Closed cockpits - Not a simple solution


It is easy to watch the video of the crash which claimed the life of former F1 driver Justin Wilson in Sunday's Indycar race at Pocono Raceway and immediately conclude closed cockpits are the next logical step to prevent future fatalities in motor racing.

Wilson's crash was very much like Jules Bianchi's last year at the Japanese Grand Prix in the sense it was a case of wrong place, wrong moment as he struck the loose nose cone of Sage Karem's car, which had crashed further along the circuit. The loss of any driver from a flying object reignites the debate around closed cockpits and the idea open wheel racing should take this radical step to ensure this can never happen again.

It comes at a sensitive time for Formula One, just six weeks after Bianchi lost his fight against the serious brain injury he suffered in Suzuka following a 126km/h collision with a recovery vehicle. While IndyCar's last fatality was in recent memory (Dan Wheldon in 2011), Bianchi became the first F1 driver to be killed as the result of an accident since Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Immediately after Bianchi's crash, former double world champion Fernando Alonso led the calls for F1 to seriously consider closed cockpits.

"We are in 2014, we have the technology, we have aeroplanes and many other examples used in a successful way, so why not to think about it?" the Spaniard said. "All the biggest accidents in motorsport in the last couple of years have been head injuries so it's probably one of the parts where we are not on the top of the safety."

In July, after Bianchi succumbed to his injuries, Felipe Massa, who suffered life-threatening injuries at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when struck in the head by a loose spring, echoed Alonso's statement, but only if it was "better for everybody" and did not radically alter the DNA of Formula One.

The blanket term of a "closed cockpit", and the idea that that blanket term is the solution for open wheel racing, is unfair for several reasons. Firstly, as Wilson's death proves, IndyCar has a higher risk of drivers being hurt by flying objects due to the nature of oval circuits where cars often go three- or four-wide and debris can easily be deflected back onto the racing line. As Sage Karem's car bounced off the wall on Sunday, the debris flew around his car and down the banked oval track, which is what allowed his nose cone to bounce so violently and tragically towards Wilson.

Secondly it is unfair because the FIA is a long way from deciding on the type of closed cockpit it would want to implement - in any category - if it needed or wanted to. And the FIA does not take the subject lightly. Ever since Massa's 2009 accident it has been high on the safety agenda and that year the FIA Institute conducted a series of tests at an abandoned RAF airbase in Ipswich. The tests involved firing a wheel and tyre, with a combined weight of 20kg, at 225km/h into three different safety concepts.

The first, a triple layer polycarbonate, 30-mm-thick windshield, shattered on impact but deflected the wheel and tyre assembly away from the cockpit area. The second was a 300mm-thick jet fighter canopy which successfully deflected the wheel assembly away without sustaining windshield damage. The third was a roll-hoop structure, theoretically to be placed directly in front of the driver on the edge of the cockpit, which deflected a head-on tyre but has obvious shortcomings in terms of exposure and visibility for the person behind the wheel.

It is the second of these that most people imagine when they think of a closed cockpit, a jet fighter-style canopy protecting the driver from anything and everything outside the car which could cause serious injury. Undoubtedly, this sort of concept could have saved the life of Henry Surtees, son of former motorcycle and Formula One world champion John. Surtees was killed during a Formula Two race in 2009 when a tyre came loose from another car, bounced across the track and hit him on the head. That type of closed cockpit would also likely have saved Wilson's life, but that does not mean it is a silver bullet which would prevent a fatality from ever occurring in an open-wheel category again.

In its official investigation into Bianchi's crash at Suzuka, the FIA denied a closed cockpit would have changed the outcome: "It is not feasible to mitigate the injuries Bianchi suffered by enclosing the driver's cockpit.....due to the very large forces involved in the accident between a 700kg car striking a 6500kg crane at a speed of 126km/h." Indeed, it is telling that the roll-over structure - designed to withstand huge collisions - was torn from Bianchi's Marussia by the severity of the impact.

When James Hinchcliffe crashed heavily during practice for this year's Indy 500, a piece of the car penetrated the Canadian's cockpit, impaling his leg and cutting an artery that led to life-threatening levels of blood loss. That he survived was largely down to the speedy reaction of the medical team and how quickly they were able to get to Hinchcliffe, extract him from the car and take him to hospital. As there is still a lot of research to do into closed cockpits, can we be sure this would have aided Hinchliffe's cause? How would a cockpit canopy be opened quickly by medical staff? Would damage to the surrounding chassis prevent the canopy from being opened? Certainly a delay of any kind in getting to Hinchcliffe in that instance could have had fatal consequences.

Think back to the Austrian Grand Prix, when Fernando Alonso's McLaren ended up parked on top of Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari after a first-lap crash. Though a closed cockpit would have lessened the fear of the McLaren's sidepod hitting Raikkonen's head as they made contact, if the Finn had been in a state which required immediate medical attention a closed cockpit and Alonso's car could have been a fatal combination.

Those may be hypothetical situations, but these need to be considered under what's known as the law of unintended consequences, the idea of "seen" and "unseen" outcomes of an action made with positive intentions. This is especially valid to consider for open wheel racing as the freakishness of the high-speed crash often cannot be accounted for, whether the driver sits under a canopy or not. Think back to Fernando Alonso's crash during winter testing in Barcelona and the fact a seemingly harmless collision against a barrier knocked the Spaniard unconscious and gave him a concussion, which prompted enough conspiracy theories to spawn another Oliver Stone film.

Then there are logistics of closing cockpits to consider. As well as opening a jet canopy, there is cleaning a canopy in-race, either for rain or dirt (both of which would hinder visibility), or the potential of a driver being trapped in an upside down car by a canopy he cannot open, or a driver getting buried in a tyre wall as we saw with Daniel de Jong in the GP2 sprint race in Belgium just last weekend. Jet pilots also often complain about distorted short-range vision from the curved windows of the canopies above their heads. Any sort of bar in front of or next to the drivers head would also limit visibility to a small degree - an unacceptable degree for a driver in control of a 300 km/h vehicle.

And as this Racecar Engineering article explains, the change in air flow around a car with a jet canopy closed cockpit could have other unintended consequences - "notably higher straight line speeds and potentially higher cornering speeds both of which could be a factor in the severity of crashes, and the requirements of the circuits themselves." The aerodynamic changes required to run alongside a new closed cockpit concept would be significant.

All of this is not to say closed cockpits should never be considered in Formula One or open wheel racing as a whole. But it is to say that closed cockpits is not the magic bullet some suggest it would be - certainly at this moment. There is more we don't know than do know about what the impacts would be on the sport. If and when the right knowledge and technology exists, it should be considered and then, if the proposed solution is workable without creating new safety issues, implemented. But the only way to stop freak accidents in motor racing is to stop racing altogether - as long as people drive racing cars incredibly fast and in incredibly close proximity to others, the risk is always there, closed cockpit or not.