Formula 1 Cars Should Get an Enclosed Cockpit, at the Very Least

When thinking of Formula 1 racing nothing can describe it better than the world’s most capable open wheel/cockpit cars on the planet driven by the motorsport’s top drivers. Still, the latest events show it’s not quite a good idea to stick your head out from one of them.
Since the dawn of Grand Prix around 100 years ago, F1 cars have had uncovered wheels and open cockpits, making them instantly recognizable. The deaths of several top drivers led to significant safety improvements in time, but still, those unprotected areas are representing a major risk for something that can exceed 300 km/h (186 mph) and pull around 5Gs in a corner.

F1 cars with cockpits and covered wheels have been seen before, but they got banned by current regulations, stating that “The driver must be able to enter and get out of the cockpit without it being necessary to open a door or remove any part of the car other than the steering wheel”.

However, Jules Bianchi’s nasty crash from this year’s Japanese Grand Prix might represent the turning point in F1 history.

Problem acknowledged, solutions on the way... hopefully

Last week, Jules crashed his car into a recovery vehicle, causing him severe head injuries. He was immediately transported to a hospital from where reports say he’s in a critical but stable condition. The unfortunate event adds up to Felipe Massa’s head injury provoked by a flying spring from a car upfront and the accident that killed Formula 2 driver Henry Surtees in 2009 when a ruptured wheel struck his head. All these appear to have lit the same old question: should Formula 1 cars cover their cockpits?

For me, the answer is pretty clear - yes, Formula 1 cars should come fitted with an enclosed cockpit. We’ve already altered their nature this year by ditching naturally aspirated V8s in favor of turbocharged V6s. Not to mention other intrusive systems that made their way in, like KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) or DRS (Drag Reduction System). And it seems some in the business also share the idea.

In an inteview with Autosport, Fernando Alonso explained: “I probably tend to agree we should at least check and try or test the idea. We are in 2014, we have the technology, we have airplanes and many other examples used in a successful way, so why not to think about it? 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.”

The same report tells Felipe Massa and several other people in the business think more head protection is needed in Formula 1, despite one of its major characteristics being a roofless design.

In 2010, Red Bull designer Adrian Newey came up with the X2010 concept, showing a fully enclosed-cockpit Formula 1 racecar which also had wheel protection. The idea seemed worth considering for the future of such racing events, but ended up only as a full scale non-functional model and a virtual machine available to drive in Gran Turismo 5.

Although the design appears to be safe and good-looking enough, engineers say it will need a lot of time until its implementation because it will definitely have a great impact on how cars will perform.

Until they decide if F1 single seaters should look more like fighter jets on wheels, FIA has tested a more simple to install front-mounted roll hoop which should protect the driver from large objects flying around. The system has been tested with a 20 kg (44 lb) wheel and tire assembly launched towards the helmet at 225 km/h (140 mph).

Tests returned positive results, with the bar construction managing to deflect the “projectile” from hitting the driver’s head. Still, there’s a question regarding side impacts and then comes the visibility issue. Jet fighter-style canopies that allow for more visibility have also been tested but offered less protection against a large object.

I say a compromise should be made after all. Ditch the whole unpractical bars at the front and leave the driver a better field of view using a reinforced hardshell composite canopy like one on the X2010. It’s better than nothing and the technology is already available, coming with quick release handles and all to facilitate the driver’s access. It’s already used in high-speed boat racing.

In the end however, nothing can protect your life on track better than your own actions. It’s a risk every racedriver assumes when entering the business and despite all modern safety features that managed to dramatically cut the racing death toll, they can’t deal with the amount of inertia human organs can cope with. Even though your head is protected by a state of the art helmet so it won’t crack open, there’s nothing to stop your brain from bouncing around inside your skull. And that applies to all your organs.
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