Will Gray

Tech Talk: The case for covered cockpits

Will Gray

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The massive first-corner crash at Spa last weekend demonstrated the dangers of open cockpits once again — but after Fernando Alonso's lucky escape what is the sport doing to solve the problem?

Formula One has always been an open-wheel and open-cockpit category and while the cars have come a long way since the days of the gaping sided shapes of the 1950s the fact that drivers are still out in the open is somewhat baffling given the speeds and resultant dangers involved in modern racing.

The incident at Spa showed how the smallest of touches - from Romain Grosjean on Lewis Hamilton - can result in such huge devastation, but it was the Lotus' trajectory over Alonso's helpless Ferrari that caused most concern with the entire car sliding right over the front chassis and coming to rest on the opposite side from which it came.

A metre lower and it could have been a devastating impact into the chassis itself where Alonso's legs were sitting while a metre closer to the cockpit and it could literally have sliced through that area and potentially even decapitated the Spaniard.

But it's far from the first near miss we've had.

It's now five years since Alex Wurz's Williams got airborne and flew over David Coulthard's head in Melbourne 2007 and three since Felipe Massa was knocked unconscious after being hit on the head by a rogue suspension component at the 2009 Hungarian GP. The following year seven-time champion Michael Schumacher escaped by a few inches when Vitantonio Liuzzi's front-wing almost hit his head in a collision in Abu Dhabi, and now this.

Sadly, outside F1, Henry Surtees, the son of former-F1 champion John Surtees, was not so lucky in 2009 and he died in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch when a loose tyre struck his head.

The FIA has been working on a solution to these issues ever since the Massa and Surtees incidents but developments can only come so quickly, and there is no point rushing something in that could do more harm than good.

The existing F1 monocoque chassis is now safer than it has ever been, with bulletproof carbon fibre honeycomb construction encasing the cockpit solidly from front bulkhead to rear roll hoop and crash protection front, rear and to the side to cushion any impact.

Around the driver's head, the height and structure of the deformable foam head restraints that were introduced after Ayrton Senna's fatal crash in 1994 have become more sophisticated and since Massa's crash Zylon shields have been used on helmets to provide a bulletproof protection in the gap between helmet and visor.

But that it is clearly still not enough and the head is still exposed to impact, whether it's from a flying car, a flying wheel or a piece of debris.

The initial solution was thought to be a simple cockpit cover in the style of a fighter jet.

Last year the FIA tested both a polycarbonate windshield and an actual fighter jet canopy by firing a tyre and suspension assembly at in at 225km/h. The former splintered, the latter did the job and deflected the wheel.

Aesthetically, it is perhaps the least intrusive solution but there were reports that the deflection actually increased the force of the rebound and there were also very vocal concerns about how quickly drivers could exit the vehicle with a closed canopy - currently the maximum requirement is five seconds as that is the limitation in protection of race suits in a fire.

A semi-closed solution is possible but after last weekend's incident it was revealed that current thinking is for a front mounted roll-hoop — and that it could be introduced as early as 2014.

So far, the FIA have tested a bulky construction which looks like the kind of rear roll hoops used back in the 1980s. It performed well in a similar test to that used on the canopy, with the wheel fired both straight on and at an angle. That said, it still would not protect against smaller items of debris and if there is any opening at all then something like the spring that hit Massa could still find a way through.

But the FIA institute technical adviser Andy Mellor has said that so far this is "almost pure research" to understand what the loads are in such impacts.

The difficulty in using a structure in front of the driver — which could reach as high as 10cm above the driver's helmet — is the balance between head protection and visibility. But surely something has to be done and, once the forces and heights are determined, a neater construction, integrated into the construction of the monocoque, will be developed to ensure any such protection is in keeping with the modern engineering of the sport, with the possibility of combining the roll hoop concept with a shielding screen.

Almost 80 per cent of fans are against the idea of canopies as it would separate drivers even more from their fans but the same concerns were aired when cockpit sides were introduced and fans quickly got used to not being able to see the drivers' helmets so clearly.

The forward 'roll-hoop' construction, then, if it shows it can provide adequate protection and not limit visibility, looks to be the ideal solution...

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