This is a pretty complex issue, and one which doesn’t have a simple answer. With regards to knee jerk reactions, it’s worth pointing out that this is at least the third time in recent memory that this question has come up, where there has been an incident where a close canopy or cockpit would have given a radically better outcome to an accident. That in itself suggests to me that it’s a question which needs taking seriously. Of course we could say, sure, move that truck further away, improve that catch fencing. These things should be done too. But what it highlights is exactly how exposed the driver’s head is, in an open-cockpitted racing car. Lots of isolated incidents, all with their own causes, and all with their own distinct means of avoiding that particular ‘one in a million’ accident. But all with the common factor of severe head injury, or injuries caused by impacts to the head.
If we ignore the debate about aesthetics for a second. The post-2009 rules have generated pig-ugly cars anyway, so I hardly think that aesthetic arguments are valid. And if we wanted something traditional then why not go back to the days of driving cigar tubes on wheels?
The biggest argument against a closed cockpit is the one of driver extraction when the car is inverted. It’s worth looking to the world of Le Mans prototypes here, and asking how often has this caused a problem for them? While a jet-fighter style canopy has its own potential problems, I can’t see why you couldn’t have an LMP style cockpit, with hinged doors which extend into the sidepods. The tight sides of existing head protective areas wouldn’t be needed with a closed canopy, meaning the driver would have a lot more freedom of movement in the cockpit, to get a hand to a doorhandle. Equally, the door would be easy for marshals to open up, and access to the driver would be improved for the most part. If you wanted to significantly improve access, then you could also relocated the air intake to the tops of the sidepods to allow access to all sides of the driver. In this way, you would actually have better access to a driver in an inverted car than you would if there was no canopy. It’s easy to forget that there is a fear on tracks with gravel traps, that the driver’s head could be buried. And instances where cars have speared through a tyre wall, trapping the driver and making it impossible to extract them until the car is moved. These problems, as well as the larger ones, would all be solved by an LMP style cockpit.
There’s another argument in favour of it as well, and that’s one of aerodynamics. The driver is probably the second biggest problem, aerodynamically, after the tyres. Changing this would force the designers to go back to the drawing board and work on making cars which are radically different in their aero concepts than the cars we see at the moment. With much less dirty air, making the racing even better. Closed cockpits could be looked back upon as one of the best things that ever happened to F1 racing, if people were brave enough to allow for radical designs.