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. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. jayb said on 22nd July 2009, 17:29

    racing is dangerous and they all know the risks. lets not go to far down the health and safety road. The sport needs that element of danger.

  12. mp4-19b said on 22nd July 2009, 17:50

    i agree with all friends here who are in support of closed cockpit. as keith points out , the major concern with closed cockpits seems to be with in case of a fire. i suggest we have something like a seat ejection, as they have in all modern fighter aircrafts. when racing yachts which have no tyres have closed cockpits, there is no reason why formula one cars shouldn’t have one. as for the problem of visiblity during rain, we could easily have a mini air conditioning system within the cockpit. that would eliminate the problem of visibility. this closed cockpit must immediately be implemented.

    • Tiomkin said on 22nd July 2009, 18:27

      Why are pople so fond of knee jerk reactions?
      What happens if closed cockpits are implemented, then someone burns to death in the cockpit. I can already hear the crys for ‘open cockpit’.

      Let the racers race, it is their chosen sport and accidents will always happen. (unless you cut the speed to 10mph and turn the cars into bumper cars).

      • Mark Hitchcock said on 22nd July 2009, 18:59

        “Why are people so fond of knee jerk reactions?”

        Because it’s distressing to see someone needlessly die when it could have potentially been prevented.

      • Spud said on 22nd July 2009, 19:05

        Let the racers race, it is their chosen sport and accidents will always happen.

        Exactly right. It’s terrible that Henry Surtees was killed but motorsport is always going dangerous.

        Closed cockpits do not appeal to me at all.
        They are part of the reason I like F1 so much (and also the reason I’m looking forward to driving a little Formula Sheane over the Mazda 3, at Mondello).

        If you start with the whole “closed cockpit on an F1 car” business then we might as well just watch Touring cars, (although they are pretty cool too, and the can follow real close.)

    • beneboy said on 22nd July 2009, 18:35

      Ejector seats ?

      Back to reality mate, an ejector seat weighs at least 95 KG and the cheapest ones come in at about $250,000.

      The minimum weight in F1 is 605 KG, adding another 95 KG is going to make the cars a whole lot slower, a whole lot bigger as well as increasing the amount of energy in a crash.

      There’s little chance of making them any lighter because the ones used in fighter jets are already as light as they can be.
      The height of an ejection system would also be about double the height of an F1 car as you don’t just have the seat, there’s also the whole mounting structure too.

      You’ve then got the added safety concerns resulting from adding several KG’s of rocket fuel to the drivers seat & the possibility of accidental activation mid-race or God forbid, while the car is upside down or going through the tunnel at Monaco.

      Then you factor in the possibility of the driver ejecting or landing into a grandstand full of spectators.

      Putting ejector seats into F1 cars is a recipe for disaster, you’d end up killing twenty people for every one you saved.

      I think DMW has a far better idea, LMP cars have been enclosed for a while now and the concept seems to be working well, the cars also look fantastic and they’re hardly slow.

      I don’t really think we need to make the cars with an enclosed cockpit but if they’re going to (and they’re probably not) then I’d go for something based on the LMP concept.

    • Tim said on 22nd July 2009, 18:48

      i suggest we have something like a seat ejection, as they have in all modern fighter aircrafts

      So what happens if the car comes to rest upside down?

    • David A said on 22nd July 2009, 19:26

      i suggest we have something like a seat ejection, as they have in all modern fighter aircrafts.

      Are you crazy? This was a tragic accident, yes, but this is way over the top (literally).

    • Martin said on 22nd July 2009, 23:41

      Then while we are at it we can give thm pretty panties with frillies on them and a pretty little cushion to sit on….Come on get real.

  13. Alan P said on 22nd July 2009, 19:12

    A very sad event, but one which is a lot less frequent than in John Surtees’ days at the top, thank goodness. My deepest sympathies to everyone concerned.

    Does a cockpit cover have to be solid? Couldn’t cars have a tubular cage around the cockpit? I know it would be an aerodynamic challenge for the designers, but it could help if properly done. Ugly to look at too!

  14. James_mc said on 22nd July 2009, 19:13

    If they make them closed cockpits then the teams may as well up sticks and join the LMS. Free of CVC

  15. DomPrez said on 22nd July 2009, 19:46

    whos got the gigital fortitude to slap together a photoshoped image of what a F1 car would look like as a closed air racer???…i know ur out there, and ill be waiting.

        • pSynrg said on 22nd July 2009, 23:15

          Sorry but those are crap.

          • Bernard said on 23rd July 2009, 13:03

            Haha, why the appology? They are not supposed to be works of art, just 2 minute visualisations…

          • pSynrg said on 23rd July 2009, 13:19

            Actually Bernard – a genuine apology! As what I said comes across as downright nasty.
            What I meant was the sight of an F1 car with a canopy is crap!
            While your images probably won’t end up on my wall – they serve very well in illustating the potential ridiculousness of such canopies!

          • Bernard said on 24th July 2009, 15:16

            Actually Bernard – a genuine apology! As what I said comes across as downright nasty.
            What I meant was the sight of an F1 car with a canopy is crap!
            While your images probably won’t end up on my wall – they serve very well in illustating the potential ridiculousness of such canopies!

            No worries pSynrg. :)

        • Great pictures! I’ve been thinking, though, if Formula 1 cars were redesigned with glass canopies, they should probably be a little higher (for more head clearance) with the air intake being shaped around it, off to the sides. It could result in some unique solutions and give us some different looking cars for once.

          • Bernard said on 23rd July 2009, 13:17

            Thanks Steven, yeah adding a canopy does raise additional questions and opportunities.

          • dsob said on 23rd July 2009, 14:48

            Bernard, great graphics. That Macca shot actally looks pretty good.

            And Steven brings in an interesting point. Higher canopy, more headroom and manouvering room for the driver—AND, you could then design the canopy with a air intake channel in the center top, providing a really clean air stream into the air intake.

            Now, if it was to be done as an engineering and performance change, with all teams’ input, and with sufficient time to properly develope it, I think I might not mind that.

            You see, I never said I was against closed canopy for F1, just that the wheel tethers should be looked at FIRST, let’s don’t do a knee-jerk sort of thing.

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