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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