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. Matt (@agentmulder) said on 22nd August 2012, 23:02

    I’m a little biased towards the closed cockpit design being an Aerospace Engineering student with eyes towards F1. I’m also only 21, and while I appreciate the history and tradition of F1, I don’t hold the open wheel nature of the sport as sacred as some others.

    Those aside, I cannot think of a legitimate reason for why F1 cars couldn’t adopt this in the future. Each of the concerns people list can be addressed.

    Getting out:
    Being able to leave the vehicle in an emergency is always priority 1. The area around the driver is already required to remain in one piece and undamaged in the event of an accident. So long as the cockpit is deemed part of the survival cell and subjected to the same requirements, deformation should not be an issue.

    Secondly, the roof should be designed for quick removal. My idea would be to include a canopy ejection system which could be activated from the cockpit, or outside by emergency crew. Fill areas around where the canopy and body join with a pressurized, inert, non-flammable gas that is added at the start of a session. That way, if the driver needs to exit quickly there is no need to fumble with hinges or sliding the roof this way or that. The crew can release the gas (or better, recollect it) at the end of the session, and the driver should be able to release it from the car in the event of running out of fuel, or some other non-emergency exit.

    As for the driver being trapped upside down, this isn’t such a big deal in a normal crash that doesn’t involve fire. Much like NASCAR has a way for drivers to exit through the roof, F1 cars in the future could be designed to have side access for medical personnel. Even if the driver could not exit through this opening, it would allow for medical teams to determine the condition of the driver before attempting to roll the car over.

    While we haven’t had a major fire incident in recent years, there is always a chance for something to ignite when fuel is concerned. In the event one of the car’s accelerometers detects a g-force over a certain threshold, all ventilation from outside the cockpit should be shut. A supply of oxygen should be incorporated into the survival cell, with the ability to sustain a breathable atmosphere for five minutes on it’s own. The panels on this storage unit that face away from the driver should be weaker than those facing him, that way if the oxygen somehow ignites, the explosion is directed away from him.

    While a sealed cockpit should never have an issue with fire encroaching on the driver, nothing is ever a 100% guarantee. Just in case, there must be external access. My idea would be a universal ports on the sides and underbody of the car. These ports could be used to deliver oxygen to the inside, or fire suppressant depending on the need. Again, with the suppression systems already carried by F1 cars and quick marshal response, there should never be the need to shoot fire suppressant into a sealed compartment, but better safe than sorry.


    There are a few solutions to deal with changing light/weather. One idea is to incorporate a layer within the canopy that works like Transitions glasses, along with anti-glare layers. If this proves too complicated, thin canopy covers could be brought for rain, cloud, or high sun conditions, all of which are attached over top of the clear, survival-grade canopy.

    Cleaning the canopy is one issue I haven’t thought of a solution beyond the crew doing it, as small wiper blades wouldn’t work, and a blade spanning the entire canopy would weigh too much.

    Any other issues I’ve missed? I realize these solutions would require a good amount of technical investment to work out, but that’s what F1 is all about.

    • HoHum (@hohum) said on 23rd August 2012, 2:13

      There are problems with the gasses you mention, people die when they breath inert gasses that don’t support combustion and oxygen rich environments create unexpected opportunities for combustion. Also a vehicle with all your features would be much larger and heavier than current race cars, enclosed wheels and cockpits will result in cars very like current GT prototypes.

      • Matt (@agentmulder) said on 23rd August 2012, 2:34

        The cockpit ejection system I envision doesn’t require a lot of [insert inert gas here], just that it is at high enough pressure so that, when released, it can blow the canopy off. The tubing itself would be built within the bodywork, so there shouldn’t be an issue of the stuff leaking. And, while activating the system releases the gas, it also releases the canopy, which will give the driver open atmosphere to breathe. If Nitrogen is used, he might sound like Mickey Mouse for a few minutes, but beyond that there is no long term issue.

        As for the oxygen, that’s one of the issues I haven’t fully worked out yet. Tank explosions can be made less hazerdous by designing ways to direct the force away in the event of tank ignition, but that still leaves the cockpit. Maybe instead of the O2 releasing into the car it could release into the helmet? I honestly don’t know how hot a fuel fire would get, and how quickly it could heat a sealed area to oxygen’s combustion temperature.

        Maybe there isn’t a good way to mitigate that risk. As has been stated before, you can never account for every eventuality, and if designed properly the chances of fire getting into the cockpit itself would be very, very slim.

        As for the weight, they would be heavier for sure, but not that much. I would suspect the greatest increase would come from the oxygen containment and canopy itself, but the aerodynamic benefit should mitigate this somewhat. This is an idea I started working on when the pictures of that “what if” closed-cockpit Ferrari made the internet rounds. It does not include covered wheels.

        • drmouse (@drmouse) said on 24th August 2012, 10:13

          For “oxygen”, I would say just use an N2/O2 70/30 mix (or similar): Basically air. This presents no more of a fire hazzard than the air already present.

          However, I believe this is over-engineering, as is using a compressed gas supply for a canopy ejection system. I would say that the chances of fire within a well-designed closed cockpit are negligible, and the risks for the pressurised gass cylinders exploding are higher (but still negligible), so the cockpit could just be fed air from atmosphere. There could easily be a shut-off which seals the cockpit in case of emergency, and there would be enough air inside the cockpit for the driver to breathe for the small mount of time he would be in there.

          For canopy ejection, I would envisage something similar to current air-bag deployment systems: A set of (very small) explosive charges. I believe these would be safer than a compressed gas cylinder, as well as weighing much less.

  2. Trido (@trido) said on 22nd August 2012, 23:55

    Quite frankly, F1 is safe enough now. No deaths in over 18 years, and only a small handful of injuries sufficient to cause drivers to miss a GP in the last 10 years.

    It is going overboard. They are paid millions per year to race wheel to wheel and that is what I want to see. I don’t want to see anyone be injured or killed but as has been said, that is the risk they acknowledge and accept when they sign those huge contracts. I am getting tired of them keeping the safety car out far too long when it is wet and delaying starts far beyond what is reasonable. When the cars have to pit for Inters straight away you know they were kept from racing too long.

    The sport will never be safe. That isn’t to say they should stop innovating but they need to remember that F1 has an aesthetic that people easily recognise. The new Indy cars look terrible with those wheel covers and similar wheel covers would do nothing with the high rate of closure in F1. But by all means keep working on HANS and other such devices that greatly lessen the threat of serious head injury. I struggle to see the relevance of Massa and De Vilottas accidents because they were both quite bizarre. An accident that De Vilotta had will probably never happen again because the FIA will crack down on safety at tests which I think they should. It was a dumb accident that should never have had the opportunity to happen. As for Massa, it really was bizarre and I hope to never see something like that again because it was terrible. But again, using that as an excuse for cockpit covers is flawed logic. You cannot plan for every contingency and freak accidents like this can always happen. Look at Ralf Schumacher at Indianapolis or Schumacher at Silverstone. Freak stuff will always happen and the cars can never suitably protect the drivers.

    I know this is an unpopular sentiment but I don’t really care. I know a large section of the F1 enthusiast base agree with me.

  3. ScuderiaVincero (@scuderiavincero) said on 23rd August 2012, 1:21

    Amongst these solutions, I find myself biased towards the closed cockpits rather than the closed wheels. Especially if a closed-wheel design resembles that Red Bull. The way I see it, should anything Hamilton-Massa-esque happen, and a wheel flies off the car, instead of avoiding the tyre (big, imposing, easy to spot), anyone in the way will have to shield him/herself from what I can only describe to be shrapnel.

    • john tierney said on 23rd August 2012, 2:40

      can anyone tell me what will happen if the enclosed tires blow out on a long straight? wouldnt that be more dangerous to the driver than a freak spring? also with the canopy, the amount of over engineering required to do this safely is staggering. this is a sport where an ounce is a lot and you want to add how much weight to the car? will there be an increase in horsepower to counteract this? it sounds good and simple but think on it and its bloody complicated and will only make more common occurrences more dangerous.

      • drmouse (@drmouse) said on 24th August 2012, 9:57

        this is a sport where an ounce is a lot and you want to add how much weight to the car? will there be an increase in horsepower to counteract this?

        Personally, I would imagine the aerodynamic improvements would counteract the additional weight, if there even was additional weight. The thing about anclosing the cockpit is it would likely be incorporated into the structure of the car, and the enclosed section would be stronger. Just look at the weight difference between your standard car and the open-top version: It takes more weight to keep the strength in a Cabriolet. It is counter-intuitive, I know, but adding a canopy (if done right) could well derease the weight.

  4. sumedh said on 23rd August 2012, 3:13

    This might seem like an amateurish question but why has no one thought of using air-bags in F1 cars to protect the driver’s head in event of a crash.
    The air bags in our car come out when the car decelerates rapidly. The same could happen in an F1 car (we would just have to change the deceleration threshold compared to regular cars). With advances in plastics, I am sure they can make an air-bag which inflates in a fraction of second and withstands impact.

    Have they tried testing the above solution? If it works, we can keep the open cockpit.

  5. Ohm (@attakorn) said on 23rd August 2012, 4:07

    Great article!

    Personally I don’t mind closed canopy and closed wheels. That X2010 looks almighty pretty! However I think it’s a good idea to make the canopy see through. In terms of canopies getting stuck and drivers not being able to get out quickly, perhaps a partial canopy could be introduced instead, maybe Y-shaped or something so there’s space for the driver to jump out at the top or sides but still protect the driver’s vision plane and prevent large objects like a wheel from hitting the head.

    • coefficient (@coefficient) said on 23rd August 2012, 14:55

      A canopy could be fired off with explosives like on a fighter plane when the pilot ejects.

      Also, the canopy could be teathered to the car so that it didn’t fly off and hit a Marshall or audience member.

      Also, the canopy could be designed to automatically jetison if the car becomes airborne or rotates beyond the point of righting in order to prevent drivers being trapped if the car lands up side down.

      I personally think my suggestion to extend the insert collar to incorporate a longer airbox section would be worthwhile investigating.

  6. Kimi4WDC said on 23rd August 2012, 5:08

    Those Indycars are so dull. Even doing 300+ does not add to the feel. Mid-late 90′ CART was golden era.

  7. Eggry (@eggry) said on 23rd August 2012, 9:28

    I think what many concern about some probles of closed cockpit can be easily sorted out. But closed cockpit, which is certainly not large enough, may require HVAC system or even oxygen breathing mask. This means there’s rich source of oxygen and it can be very dangerous in some cases. I’m sure it could be sorted out either but might be quite tough.

  8. Tiffoc (@tiffoc) said on 23rd August 2012, 9:53

    Been not only Ferrari tifosi, but an F1 fan as well since 1955. The day they close cockpit and wheels I’ll stop…

  9. zaakir (@zaakir) said on 23rd August 2012, 15:35

    If it is a big issue to have closed cockpits the FIA would of dealt with it immediately

  10. drmouse (@drmouse) said on 23rd August 2012, 16:15

    I never seem to have time to read through all the comments, and this is no exception. There’s a good possibility that my points have already been covered, but I will make them anyway.

    My first points are about safety. To kick it off, although there is always the temptation to think “The driver accepts the risk, it’s a dangerous sport”, this is no reason to discount new ways to improve safety. Neither of these ideas would affect the racing in any meaningful way, and their correct implementation would improve safety. I see this as a win-win situation. Many safety improvements compromise the racing in some way, and are a trade-off. This is not (in terms of the actuall racing), which can only be a good thing. It may even make it possible to relax other safety regulations which do compromise the racing.

    Next up is the often-quoted “what if the car is upside down” argument against canopies. To me, while this is a real danger, it is already difficult for a driver to exit a car which has turned over. However, to mitigate this I would suggest that the canopy should be in 3 peices: One over the top of the driver, and one down each side, such that the driver could exit if only one was removed. The canopy could extend lower than the current top of the cockit.

    The next up is “what if the canopy is stuck”. To my mind, the answer would be make sure they dont get stuck :) but I know there will always be a possibility. I believe my 3-peice idea would mitigate this, too, if the parts were all joined to the chassis separately.

    Finally, I will leave safety and venture into “F1 is an open-wheel open-cockpit formula”. This is an emotive subject, but to my mind the argument is flawed. The central idea of F1 is that it is, and should remain, the pinacle of motorsport. This core value is only enhanced by enclosed cockpits and wheels. Having them open is vastly inefficient. Huge amounts of effort go into mitigating this at the moment: See all the aero devices designed to stop the wheels interfering with the aerodynamics of the car. I would say that enclosing the wheels would stop the manufacturers concentrating their efforts on such an irrelevant part of the car. These efforts could then be put back into the more relevant areas: Overall aero, engine/powertrain, suspension, etc. I cannot see how it would detract from the racing, or the core F1 values, at all.

    I’m sure not everyone will agree, but everyone’s entitled to their oppinion. Even though anyone who disagrees with me is obviously wrong :-P

  11. BBT (@bbt) said on 23rd August 2012, 21:17

    Totally agree with wheel covers / enclosed wheels, open wheels have always looked ugly, to me anyway. I don’t think they would detract form the visual side of F1, and if it is even a bit safer so be it.

    Would not like to see closed cockpits, seems a step too far, I like to see the driver working, but I dare say I would get use to it, as with any decent change it soon becomes the norm.

  12. nick f said on 24th August 2012, 0:59

    I have not read through the comments yet so this idea may have already been brought up. I think that canopies would be fine. What I would do though is make the drivers then wear exposed helmets with no visor. I’d have one HD camera embedded in the helmet as close to between the eyes as possible and then one HD camera in the cockpit facing the drivers face (which would be visible).

    Who else would go for this setup? I think it would be amazing to see their full face as they concentrate and sweat because of their exertions and make faces at the other drivers actions.

  13. zaakir (@zaakir) said on 24th August 2012, 11:19

    Drivers take the risk. If they think that F1 isn’t safe they won’t race

    • Timothy Katz (@timothykatz) said on 24th August 2012, 13:30

      If it was only drivers who got hurt, or if it was only drivers who had to deal with the dead and injured, or if it was only drivers who wrote the rules, I might agree with you.
      But it’s not, so I don’t agree at all.

  14. IceBlue (@iceblue) said on 24th August 2012, 19:39

    I’m sorry, but the “new” Indycar with its curved rear body structure just doesn’t look right. In fact, it is downright hideous. The Delta Wing concept was much more appealing to me.

    As far as F1 is concerned, I think open wheels and open cockpits were the definition of the class. That’s the reason they call it “open wheel racing”.

    If I wanted to see something else, I’d’ve gone to watch World Sportscar Championship races or ALMS or the Rolex series.

  15. cg22me (@cg22me) said on 25th August 2012, 22:24

    If Formula 1 looked like that… Lotus would be one step closer to looking like the Batmobile ^_^

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