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

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  1. W-K said on 24th July 2009, 8:54

    I think that I have seen or heard that the closed cockpit LPM cars have to have cockpit cooling systems. That’s ok for LMP cars they have space where the 2nd seat should be, but where is this cooling equipment going to be fitted in an F1 car.

  2. fly said on 25th July 2009, 0:09

    I think they can try it.

    Just make an emergency button that causes the canopy explodes away from the vehicle if it ever were to be upside down. For regular crashes a quick release can be implemented.

  3. Ha! I guess I´m the first to say it… but with Massa`s accident today (Saturday, 25 of July) this will not only be more of an arduous discussion, I believe it is damn near a requirement already… Surtees case was really extreme… a wheel hit his head, but in Massa`s case it was a piece no bigger than a football, and not a very heavy piece at that too, and yet it knocked him out cold…. I expect to see more jet looking F1 cars in the future sort of like this one
    http://www.hodge.co.nz/images/product/image-5.jpg

  4. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 25th July 2009, 14:55

    Since this was written Massa has had an accident caused by a piece of debris striking his helmet. The choice of image for the article three days ago was an incredibly unfortunate coincidence:

    http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk/2009/07/25/felipe-massa-crashes-heavily-after-being-struck-by-debris-during-qualifying/

    Thankfully it seems Massa is OK.

  5. Benalf said on 28th July 2009, 20:48

    In order to help with solutions we have to discuss different risks in separate ways. What happened to Massa only required a protective windshield; not a big one; just enough to reduce the chance of frontal, front-lateral strike; that way, you still have the lovely open cockpit F1 car….
    For something that hits from above or from behind (such as another car climbing on top of the other) the situation is more complicated and a solution is not straightforward. Usually objects hitting from above will be more heavier (wheel, car floor, suspension, etc) so if it is contact, there’s a good chance for life-threatening injury because the neck will be laterally displaced or pushed downwards… Let’s see what the FIA will do if they really want to attack this issue

  6. Filip said on 29th July 2009, 15:22

    There’s been a lot of talk about wheel tethers.
    I don’t really know how relevant the following is to this conversation, but I’ll give it a go.
    I was watching the Kubica accident videos and saw a part fly of the car, but was held with some sort of a tether.
    You can see that part fly above Kubicas head at 0.06 of the first video.

    http://gregorymoine.com/accident-de-kubica/

    I’m kinda thinking it’s a bargeboard or something?
    So, are they secured to the car like the wheels are or?

    Filip

  7. Matt said on 31st July 2009, 21:20

    My deepest apologies and sympathy goes to the Surtees family, but sadly it was a freak accident and nothing more, people are overreacting i think becasue do we see accidents like that everyday in motor racing? No we dont so why should things be changed dramatically because of one incident? It’s like Massa’s accident in Hungary, it was just a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time and it was just awful bad luck that spring was bouncing on the racing line at the time. A closed cockpit isn’t the solution, the obvious argument is if the driver needs to get out quickly then a closed cockpit will make this difficult, a couple of people mentioned on here about KERS chemicals poisoning the drivers if the KERS explodes, also wouldn’t a closed cockpit affect the aerodynamics pretty bad? I think the best solution is a wind screen (or another name for it being deflector shield) at least this way the drivers have more protection and can get out the car quickly if they need to. Also to the people saying death can be avoided in motorsport i dont agree with that, it can and should be minimized but it will never be diminished. Death can happen in other sports like rugby or football so i dount death can be stopped in motorsport.

  8. Crispin said on 25th December 2010, 21:21

    Participants in motor sport are all aware of the risks involved. They acknowledge them, and decide whether to compete or not. If the drivers choose to drive inherently dangerous cars, then that’s their choice.

    Personally, I believe that there is really no need to get rid of open wheel racing, or introduce windscreens, as if the windscreen shatters from say a wheel hitting it, then the doctors and marshalls will have to deal with a potential for shattered glass or plastic that’s embedded itself in the drivers throat, etc.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 26th December 2010, 0:48

      Participants in motor sport are all aware of the risks involved. They acknowledge them, and decide whether to compete or not. If the drivers choose to drive inherently dangerous cars, then that’s their choice.

      No-one’s denying that. But you could use the same argument against any safety innovation. Why this and not crash helmets or fireproof racing suits?

      I believe that there is really no need to get rid of open wheel racing

      That’s not what’s being suggested here.

  9. Sam Oz said on 19th July 2011, 2:05

    My preliminary thought is that this is quite silly from a risk management perspective. I’m sure some one with the stats could work out the formula but based on my 20 something years watching open cockpit motor racing the likelihood (amount of races in history Vs. amount of incidents of Massa’s type) is quite low and the consequence is also low (most likely consequence, not worst case consequence) due to existing controls such as helmet, HANS etc. If putting in place further controls because of silly damage control, knee jerk reaction bureaucratic freaks only heightens the risk of other hazards… Well it’s just all gone mad over a risk that was quite low to begin with!

    A lot of people blame safety people for this sort of over-the-topness, but are wrong to do so. It’s people in much higher places that know nothing about safety and risk that force safety people to come up with these things. Everyone’s always answering to someone else a little higher then themselves, and they are always asking, “so, what are we doing about this?”. This ends up going down the food chain till it rests on the shoulders of the safety person to “do something”, even if it is not really necessary for something to be done due to the inherently low risk.

    All management see is there is an accident, perhaps a very public accident, something HAS to be done- we HAVE to be seen to be ATTEMPTING to improve.

    This is not safety gone mad – its bureaucrats!

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