F1's modern safety crisis - is it time for closed cockpits?

Formula One is in the midst of a self-diagnosed crisis in terms of its popularity and the quality of racing.

Whether F1 needs to change the design of cars or Grand Prix format is open to debate and critics of motorsport’s most prestigious series will always find ways to explain why another series is worthier of viewing.

Regardless of the criticism, and what is likely to be another Lewis Hamilton world championship title, F1 2015 has been another entertaining instalment of top single seater racing.

However, whilst F1 chiefs continue to look at ideas to "spice up the show", events from the penultimate round of the IndyCar series in America have further highlighted a far greater need for change in terms of safety, protection of the open cockpit.

Ugly Cars

"Our sport will remain a dangerous one to an extent and we have to accept that," Max Chilton stated in response to Justin Wilson’s fatal accident at Pocono Raceway, where debris struck the head of the British racer.

"We can't stop huge impacts but the one vulnerable area left is the head and in this area there is more we can do.

"Some won't like the idea but it's time to get cockpits protected. In 10 years time we will look back to racing today as we look back at the safety precautions 20 years ago and say 'what were we all thinking?'".

Chilton’s bold comments underline a change in attitude towards cockpit protection which had originally faced stiff opposition from the motorsport fraternity.

In 2012, the FIA financed projects to look at ways to protect the drivers head in the cockpit, which included a roll hoop structure resting in front of the driver, all of which were rejected in 2013 partially due to the way the cars looked.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner and former McLaren chief Martin Whitmarsh were both quoted in October 2013 at a meeting for the F1 Strategy Group stating that the roll hoop made the cars ‘shockingly ugly’ or ‘shockingly bad’.

As such, the FIA chose to discontinue the projects as there was not unanimous support from the teams.

Tick the Boxes

It would, however, be unfair to criticise the teams for rejecting a safety enhancing rule change simply because of its looks. Whilst many ideas to protect the drivers head have been put forward, none have yet to tick all the relevant boxes.

Firstly, the roll hoop idea worked well in protecting any debris which could strike the driver head on, and may have been particularly beneficial to Felipe Massa in 2009 when he was struck by a bouncing metal spring in Hunagry, however it would not defend the driver from a side on impact.

The same roll hoop would have done very little to help Jules Bianchi in his fatal accident in Japan last year and similarly Fernando Alonso who was nearly hit by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus at the Belgian Grand Prix in 2012.

F1 teams have also submitted designs for fighter-jet style canopies to completely cover the cockpit but this would raise other safety concerns, such as restricting the driver from making a quick exit to a car completely ablaze or debris rebounding off of the car on to other drivers.

Mercedes are the latest team to offer a solution to the open cockpit issue with a halo-shaped loop to be placed above the drivers head connected to a singular pillar on the nose of the car. Again, this causes issues in terms of the drivers view point, how thick does the pillar have to be to hold structural integrity but not affect the driver’s eyesight?

New Designs

FIA technical director Charlie Whiting has spoken about the difficulties of finding a solution to the problem but was hopeful that new emerging designs could finally meet safety requirements.

"We've been working on this for a few years and come up with a number of solutions to test, some more successfully than others," Whiting told Autosport.

"We had the fighter jet cockpit approach, but the downsides to that significantly outweighed the upsides.

"We also came up with some fairly ugly looking roll structures in front of the drivers, but they can't drive with it as they can't see through it.

"So it's been really, really hard to come up with something that is going to do it.

"But we have two other solutions on the table, with the first something from Mercedes.

"It doesn't cover the driver, you can still take the driver out, which is one of the most important things, and it's a hoop above the drivers head and forward of it, but with one central stay.

"We are also looking at another device which is blades of varying heights which will be set on top of the chassis and in front of the driver at angles which will render them nearly invisible to him."

Driver Action

Needless to say these ideas require thorough testing before they can be implemented on a modern F1 car, however the recent admittance that changes need to be made is the first step to making a safer sport.

It has emerged that the FIA are due to undertake renewed cockpit safety tests in September and F1 drivers are also backing the idea to enhance cockpit safety.

"I saw some pictures [of a closed cockpit] a month ago, I think maybe of the McLaren. They looked pretty cool," Hamilton said in July.

"Whether it would work, I don't know, but definitely we are always talking about improving safety.

"I imagine at some stage it may be a change that F1 would do.

"I'm never against any changes so long as they are positive for safety, and for racing, and that it doesn't take away the fun factor.”

Alonso had spoken out as early as last year in the aftermath of Bianchi’s fatal accident and urged the sport’s chiefs to reengage discussions of cockpit safety.

"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 two-time world champion 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."

Motorsport and Death

F1, unfortunately, has a history of resisting change if it affects the DNA of the sport and its initial principals. However, harsh lessons seem to have made an impact on the rule makers and drivers which could result in life-saving changes in the not too distant future.

Motorsport and death are forever bound together no matter how many measures are taken to improve driver safety, but gone are the days where demise is merely an accepted eventuality of Grand Prix racing, with weekly funeral attendance just part of the job description.

The rule makers and competitors are doing all they can to prevent further loss, let us pray that no more drivers need to be lost before proposals turn into actions.