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Safety, above all else

The death of Justin Wilson in the Pocono 500 on August 24, following hard on the heels of the passing of Jules Bianchi on July 17, nine months after his accident at Suzuka, has inevitably focused attention again on the subject of greater head protection for drivers.

The FIA is shortly due to test the latest concept for a ‘closed’ cockpit, in the hope of solving the conundrum of safeguarding drivers while obviating the associated problems of visibility, easy egress from the cockpit, and debris being bounced into spectator areas.

Ever since Henry Surtees’s death in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch on July 19, 2009, and the head injury sustained by Ferrari driver Felipe Massa during qualifying in Hungary the following weekend, the situation has been under intensive investigation.

It is by no means a simple matter. The governing body has assessed jet fighter canopies, similar to those used so successfully in Unlimited Hydroplanes, but though they solve one problem they create others – it’s hard to keep such screens clear, especially in poor weather, and they would need some sort of built-in demister and perhaps even a driver air system; if a car is inverted, there is the problem of how the driver will get out; and there is a tendency for the thick screens to become depressed by impacts with debris before regaining their shape suddenly and deflecting the debris at high speed, possibly into spectator areas. One of the current favored solutions is a wishbone-shaped halo structure that protects the driver’s head yet effectively still leaves the cockpit open and facilitates escape from an upturned car. However, it has a support beam in front of the driver’s face, and at least one driver who has tried it in a simulator says that just doesn’t work.

The subject has generated plenty of ink, especially on social media where many seem to believe that all problems can be solved via one-line comments. But the one thing that must at all costs be avoided is knee-jerk reaction.

Fortunately the FIA has some very intelligent people working hard on this and they are pursuing the development of safer cockpits with diligence, dedication, common sense, patience and science.

If safety cockpits are eventually mandated they will not be universally popular. Many purists will decry the passing of the open cockpit, which is arguably as crucial a part of an F1 car’s DNA as open wheels. But it may be time to face facts. The society in which we live is very different from that in which the F1 car evolved in the 1950s and ’60s. For many it is no longer acceptable for racing drivers simply to assess the risks of their calling and cope with them while racing, because society no longer tolerates death by other than natural causes.

When the traditional front-engined cars were outmoded by rear-engined lightweights in the 1950s, there were doubtless many diehards who complained. Similarly when the kaleidoscope of colors associated with commercial sponsorship replaced drab national colors in the 1960s. Or when racing cars suddenly became festooned with wings at around the same time. Or when the monocoque chassis fully superseded the conventional tubular spaceframe and much later on was itself supplanted by carbon fiber composite structures. But that’s what we call progress. That’s how the sport has become faster and safer and, like life itself, has a habit of moving forward on its own path whether we like it or not.

At Spa, on the day of Justin’s accident, it should also be remembered that British GP3 racer Matt Parry came within inches of being struck by an errant wheel from Aleksander Bosak’s machine; it just missed him and struck the nose of his car. In the past, besides Surtees, Bianchi and Wilson, the likes of Mike Spence, Markus Höttinger, Hans-Georg Bürger and Ayrton Senna were not so fortunate.

If the appearance of the F1 car really is on the verge of a sea change – and what happens in F1 will surely be repeated in all single-seater categories – it may just be something that we will all have to accept.

 

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