What?  You’re not for safety? The near-miss at the Belgian Grand Prix that saw Romain Grosjean’s Lotus F1 car fly over the top of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari has renewed the talk of a canopy or cage system to protect the driver. The discussion started back in 2009 when Henry Surtees was killed by an errant wheel and Felipe Massa suffered a sever head injury from a flying part from the car ahead of him. This weekend’s incident has prompted the press to ask questions about the need for protecting the driver and McLaren’s Paddy Lowe was all to happy to comment saying:

“We started the project a year ago,” he said. “We’ll see. Personally, I think something is inevitable because it is the one big exposure we’ve got.

“How many times have you looked at things including today and thought, that was lucky? One day it won’t be lucky and we’ll all be sitting there going: ‘We should have done something about that.'”

“Obviously, a driver ideally wants nothing in the way but in the same way we drive a road car with pillars, you just get used to it, don’t you?

“Your mind works out a way around it. That’s what we found in our simulator, provided the pillars don’t get too big. The next bit is to try to produce a more optimal design. The current test piece looks very ugly but is really a very early prototype to assess forces.”

Lowe figures a new system could be ready for the 2014 season but it brings us some serious talking points about being pragmatic over prudent and Formula One has a rich history of that. No one want anyone injured or killed in motor sport but it is a dangerous activity. You can never remove all danger but many would argue that you have to die trying and that is the charge of the Technical Working Group and regulatory body, the FIA. Always a champion of safety, the FIA have turned their gaze toward Sustainability lately and some safety initiatives have been started but never completed. The canopy or cage system is one of them.

While saving lives, eliminating risks and protecting drivers is something we can all get behind, I am concerned over the type of system they would deploy. Sure, Lowe is right in saying that drivers don’t want anything in front of them and if you speak with drivers, they will tell you it’s already difficult to see out of an F1 cockpit. Adding more structure to their view isn’t a positive thing.

What I also worry about is the structure itself. In a high-speed crash, the energy dissipated has the ability to deform of shatter even the strongest of materials and what would happen if the canopy/cage structure was deformed to a point that the lock/unlock mechanism didn’t work?  Like  a car door after an accident that doesn’t open. I’m reminded of the American NHRA dragster series and how the “jaws of life” have had to be used to get drivers out of their cockpit by cutting through mangled roll cage structure to get to them. Is Formula One prepared to have these types of systems dispersed around the circuit to extract drivers from mangled roll cage metal and better yet, would they have time to do so?

If you look back to the beginning of the 2012 season, fans around the globe were disgusted with the new look of the Formula One cars. The stepped nose was an anathema but it was designed this way for one purpose…safety. The reason was that the higher nosed cars would have a tendency to slide over the top of another car’s chassis in the event of a side impact and that placed the nose of the car at the driver’s head. By lowering the nose, the intent was to prevent this from happening and you could argue that Sunday’s incident at Spa Francorchamps worked according to plan.

I’m certainly not advocating research and deployment of a safer cockpit system but I know that F1 has offered knee-jerk reaction too many times and their pragmatism has created more problems than solved. Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali is on the same page, saying:

“We were lucky because nothing happened to Fernando on the head,” he said.

“We are working with the federation to work on the right system of protection, because on what we are testing and working on, there are also some problems that you may have – like moving the protection in the event of a fire or worse. So we need to be very careful on all these devices.”

What do you think? Should F1 have a canopy or roll cage? The canopy tests the FIA held were not encouraging and the more current thought is a roll cage of sorts. Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

An F1 fan since 1972, NC has spent over 25 years in the technology industry focusing on technology integration, AV systems integration, digital media strategies, technology planning, consulting, speaking, presenting, sales, content strategy, marketing and brand building.
  • Alex M

    What the hell is wrong with us people, the last fatality in F1 was 18 years ago
    Just because Alonso was a bit shaken we want to put them in tanks now ? Let’s put them all in indoors simulators while we’re at it. That will make it safe !!!
    Remember when Villeneuve’s wheel found a “just about right” hole in the fence and hit a poor marshal in the head ??!? Accidents will happen, let’s not ruin the whole history of F1.

    • The cause will be for incidents like Surtees, Massa, Wheldon and if ou consider the new fenders on Indycars and a roll cage, might as well watch WEC and see if Toyota can beat Audi. :)

  • Nofahz

    Or the powers that be could recognize the gorilla in the room, that the open wheel single seater is an anachronism. It’s the 21st century & it’s time to evolve the formula to reflect what is and could be possible in single seater prototype racing instead of bolting on things to a design concept born of the early 20th century.

    • Are you suggesting that the whole concept of open-wheel racing has come and gone? that we should really focus on LMP-style racing at this point?

      • nofahz

        The concept of an open wheel race car should have passed into the sunset some time ago. The single seater, prototype race car should always be chasing ultimate performance in skill, creativity, materials, mechanical engineering, aerodynamics and whatever else. Remember Adrian Newey’s X2010?
        F1 factories have evolved into cutting edge, aerospace caliber engineering facilities yet all that is funneled into chasing fractions of a second confined to a narrow set of regulations on a car concept that is antiquated.

        Sports Car racing is not single seater prototype racing (for starters the LMP technically have to have space for “2” seats, offset driver position) but an entirely different measure of performance and engineering. One can question the prescriptive regulations on it as well, and the stifling of innovation that the manufacturers and competitors are finding less attractive each year.

      • Schmorbraten

        That’s my hope.

    • nofahz brings up an excellent point, as uncomfortable as it may be for us long-time open-wheel fans to accept. The open-cockpit, single-seat, open-wheel design for a race car began with the Marmon Wasp in 1911, and although it’s evolved since then (engine to the rear, and add wings) the basic concept is still the same. What is so magical about open wheels and an open cockpit? Mind you, I say this as a long-time F1 fan and a life-long Indy500 fan. What HAS been magical about open-wheel racing at the highest levels was the technological innovation and the quest for speed! Remember when Tom Sneva broke the 200 mph barrier at Indianapolis, or when Williams developed that insane active suspension? Those were outstanding feats of prowess from the engineers, and of bravery from the drivers that raced those machines. Those accolades no longer belong to open-wheel racing, not even Formula 1. They belong to Le Mans. Circuit de la Sarthe has replaced Spa, Monza, and Indianapolis as the ultimate proving ground of automotive technology. If F1 is going to continue to promote itself as “The Pinnacle of Motorsport” then perhaps they should consider the single-seat close-cockpit prototype-esque design. Open-wheel racing has a long and rich heratige, but let’s make sure that we don’t lock ourselves to living in the past. Let’s make sure we can move forward to a vibrant and innovative future.

      • Doug… did you get enough sleep last night? :)

        As I pointed out in the DC post, I think one of the reasons the focus is now on the safety of the open cockpit is because so much else has gotten so much safer. To that line of thinking, Doug and others might be on to something — keep innovating and not be limited by the past.

        Wasn’t there that awesome six wheel car?

        • There was, and I have the HotWheels model on my desk! :D

    • christopher

      All Caterhams. All the time.

  • Sod’s Law

    Racing will never be 100% safe. The reason it is “sport” is because there is an element of risk. Nobody wants to return to the carnage of the sixties and a driver’s death is always tragic, however, you can only remove so many ingredients from a pizza before it is no longer a pizza.

    • Which is kind of what I think Stirling Moss has advocated. Many suggest he’s being harsh about his “safety” comments but I think his point is that racing is dangerous and you can never remove all risk…or it’s not a pizza. :)

    • Schmorbraten

      It’s possible to build a car that has got nothing in common with an F1 car but which still is a racecar. And it can still race. Unlike a Pizza, it’s not about the ingredients, it’s about what you do with it. And concerning the 100%, well that’s a well-known saying, but … noone claimed it’s reachable and why should we stop to try to at least get closer to 100%? My fear is that F1 will only learn after some more deaths.

  • Niyoko

    ダメ!ダメ!ダメ!ダメ!~ I can’t believe either that just this gets brought up again and again. Max Mosely still haunts the paddock.
    Closed cockpits ruins the connection to the driver, the human element, that makes F1 special. This is a personal opinion, but I’m sure I’m not alone.

    I just hope…no pray that level heads continue to prevail. The teams, minus Lowe, and drivers can’t possibly be for closed cockpits.

  • MIE

    I am not so worried about closed cockpits ruining the connection to the driver. You have only been able to see the driver’s helmet since the high cockpit sides were introduced in ’94. I am far more concerned with intrducing something that cures one danger, but introduces another.

    If canopies are to be used, how will drivers remove the dirt/debris that they currently remove with tear-off visors? What happens when it rains? How will tey cope under the lights in Singapore with reflections? Will drivers still require visors, or will they have open face helmets – in that case what haappens if the canopy breaks?

    If some for of cage is used, this will reduce visibility forwards – what effect will that have? How long before the cages are shaped to become aero devices, and wings / turning vanes appear further reducing visibility?

    For either system how will a driver get out in under 5 seconds (the current requirement) in the event of fire? What happens if the car is inverted (thing Warwick at Monza in 1990 for example)?

    Safety is rightly a priority, but whatever is done it must be shown to provide a benefit over and above what we currently have, in addition to coping with the Pryce/Massa/Surtees type incidents that are fortunately very rare in the sport.

    • Schmorbraten

      Other racing series cope quite well with all these problems.

  • RoDe

    If I wanna see closed top cars I’ll watch LMP1 cars. Keep F1 an open top sport.

  • gsprings

    Will be interesting to see what they come up with

  • Brendan H

    I think its interesting that the only people who we hear about this from are team managers and not the drivers who are the only people in danger.

    • That’s why I thought the DC comment was worth mentioning in the more recent post. I would assume he’s giving us a glimpse at how the drivers feel.

  • Rapierman

    Even if you can’t remove all the risk, you can remove what is “unacceptable risk” An open cockpit where anything can fly in and cause either catastrophic injury or death is an “unacceptable risk”. If I want to go out there with no protection whatsoever, I might as well jump off a 100-foot cliff with no parachute. I’ll get the same results either way.

    When you find something that reasonably reduces the danger of the situation and reasonably increases the safety, then you do it and don’t argue, period. It is the duty of every human being to take any reasonable safety precautions both for themselves and for others. There is no right to die, but there is a moral duty to live and to save lives where possible. Nobody has the right to shirk that duty, ever.

    To that moral duty and goal, a roll cage would probably be the most ideal, but a canopy is acceptable at the moment. It would be nice if the roll cage were integrated into the canopy just as it is in standard cars. The reason that those pillars don’t bother the average driver is because there is enough that we can see that we can “connect the dots” and realize what’s out there. If it deforms, it deforms, but realize that, even though the “Jaws of Life” are being used to pry someone out of there, the chances of finding a live person inside are much greater because of that roll cage, and that’s what it’s designed for.

  • I suppose on we may find out the truth…

  • Rob

    I got a great idea – I believe McLaren did this for a mobile phone sponsor – Let’s give the drivers a radio control device on the F1 cars so they don’t have to risk must more then a hang nail. That way we remove the risk to the drivers and possibly marshals (have a remote tow truck to move debris)…. but we still have an issue with the spectators…. Hummm….. I know… Let’s make them watch on TV (this is F1, so the internet does not yet exist remember) and there is no danger… shite…. what about the support team – damn, I thought I had an answer.

    Good grief people….. Lets get a grip already…..

  • Rapierman
  • cj

    The only way to stop the worst of what could happen would be the canopy. But, as mentioned already, this isn’t viable on a current F1 car. Too unsafe, to many variables if an accident happened.

    If this type of thinking was used for all motor sports, imagine where it would take us:
    Stabilising wheels for moto GP bikes so the riders never fell off
    No contact in NASCAR or BTC
    Penalties for getting to close to another competitor….

    As Rob said “Good grief people….. Lets get a grip already…..”

  • Beau

    An enclosed cockpit is out of the question — these aren’t Le Mans prototypes. A cage would restrict driver view too much, and a cage strong enough to withstand such great forces wouldn’t be easy to remove in the event of a fire or serious accident.

    I think the best option would be a strong, horseshoe-shaped, single-piece metal bar, much like a roll-over bar you see on many convertibles, that would extend diagonally forward over the helmet, so as not to restrict the vision of the driver. The bar could work on a hinge (but still be attached to the frame of the car) and swing open to allow the driver access to the cockpit.

    It’s not perfect, but it does a few things. 1) Doesn’t restrict driver visibility. From the driver’s perspective, the bar would be above their field of view. 2) Would prevent large objects such as tires or even other cars from impacting the driver’s head. The bar would extend far enough forward (45 degrees would be best) such that a large object couldn’t hit the helmet. 3) Can be easily removed for driver access and more importantly, in the event of an emergency. 4) Wouldn’t completely alter the aerodynamics of the car. This is the part of the car that already has some of the weakest aerodynamics, thanks to the hole in the cockpit. A round bar wouldn’t be the end-all of formula 1 aerodynamic theory as we know it.

    What does everyone think?