F1 Cockpit Protection?

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Motorsports is a scary business. There are hundreds of things that could go wrong, most of them fatal. The latest set of motorsport fatalities saw Jules Bianchi (F1) recently succumb to injuries and more recently, Justin Wilson (Indycar) was killed a day after a racing incident at the Pocono Raceway when debris from a crash ahead of him struck him, and caused him to crash.

If it is car or bike or even truck racing on the track, road or dirt there are always risks of someone in the sport being injured. Fans, Marshalls, Crew and Drivers have all died and no doubt, safety is a major consideration when organizing an event or designing a car and racing as team.

Indy Cars and F1 drivers (compared to other forms of car racing only) face an additional danger that others are not really exposed to. They are open-cockpit cars. So there is a chance (as seen with the Justin Wilson incident) that debris can hit the driver, adding another dimension of risk to the sport. Following his crash, the FIA are considering adding cockpit protection to the cars (testing phase is currently underway), to improve driver safety.

Concept cockpit protection
Concept cockpit protection

However there are problems. Reports have said that adding a fighter aircraft like canopy is more risky, as debris could bounce off, hitting other cars or spectators and marshals, and make it tough to reach a driver who might be injured. However, if protection needs to be added, it needs to do the following

  1. Does not impair driver vision
  2. Does not block the ease of entering and exiting the car
  3. Its purpose, protect the driver.

F1 director, Charlie Whiting has said cockpit protection will be implemented, and is just a matter of time. But to get the right system that does the aforesaid, and not cause additional danger is a tough task. The fighter pilot cockpit like protection failed and when a roll bar was added, it was impaired driver vision. Mercedes have provided an idea, with a single central support that holds a ring around the driver’s head, and has a hinged locking device, that will allow easy access and should add increased (but not complete protection) to the driver.

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In an interview with Autosport, Charlie Whiting addressed the issue of cockpit protection.

We’ve been working on this for a few years and come up with a number of solutions to test, some more successfully than others, we had the fighter jet cockpit approach, but the downsides to that significantly outweigh the upsides. We also came up with some fairly ugly looking roll structures in front of the drivers, but they can’t drive with it as they can’t see through it. So it’s been really, really hard to come up with something that is going to do it.

But we have two other solutions on the table, with the first something from Mercedes. It doesn’t cover the driver, you can still take the driver out, which is one of the most important things, and it’s a hoop above the drivers head and forward of it, but with one central stay. We are also looking at another device which is blades of varying heights which will be set on top of the chassis and in front of the driver at angles which will render them nearly invisible to him.”

“We have put in a huge amount of time, effort and research into this project, which has not been easy, in fact bloody hard. But I can definitely see the day when this will happen. One day there will be something that will decrease a driver’s risk of injury. Whether it will be as good at protecting a driver from an object coming towards him as a fighter jet cockpit, I doubt that, but it will offer him protection. We have to persevere. We must make something, even if it’s not 100% in terms of protecting the driver under all circumstances. But if it improves the situation it has to be good. There must be a way.”

Image courtesy of BBC
Image courtesy of BBC

Cockpit protection had been debated and experimented upon following Massa’s near fatal incident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. The debate for additional protection is part of a larger discussion on increasing the danger in the sport to draw back the crowds. Some are on the side of safety, with Massa one of those not in favour of increasing the dangers, but there are those who would be willing to increase the risks and dangers associated with the sport, to draw back the thrill and crowds (which would make the sport profitable again). Whatever be the case, safety for all parties in a racing environment will need to be addressed and ensured.

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