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. Racin-Rob said on 22nd July 2009, 20:26

    A few observations.

    1. Did the tether itself fail, or did it pull what it was attached to out of the gearbox housing? You could have the strongest tether on earth but if it’s attached to cheese it will still pull free.

    2. Henry’s visor was open when his car impacted the wall at Sheene. Did the impact with the wheel open it or did he have his visor cracked for airflow that potentially allowed for a part of the wheel/suspension combiniation come through the visor opening?

    I agree motor racing is dangerous, but the solution to this particular problem is not a simple one……

  2. Bigbadderboom said on 22nd July 2009, 20:48

    Not sure that an enclosed driver capsule would create a safer environment for the driver. We can all think of many problems created by covering the driver, fueled fires, chemical gas, rolled car trapping driver etc. But there are only 2 real eventualities that a cover would protect, flying debris and another car over the top. I am not an expert in crash simulation but how much protection would a cover have to offer a driver in either of these situations?
    Henry Surtees crash was in my opinion an unavoidable freak incident. But although worthy of examination, I think sometimes it is an inescapable nature of the beast in that driving cars around very fast will sometimes throw up these things, a covered cockpit is a damned if we do and damned if we don’t scenarion in terms of safety, and as it would detract from the spectacle if the drivers were enclosed it is probably the better option to leave them as they are.

  3. Raceaddict said on 22nd July 2009, 21:47

    Back in the seventies, a Can-Am car called the Schkee (Lola offspring) sported a semi-closed cockpit. It amounted to an aircraft or hydroplane-style cockpit with a sunroof:

    http://www.hsrrace.com/HSR/photogal.nsf/plinks/PHOR-6C54Z2

    It allowed an ample view for and of the driver, protection from flying debris, and quick egress in all but total upside down situation. In today’s world, airbag explosives could blow out the side glass in that event. This design might have had an effect on the Senna and Surtees accidents.

    • Bigbadderboom said on 22nd July 2009, 22:19

      Not my cup of tea visually, but it might be a starting point, you never know which way the likes of Newey would develop this kind of concept!!!

  4. pSynrg said on 22nd July 2009, 23:23

    Driving a open wheeled, single seater is like nothing else. Enclosing the cockpit would fundamentally change the nature of this type of motor racing.
    Most of the drivers, if not all would probably oppose such a move. They would feel removed from the experience – their senses would be blunted.
    You just feel everything so much more driving such a car. It’s like the difference between a fast road car and a fast motorbike. The experience is incomparable and I’ve only driven Carts, FF1600′s and SB2000′s…

  5. Gusto said on 23rd July 2009, 0:50

    With a quick mental calc of 100m/s with 15kg using 1/2,MV2 we are talking 15,000 Joules, were talking Aircraft quality glass that can withold a bowling ball doing 120mph,this was a freak accident, you have more chance of being hit by a bus, otherwise the cars will end up looking like them.

  6. Raceaddict said on 23rd July 2009, 1:40

    Found another picture: Schkee cockpit detail:

    http://www.metaphorsinmotion.com/products/225-1975-Lola-Schkee

  7. Gusto said on 23rd July 2009, 2:07

    After carrying the one and using my toes in the calculation I think its 7.5MJ, but you get the idea!

  8. The Limit said on 23rd July 2009, 2:40

    The biggest concern for me is the tyre tethers not doing their job properly. This has been the case this year in Formula One, in atleast three seperate occasions I can think of.
    Back at the Australian Gp, onboard footage on Robert
    Kubica’s car clearly shows a tyre coming inches away from striking his helmet, following his tangle with Vettel. Also, Sutil’s crash in Shanghai sent atleast one wheel running onto the racing line.
    We were lucky back in 2003, when Fernando Alonso struck a loose wheel in Brazil doing 180mph which for me
    was one of the most terrifying crashes of recent times.
    All due to a loose wheel, without doubt the last thing you want to see coming off a car. Those of us who witnessed the 2000 German Gp can remember Jean Alesi’s wheels bouncing down the straights of Hockenheim long after the Frenchman’s Prost had come to a halt. All posing a terrible risk to the drivers, fans, and marshalls.
    No matter what we do to these cars, you cannot allow for tyres coming off in crashes. It has happened, will always happen, in all motorsports.

  9. Brian said on 23rd July 2009, 2:54

    I don’t like the idea of enclosed cockpits, and I know that this was a freak accident, but I can’t help but remebmer Monaco last year when Coulthard’s head was grazed by a tire, then he went skidding down the alley. I don’t like closed cockpits, but having a new bar system that protects the head while not interfereing with visibility is a good idea. Then if the driver needs to get out quickly he can have an emergency button that shoots off the cage system as well automacially disengage his harness. Heck they could even put a remote alone his teams pitwall so they can send a signal to eject incase the driver is injured in some way. But please, not a fully enclosed cockpit. Too many complications with an enclosed glass cockpit. Think of this. 300kph, and a tire flying through the air at 5kph is still going to do a lot of damage.
    We cannot account for every possibility on a track. Heck, a bird could fly infront of an enclosed cockpit and his beak penetrates the glass and visor of the driver. A bit of an extreme example, I know, but that is my point. Accidents will happen, and yes I feel horrible about Surtees. He was only 18 and had his whole life ahead of him. Accidents happen, we can never be prepared for everything. Enclosed cockpits are not the answer. They are if we these cars can start getting up to speeds of 400 + kph.

  10. Gusto said on 23rd July 2009, 3:04

    What about a roll hoop at a 45 degree angle in front of the driver. Attached to the grapple above the air box coming over the drivers head and finishing in a position like the rear view mirror in a road car.

  11. Gusto said on 23rd July 2009, 3:17

    Forget the overhead bit….if anything it`ll look like the Batmobile.

  12. jinthehouse said on 23rd July 2009, 4:01

    It’s impossible. You could never see out of it. The space is tiny and would heat up like an oven. It would have to be lite enough for the driver to lift off and STILL be strong enough to stop whatever object your hitting at 130 mph.

    It is sad, but a reality of open wheel motorsports. Very very, unlucky, tragic accident.

  13. Tim said on 23rd July 2009, 4:57

    Every accident has a chain of events that precede them. Remove one and nothing bad happens. This one had several links. The final link in the chain is he drove into the tire…had he held his original line, it would have missed him. I’ve watched the incident many times and he jinks ever so slightly to the right.
    Now…I cant see how enclosing the cockpit could hurt F1. It certainly didn’t hurt Unlimited Hydroplane. It has saved countless lives. Can a lid be made strong enough? Certainly…this is F1 for crying out loud. Can we account for every possible scenario? No… Can we eliminate the possibility of a tire ever hitting a drivers head? Yes. Add a cockpit cover. Kimi would have most certainly been killed in the race where his flat-spotted tire caused the right front suspension to explode….the tire narrowly missed coming in contact by inches. If the tether hadn’t held…he’d not be a Ferrari driver today. If the tether broke and he had a cover over his head…no harm no foul. A smaller version of an F-16 type canopy could be devised. A button on the front like the neutral button stewards can press to jettison(and I dont mean like an ejection seat type of jettison, something less dramatic) the thing off if a driver is unconscious…something cool and high-tech can be devised….pit lane fuel fires should end in 2010 so thats no reason to demand canopies…this is a one in a billion event but…he’d be alive today if F-Two required a canopy. Rain can’t be used as a reason to not use them as the drivers today get rain on their visors….you treat a canopy with Rain-X and rain wouldn’t be a problem. Rain races are where you see the most carnage so it would make it “safer”.

  14. Bye Bye said on 23rd July 2009, 5:18

    look at this!!!

    KIMI RAIKKONEN HAS ANNOUNCED HIS RETIREMENT !!!!!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yu_moia-oVI

  15. F1 Forever, since 1976 said on 23rd July 2009, 17:14

    My sympathies to Henry’s family, he will be missed.

    Having spent rather a lot of time reading all these comments, the whys and what ifs I think everyone has missed one very important factor in the accident that befell poor Henry. The barrier layout at that part of the track at Brands is bizarre! I’ve never liked it.

    It is my opinion that the corner is clearly a tricky one and easy to run wide on the exit if you push that little bit too hard or get the line wrong. The barrier on the exit of the corner is badly positioned and should be much further back rather than at an angle that guides any cars or subsequent debris from their accident back toward the track.

    2p from me…..

    • HounslowBusGarage said on 23rd July 2009, 21:12

      Well as I remember that part of the circuit, the barrier is right up against the boundary of the circuit’s land. You can’t move it back because there’s no more land there. Instead you’d have to move the track ‘forward’ and reprofile the bend completely.
      Have a look at the Google Maps image and you’ll see a redundant bit of track on the outside of the corner and beyond the gravel trap. In the 60′s, this corner was much tighter and definitely a single apex affair. It was altered to the current layout to open out the corner to improve the run-off while trying to keep the speeds down with the dual apex layout we have today.

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