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More driver head protection 'inevitable'

3 September 2012

From casual fans to F1 professionals, there are few people who will have been able to watch the in-car footage of the start of the 2012 F1 Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday and seen cars flying over the top of drivers' exposed heads without physically flinching in response.

"We were lucky because nothing hit Fernando [Alonso] on the head," said Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali afterwards.

"It was a very risky situation and seeing one car fly over his, a few centimetres above his helmet, left us with our hearts in our mouths for a few tenths of a second," agreed the team's technical director Pat Fry.

"It looked scary," added McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, whose own driver Lewis Hamilton was also involved in the wreck. "It's fortunate that we got away with the accident today [without injuries.]"

Unsurprisingly, it's reopened the debate about how much more needs to be done in the sport to protect drivers' heads in the sport - even if it means abandoning the long-cherished design principle of open cockpits in F1.

"I think we've become slightly nonchalant," admitted Whitmarsh. "We see so many big enormous shunts and we're used to the driver just popping out, but you realise that they can come inches from not popping out of the car."

"We've had a number of near misses in the last three or four years," agreed McLaren's technical director Paddy Lowe, pointing to Felipa Massa's accident in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when flying debris hit him on the head and fractured his skull.

The son of former world champion John Surtees was killed in a similar incident where his head was struck by a tyre that had come off another car in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch the same year. And Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon died in an accident last October when he suffered fatal head injuries after striking the posts supporting the safety fences around Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"How many times have you looked at things including today and thought, that was lucky?" asked Lowe of the situation in F1. While there has been no race fatality since that of Aryton Senna in 1994, everyone in the sport knows that there can be no complacency. "One day it won't be lucky and we'll all be sitting there going: we should have done something about that," Lowe said.

The series has already built up side protection around the cockpit area, despite drivers' objections that it impeded their visibility during a race. But the sport's Technical Working Group has aiming to introduce further regulation changes for 2014 to go much further.

"We are working with the Federation to try to work on the right system of protection. With what we have tested or are working on there are also some problems that you may have," said Domenicali. "We need to be very careful on all these devices. We are still working with the federation to find a possible solution," he continued, adding that they "are working very hard."

Speaking to BBC Sport the day after the crash at Spa, McLaren's Paddy Lowe said that he felt changes were coming - and soon. "Something is inevitable because it is the one big exposure we've got," he said.

One idea that won't go away is a cover for the cockpit, similar to that on a jet plane. Last month, the National Hot Rod Association in the US finally approved designs to add canopies to their dragsters - a revolutionary shift for the sport, adding pressure on other open cockpit series to follow suit. However, the full canopy idea is unpopular in F1 circles as the material used would likely distort a driver's vision, and could even end up trapping the driver in the car after an accident and interfering with extraction.

"I don't like closed cockpits myself," confessed Martin Whitmarsh. "But we've got to think through what we could have done. I think people underestimate what a [closed] cockpit would have to be and how it could make the situation worse.

"You put this glass bubble over the driver, but you can't assume that they're safer," he explained. "A lot of work went on in aviation and it's amazing how difficult it is to protect a driver or a pilot and allow them to see through it in an undistorted manner. There's all sorts of other incidents with cars overturning or fires in the cockpit."

Instead, an open roll-bar cage in front of the driver is increasingly emerging as the preferred option, according to Lowe.

"Obviously a driver ideally wants nothing in the way [of his field of vision]," he agreed. "But in the same way we drive a road car with pillars or an old VW bus with centre pillar, you just get used to it, don't you?"

Simulator testing has shown that in use, drivers quickly compensated for the presence of any roll-bar support struts. "Your mind works out a way around it," providing the pillars are sympathetically sized and designed, said Lowe.

He added that a prototype design had already been constructed and had been tested with impacts from various objects, including tyres.

"The current test piece looks very ugly," he admitted. "The next bit is to try to produce a more optimal design."


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