Why covered cockpits and wheels may be F1’s future

F1 technology

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Barcelona, 2012F1 cars have had open cockpits and uncovered wheels for decades. It’s become the defining feature of F1 car design.

But could a desire to improve safety and the search for more efficient performance lead to the covering of cockpits and wheels?

Cockpit covers

The FIA has been investigating the possible introduction of cockpit covers in F1 and other single-seater championships since 2009.

That year saw the fatal accident of Formula Two driver Henry Surtees, who was killed when he was struck by a flying wheel. Six days later, Felipe Massa was seriously injured when he was hit by a spring which had fallen off Rubens Barrichello’s car.

Among the solutions being considered by the FIA are fully enclosed canopies and roll hoops mounted in front of the driver, each of which have different advantages and disadvantages.

Similar discussions have taken place in IndyCar following the death of Dan Wheldon in October last year.

Wheldon was killed when he was struck by a fence post after his car flew into the barriers at Las Vegas. Following the crash some IndyCar drivers such as Ryan Briscoe raised the possibility of IndyCar adopting cockpit covers.

In endurance racing the technical regulations allow for both open and closed-cockpit designs. Closed-cockpit solutions are the preferred design of the World Endurance Championship’s manufacturer teams Audi and Toyota.

Wheel guards

In an effort to improve safety, IndyCar took the hotly-debated step of enclosing the rear wheels on its new-for-2012 chassis. The result is something that looks like the offspring of an F1 car and a sports car (below).

The fairings are designed to prevent one of the greatest dangers of open-wheel racing: wheel-to-wheel contact at high speeds which propel a car into the air. Again, it’s not hard to see how this could have prevented or at least reduced the carnage of Las Vegas.

As noted here recently, F1 has seen single-car airborne crashes such as those of Riccardo Patrese in 1992, Christian Fittipaldi in 1993 and Mark Webber in 2010.

They haven’t been as prevalent in IndyCar, which has had a particular problem with ‘pack racing’ on ovals. But there is potential for an increase in this type of accident in F1.

The F1 field is getting closer in performance and innovations such as DRS, KERS and more variable tyre performance may increase the chance of a faster car hitting a slower one in this fashion.

Safety or performance?

As future regulations become increasingly concerned with improving efficiency in F1 car design, it’s not hard to see how this could lead to a reappraisal of the merits of closed cockpits and covered wheels on grounds of performance as well as safety.

But open cockpits and wheels have been a defining feature of F1 car design for decades. Would getting rid of them amount to a desecration of F1’s historic rules?

Not necessarily. Covered wheels and cockpits have been seen in F1 before and we’d probably still have them if they weren’t forbidden by the current rules*.

The dominant F1 car of 1954 and 1955 – the Mercedes W196 – was raced in both open- and closed-wheel form. The team preferred the latter at tracks where aerodynamic efficiency was especially important, such as Monza.

Mercedes’ success inspired other teams, including Ferrari and Maserati, to create ‘streamliner’ cars. The regulations were later changed to forbid this and impose the open-wheel look we have become familiar with.

Teams also experimented with cockpit canopies in the fifties and Jack Brabham ran one on his car during practice at Monza in 1967. These too were eventually banned.

Would today’s F1 cars have covered wheels and cockpits if the rules did not forbid it? When F1’s top designer Adrian Newey was asked to envisage an F1 car that ignored the rule book, his Red Bull X2010 sported both.

His creation also serves to illustrate that the aesthetic appeal of F1 cars needn’t be diminished by such a radical change in design:

Red Bull X2010

Could F1 one day see cars with wheel guards and enclosed cockpits? Would this be a change too far? Have your say in the comments.

*Technical regulations articles 3.8, 3.9, 3.10 and 3.11 define the limits on bodywork around the front and rear wheels. Technical regulations article 13.1.3 states “The driver must be able to enter and get out of the cockpit without it being necessary to open a door or remove any part of the car other than the steering wheel”.

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Ferrari image ?? Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo, IndyCar images ?? Honda/LAT, X2010 images ?? Red Bull

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189 comments on Why covered cockpits and wheels may be F1’s future

  1. randomiam said on 22nd August 2012, 16:51

    i envisage a carbon egg shell held together by pneumatic presses, with Oxygen supply and a/c.. only thing that could kill you would be the impact g’s

  2. Theo1 said on 22nd August 2012, 17:26

    I see absolutely no reason why closed cockpits and wheel guards shouldn’t be implemented. We’ve seen how close it can get for drivers (Think Trulli/Chandhok at Monaco last year), if not outright grievous as in Massa’s case. The driver is already protected from the back and side of the car in case of fire by heat shields, and it is absolutely true that flames rising from the side of the cockpit are far more dangerous. A shatter proof carbon fibre enclosure certainly wouldn’t go astray, accompanied by a quick ejection system. The second item being wheel guards… well… let’s just thank our stars a ‘Kamui Kiss’ hasn’t yet missed it’s mark, otherwise I doubt any two drivers would want to be entangled going at high speeds.

    As far as the Red Bull Concept Model goes… it’s a bit farfetched. I’d like to go with this plus the Indie Car styled rear wheel enclosure.


    • PieLighter (@pielighter) said on 22nd August 2012, 20:03

      That’s not bad actually, certainly less of a change than that X2010, especially as the Red Bull was designed with the sole purpose of seeing what Adrian could do without the rulebook in his face.

  3. Fixy (@fixy) said on 22nd August 2012, 17:41

    Most people, when asked about F1 of the future, see spaceship-looking cars, with closed cockpits (some, using their fantasies, see them fluctuating without wheels). If we want to see closed cockpits in the future, why do we say we would hate to see them nowadays?
    I personally wouldn’t like canopies and closed wheels because aesthetically I prefer the cars’ looks as they currently are. It’s certainly not nice to see drivers get hurt, or worse, during a race, but no one is forcing them to do it. If they accept the risk, which is minimal today, then they go on. After all, F1 drivers are the best driver in the best series regarding safety. Measures should be adopted for lower formulae, which are even less technologic than F1. The consequences of flliping over in a kart are much worse than those for doing so in an F1 car. However, we can’t change a kart in an F1 car, and we can’t change an F1 car in a spaceship.

  4. zaakir (@zaakir) said on 22nd August 2012, 17:54

    F1 cars have developed throughout the years. The incident of massage happened in 2009. Safety in F1 cars have since then. We now have the platypus front nose which was implemented because of safety. If the closed cockpits was a big issue the FIA would of dealt with it immediately.

    Apart from that it completely ruins the aerodynamics which is also essential for safety.

    If the cockpits are closed oxygen will be less, escaping the car will be a problem and if something had to hit the closed cockpit the driver will end up crashing.

    Indycar is obviously a lower formula racing than F1 so therefore the safety won’t be the same.

  5. verstappen (@verstappen) said on 22nd August 2012, 17:55

    I think it enforces the aerodependence of F1, if we have cockpits and closed wheels.

    To me, restricted aero (parts) and unrestricted engines (with restricted joules to be used) would remake F1 the pinnacle again, while at the same time increasing road relevance.

    So if these parts were introduced but fixed, development forbidden, I would just have to adjust to the look again like with the new wings.

    But if it releases/increases the aero/wake demons again…. Nooooooooo!

  6. Bart Navis said on 22nd August 2012, 17:55

    this will never going to happen, because of the regulatsions. look on google: red bull x2011 is even faster than the red bull x2010.

    • Mads (@mads) said on 22nd August 2012, 18:49

      Its not that it should be anywhere naer as fast as the RB X2010. The drivers would pass out from the G-forces if they had to do that for an hour.
      Take away the massive fan generated downforce, and the stupidly powerful engine, and look at the concept then. Its simply used as a reference to how the cars could look like. Not how fast they should go.

  7. Alex Brown (@splittimes) said on 22nd August 2012, 18:18

    I’m finding it really hard to hold my tongue on this issue. Some of the comments are great. Obviously, debate and investigation into whether these measures would actually make things safer or more dangerous are required before anything is changed (we don’t want another ‘catch-fence’). As some people have mentioned, the technical aspects of the issue are nothing that the brains of the sport can’t work their way through. Changes to aero-dependancy would need to be considered.

    But what really galls is the idea that life is not precious, and not worth saving through prevention. To say that people aren’t dying or becoming injured often enough to require any change is tantamount to saying “I wouldn’t mind if someone else died in the next year or so.”

    The sport is gladiatorial, yes, but surely the feats of athleticism and skill that these people are performing is already enough to satisfy viewers. Heart rates over 200bpm, weight loss measured in kilos over the course of a race, breaking points judged to the centimetre. If you need the drivers to put more on the line than this, for your viewing pleasure… then I don’t know what to say.

    I never want to see a single person killed in motorsport. Is that such an extreme view?

    • Spawinte (@spawinte) said on 22nd August 2012, 18:29

      It’s like saying you never want anybody to get hurt or die, ever. It’s completely and utterly naive.

      What the total safety advocates need to understand is that the ultimate conclusion of the safety question has to be to ban all unsafe activity wherever it’s found. I know it sounds like alarmist talk but that’s genuinely the direction in which we’re headed. At some point people are going to have to start pushing back.

      • Mads (@mads) said on 22nd August 2012, 19:07


        It’s like saying you never want anybody to get hurt or die, ever. It’s completely and utterly naive.

        No its not.
        Yeah sure people will eventually get killed no matter what you do.
        But you seem to think that as soon as safety measures are implemented then noone can do nothing.
        But its not like that. The cars were deathtraps in the 50’s. And only since the mid 90’s were there some serious work put into the safety aspect of the cars. Has that made F1 worse? I don’t think so. Safety improvements means that less people will die or get hurt over time. Why is that such a bad thing?
        Its not like the drivers will suddenly not be allowed to drive anymore.
        The cars will simply get safer, and the drivers and their friends and family will not have to worry about things flying around too much.

        If anything I find it cowardish that in your need for thrills, you want others to risk their lives for your entertainment. If the drivers stand up one day and say that the safety measures implemented is overkill, then sure. But you are rooting for other peoples head to be forced into the line of fire, just because you think the safety is too much?
        Isn’t it a bit much, to be brave (read: stupid) on the behalf of others?
        Especially as they aren’t given a choise. Canopies and closed wheels are, by the rules, illigal. At least the drivers should have a choise whether they want canopies or not.
        Whether they want to race with it or not, that could be left up to them. As long as one solution wouldn’t have a speed advantage over the other, as that would again leave the drivers no choise but to go with what is fastest.

      • Alex Brown (@splittimes) said on 22nd August 2012, 20:26

        This is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. But not your life – other peoples’ lives. Why we should withhold the safety of others is beyond me. When I go mountain-biking, I wear a lid. When I replace a socket, I turn of the mains. I still fall off, break my wrists, skin my knuckles and so on. But I don’t sustain brain damage, or die. I like it that way. If someone told me I wasn’t allowed some new innovation that might prevent me from dieing whilst doing something I enjoyed, I’d question their humanity.

  8. xjr15jaaag (@xjr15jaaag) said on 22nd August 2012, 18:22

    Why not just base f1 cars on Go karts?
    Karts are amazingly fast, and actually quite safe as well.
    The superkarts can do f3 laptimes at some circuits, and the superkarts are also fairly safe as well.

  9. “I never want to see a single person killed in motorsport. Is that such an extreme view?”

    No, and in the last 18 years no-one has been killed in F1. Isn’t that enough?

  10. zaakir (@zaakir) said on 22nd August 2012, 19:16

    But very unlikely that a tire will hit a driver on the head because if their is a loose tire it will be picked up by the team and will fall out when exiting the pits.if a tire comes out during a crash it will always go away from the cars

    • Mads (@mads) said on 22nd August 2012, 19:55

      But only away from the car it has fallen off. In its path could still be spectators, marshalls, photographers or other drivers for that matter.

      • zaakir (@zaakir) said on 22nd August 2012, 20:03

        But usually the damage comes once the car is off track and wheels just braking off like that won’t happen.last year Canada button knocked Hamilton onto the pitwall but the wheel never come off only suspension damage.most accidents happen at corners so other drivers can avoid it.

  11. zaakir (@zaakir) said on 22nd August 2012, 19:21

    If there’s going to be closed cockpits f1 might as well be scraped because it Weill become like le mans.

  12. Schmorbraten said on 22nd August 2012, 19:56

    That would be awesome, I’m all for it for some years already, but I fear it will take many years until we see something like that. The problem is that most people don’t recognize an anachronism as soon as something gets labelled a tradition.

  13. zaakir (@zaakir) said on 22nd August 2012, 20:06

    The best thing to do here is to have a poll or survey

  14. Gerrit said on 22nd August 2012, 21:36

    With the advent of cockpit canopies now permitted in Top Fuel Dragsters, the many reasons outlined by opponents regarding visibilty, safety, egress can be explored on a first hand basis.

    NHRA takes safety to a higher maxim, with many more safety systems then seen a F1 car.

    Perhaps a discussion with Don Shumacher regarding the positive features of a canopy should be had. He has many pro and cons. Quiteness a pro, visibility a con for example


    Things that the NHRA insisted on were

    Also added were kick-outs on lower side panels for fire hose access; reflective canopy fasteners and a fresh-air breathing system for the driver’s helmet like what is used in Funny Cars.

    Interestingly many other forms of motorsport use canopies. Notably powerboat racers.

    Canopies enable firefighting, air conditioning units to be deployed.

  15. Timothy Katz (@timothykatz) said on 22nd August 2012, 22:04

    Reading Chris Goldsmith’s rather chilling post earlier about the conjectured televised death of a champion driver, it occurs to me that there is another dimension to this issue that the sport as a whole has virtually no control over.
    If there was such an accident as foreseen by Chris, and if it was accompanied by a wheel going into the crowd, I think there would be a fairly voiciferous body of opinion seeking to ban competitive motorsports in that country.
    I know circumstances were different then, but in the aftermath of the Le Mans disaster, Switzerland banned all motorsport where vehicles raced against each other (I think single car events like time trials or hill climbs are still legal, aren’t they?). If there was tragedy similar to that discribed by Chris Goldsmith, I can imagine a sort of Ralph Nader/Jonathan Porritt type of figure arguing strongly for the banning of competitive motorsports on safety as well as ecological grounds. And I think this could happen in any European country, and it would be totally beyond the control of Bernie, the FIA or even The Horse Whisperer.
    In a way, I think the FIA are already aware of such a threat and are trying to steer (sorry) F1 and other formulae towards a slightly greener basis. They probably are also aware that the last thing they need is another driver disaster and that ALL motorsport needs to be seen by the entire population to be eco-responsible and safety focussed.
    Unless we want to see the 2030 British Grand Prix contested by bicycles around Silverstone, things will have to change and racing will have to be seen to be safer.

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