Sometimes what may seem obvious is a lot more complex than expected. This is the case when it comes to closed cockpits in open wheel racing.

One tragic week six years ago saw young Henry Surtees killed in his Formula 2 car at Brands Hatch when an errant wheel assembly struck his head at speed, before Felipe Massa was lucky to escape with his life when the heave spring from a Brawn BGP001 hit is helmet at high speed at the Hungaroring mere days later.

As we arrive at Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, sadly the issue is again at the forefront of people's minds again after the fatal accidents of Maria De Villota, Jules Bianchi and most recently Justin Wilson. Particular in the wake of the latter two incidents, many people called openly and loudly for open wheel car cockpits to be closed, with Jenson Button saying this weekend that his stance on the matter has now changed altogether.

At first this seems a very logical stance, after all the only real reason the cockpits are open is that they always have been, which - frankly - is a flimsy reason on its own.

So why not just close the cockpits and pit a windscreen on the cars - from an engineering perspective, is it that difficult? Well, actually yes it is very difficult indeed.

Following the incidents involving Massa and Surtees, the FIA set about investigating solutions to closed cockpits. It built a special test rig to fire an F1 wheel and tyre assembly at three proposed solutions for closed cockpits. The first of these came from a F16 fighter jet, and it stood up to the test well, the second, a polycarbonate windscreen shattered on impact but also deflected the wheel, and the third a titanium roll hoop structure deflected the wheel perfectly. So with those test results published almost half a decade ago, why has very little been done? Would lives have been saved?

To attempt to answer the second question first, a canopy would have made little difference in the case of Jules Bianchi, and probably not much in the case of De Villota (though there was not such a thorough investigation into that case). As for Justin Wilson, the exact details of his crash are not yet known as the investigations are ongoing but it does seem to be likely that some kind of canopy would have helped in that situation.

However, there is a bit more to it. If you wanted to fit every F1, F2, GP3, F3 and IndyCar with a fighter jet canopy, you end up with some significant technical challenges and there are wider considerations.

For example, unlike in IndyCar, each F1 car is a different shape, so that would mean each team would need to design, develop and impact test a bespoke canopy every year. This is no small undertaking, unless the FIA were to mandate a single design, but then you would end up with very similar looking cars.

The renderings floating around the internet of F1 cars not that different looking to those currently, but with the addition of a neat and sleek canopy, are simply unrealistic fantasy even if they do look nice. With a closed cockpit much of the cars bodywork would be substantially reworked and would probably result in a very different looking car to what we have today.

A canopy or windscreen would have a huge aerodynamic influence. Just by closing the cockpit you shed a substantial amount of drag and change the air flow over most of the car. You would almost certainly increase top speed, which on a banked oval could result in cornering speeds too high for drivers to withstand without G-suits, a limit that was reached with open cars at Texas in 2001 during a Champ Car race. The race itself actually never took place because the drivers were suffering dizziness as a result of the high cornering loads.

Inside the cockpit you also find there are other issues, and it is these the have so far been tough to resolve because by sealing in the driver you inevitably make it much harder for him to get out of the car. The canopy would probably have to open upwards and forwards, which is not much good if a car is upside down or buried in the tyres. It is worth noting that in the FIA regulations there is a maximum amount time it can take for a driver to be able to get out of the car, and don't forget Nomex is only fireproof for so long.

Finally, with the drivers sealed in a very small space with a greenhouse above them, it's sure to get extremely hot in there and more than a little stuffy to the point that suffocation could be a real issue. As a result, the cars would then either have to be air conditioned or the drivers could even wear fighter pilot style breathing apparatus (requiring a total redesign of the crash helmet).

The counter argument to this is inevitably 'they have closed cars in WEC so it can't be that tough', but that fails to take into account the fact that the Le Mans cars are much bigger and heavier than those used in F1, which is why they are slower. Furthermore, we have seen the windscreens and roofs used in LMP1 fail before - Loic Duval's big crash during Le Mans practice in 2014 saw the roof of his Audi R18 ripped apart.

What of the other devices intended to protect the driver, like the frontal hoop designed by Lotus and tested by the FIA? Well, it wasn't attractive, but it worked fine.

However, the problem with it is that the driver would have very little forward visibility and that is the same issue with many proposals to improve safety in this area. There are some new concepts under discussion, with Mercedes GP proposing a structure around the drivers' head which has become known as the 'halo'. It is designed to deflect any debris from the drivers head (or at least reduce the impact) without impacting the visibility too much.

Though the renders shown to date still allow debris to impact the driver if it had the right trajectory, it seems likely that it could still slow driver extrication after a crash and will without a doubt reduce visibility. A second proposal apparently features fins around the cockpit to serve the same purpose, but not obscure the sight lines.

However, none of these issues are impossible to solve, and the use of canopies or some kind of frontal head protection in F1 and Indycar is inevitable. These are not my sentiments, but largely those of Charlie Whiting who has commented to this.

In IndyCar a drag racing style canopy is being proposed by Aerodine composites, but it is important to stress here that there is no quick or easy fix to open wheel cockpit safety, and years of research will likely be conducted before we see a closed car or a frontal protection device deployed either in F1 or IndyCar.

Max Yamabiko

Max Yamabiko will bring you a closer look at the technical side of F1 and motorsport in 2015, from the latest developments and solutions employed to keep you ahead of the game

 

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