter how tragic, could do more harm than good.

    Perhaps a closed cockpit could have offered Henry Surtees a degree of protection. The Frank Costin designed Protos F2 car ran a closed cockpit in the 1960s without much success, but that was used for its aerodynamic benefits.

    A modern cockpit canopy would have to be very strong to bring any benefits and also well secured to the car to absorb the energy of the errant tyre, and this is another problem. Too weakly secured and it may come off too easily, too strong and it might hamper efforts to free a trapped driver. This is possibly not insurmountable, but a number of aircraft pilots were killed by canopies not acting as intended before the issue was more or less resolved.

    Driver visibility is also a possible issue. Would it be possible to make the canopy sufficiently strong without compromising the already limited view in the mirrors or the driver’s view of the track? Likewise, what else would need to be added to the car in the event of a wet race? Canopies have a nasty tendancy to mist up.

    Ultimately, though, this was very much a freak accident. How often do we see single seater drivers (as opposed to cars) hit by large chunks of debris from other cars? Not very often. I’ve seen the list on Checkpoint 10, but I’m not sure how relevant most of the incidents it mentions are.

    Helmuth Koinigg (much like rising star Gerry Birrell in an F2 race around the same time) was decapitated by a poorly installed barrier – the solution was proper installation of Armco, which also did for Roger Williamson at Zandvoort in 1973. Tom Pryce hit a marshall and his heavy fire extinguisher head on at high speed – the solution was for marshalls not to cross the track while cars were still at racing speed. Markus Höttinger was hit by an errant wheel – but would probably have been saved by a combination of wheel tethers and better medical facilities at the track. Marco Campos’ crash was horrific (much like Greg Moore’s fatal Indycar crash) – but any canopy would have had to have been immensely strong to have made a meaningful difference. Ayrton Senna was killed when a piece of suspension pierced his helmet – 2009 standard wheel tethers and better circuit safety could have made a difference. Circuit safety (the unfortunate position of a tree) was also an issue in the Jeff Krosnoff shunt.

    I’m not convinced that closed cockpits are the right solution.

  5. Silent Bob said on 22nd July 2009, 9:56

    The_Pope

    “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)”

    This is not true and there is some conjecture about how he died but the main reasons are Senna was killed by part of the suspension rods partially penetrating his helmet via the visor causing injury, but additionally his head was forced back (possibly by the front wheel) causing skull fractures. One thing is certain is that it was not the steering column – Williams’ engineers were acquitted in the court case of this causing the accident let alone being responsible for killing Senna.

    Closed cockpits will more likely cause more problems and injuries than the unlucky incident that tragically killed Henry Surtees. No need for them.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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 :)

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

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