Graham Keilloh  |    22 July 2017

Forget the halfway house Halo - F1 needs closed cockpits


Cockpit protection is the F1 issue that won’t quit. To the point it’s hard to recall a time that ‘solutions’ did not linger in the background, appear in artists’ impressions, and turn up for real for the first few laps of the odd first Friday practice session.

We can understand it too, as with the safety strides of recent years the exposed cockpit feels like the final frontier. These days it is the accidents wherein the exposed head gets near to debris, barriers or other cars that really make us wince – think among several others of Scott Dixon at the Indy 500 this year; Romain Grosjean barrelling over Fernando Alonso at Spa in 2012.

Little wonder the FIA spoke in recent days of its “priority to address this existing weak point.”

But now in F1 at least the phoney war is to end. Next season the ‘Halo’ will feature over F1 cockpits, forced through by the FIA on safety grounds.

And the dismay at the inelegant addition’s confirmation has been about as long-in-preparation. The sport will be a laughing stock, they say. Fans will flock away. The safety ‘solution’ isn’t much of a solution in any case. It’s the end of F1 as we know it. And we don’t feel fine.

That we’ve got to this precise point was foreseeable though, and for beyond the reasons outlined. The FIA was determined to introduce something for next year; indeed postponed a similar effort 12 months ago. Postponing another year would, as Lawrence Barretto described it, have been “a slap in the face”. The teams needed the 2018 chassis spec confirmed pronto. And, crucially, the Halo is the only thing ready.

That we’ve got to this precise point was foreseeable. The FIA was determined to introduce something for next year; indeed postponed a similar effort 12 months ago. And, crucially, the Halo is the only thing ready.

The other solutions, while having potential, clearly have a way to go. Taking the ‘shield’ as one example, Sebastian Vettel had to park his Ferrari early in Silverstone last week due to the distortion it caused his vision. At the very least the Halo is a stop-gap, better than nothing, that will improve safety while other, better, solutions are finalised.

As for aesthetics? Well for all the Halo’s inelegance it’s not nearly as hideous as the Ann Summers noses of 2014, and we somehow stopped noticing them within a few laps of pre-season testing (this from the time written by someone who should know better may amuse). I suspect strongly the same would happen here.

We also can dismiss the inevitable ‘F1 should be dangerous’ yelps audible at such moments. There are a number of counter arguments, but for now I’ll leave only the words on safety of the late Denny Hulme, a man who knew more than most what it was to lose people to motor racing.

“We didn’t know any better in the old days,” Denny has said. “Now we’ve got the most incredibly hygienic circuits you have ever seen. Some people criticise them. They say it’s terribly boring motor racing. Yes, compared to the old Nürburgring it is. But it’s better than going to a funeral every Tuesday morning. ”

The FIA also, as noted, can claim credibly the matter is hardly new; the implementation hardly knee-jerk. The issue’s been acute indeed ever since Felipe Massa fought for his life after being hit on the head by a spring in Hungary in 2009 which was a few days after Henry Surtees’s death in a similar incident in an F2 race. The FIA Institute has been investigating solutions since 2011.

How many times have you looked at things including today and thought, that was lucky? One day it won’t be lucky and we'll all be sitting there going: ‘We should have done something about that - Paddy Lowe

And Paddy Lowe for one following the mentioned 2012 Spa crash described even then additional cockpit protection as “inevitable”.

“How many times have you looked at things including today and thought, that was lucky?,” said Lowe. “One day it won’t be lucky and we'll all be sitting there going: ‘We should have done something about that.’”

Subsequent crashes in F1 and beyond, some tragic, have re-stoked the issue at regular intervals.

But this leads us to the counter-point, which in turn leads me to suspect that with the above I may have been giving the FIA too much credit. Which is given the FIA has been examining such things for the best part of a decade why has it only got one solution ready to go? And one that feels nothing like the final answer? That instead feels, as Ben Anderson described it, as “a terrible hybrid”?

Even parking the ‘unsightly’ argument against – and others such as its effect on the driver’s vision – a major Halo drawback remains that it is helpful mainly for countering a certain type of accident – errant wheels and large debris. It has mere 17% effectiveness for smaller pieces.

Given the FIA has been examining such things for the best part of a decade why has it only got one solution ready to go? And one that feels nothing like the final answer?

Yet even so the FIA has over recent years had a strange, and exclusive, attachment to the Halo as its cockpit protection answer. “Ever since the FIA first latched onto the concept, no other has genuinely been given a chance to prove itself,” said Will Buxton in the last few days. “The governing body pinned its colours to the mast in the very earliest iterations of Halo, and since then no other idea has had a look in.”

You could counter that alternatives like the shield are fairly new concepts, but so is the Halo, conceptualised by Mercedes only a couple of years back. While the fully enclosed cockpit (more of this anon) has been on the table from the start and yet years on has scarcely got beyond the artists’ impression stage. It has not been tested in anger as far as we can tell.

Another problem outlined by Buxton is when the FIA postponed the Halo’s introduction last year it said “that another year of development could result in an even more complete solution.” Yet what has there been since? Again nothing we’re aware of.

An auxiliary point too is that if the arguments in favour of the Halo are so plain – last year after a FIA presentation on its safety benefits the air was rich of virtually all drivers being converted – then why has the FIA only been able to convince one team to back it? At the very least it doesn’t reflect well on the body’s PR skills.

Yet the biggest problem is that the Halo seems in any case like an interim and partial solution. And taking this to a logical conclusion I’ve been of the view for a while that the final answer to this is the fully enclosed F1 cockpit. So why not put all efforts behind developing that rather than halfway houses?

As Buxton for one has noted every F1 concept car of the future it seems has a closed cockpit, and I don’t know about you but I think they look pretty good. Presumably it’d be hard to make the ‘wuss’ argument against them too given that would have to apply also to fighter pilots.

Why bother have [just] this nod to it being open cockpit? If you want to have a shield then why not fully enclose it? - Edd Straw

Yet as noted the F1 closed cockpit over a period of years barely has got off the runway in design and development. Maybe it reflects the attachment to F1 as an ‘open cockpit formula’, a resistance illustrated by Edd Straw observing that the shield seems a full cockpit canopy only with a hole cut in the top serving to keep the sport nominally open cockpit.

“Why bother have [just] this nod to it being open cockpit?,” asked Straw, “if you want to have a shield then why not fully enclose it?”

“They want to have a closed cockpit solution without going closed cockpit,” Anderson added.

I am cynical generally about ‘what F1 is’ claims, and my cynicism lingers with open cockpits. We’ve all seen the Protos F2 machine from the 1960s with its bubble cockpit and slit for the driver to peer through. McLaren also tested something like it, hoping for an aerodynamic benefit, in 1985. F1’s core principles contain very little other than cars racing each other to get to the end of a set distance first.

Anderson summed the matter up. “I think they should pause the whole thing and decide once and for all, do you want to stay open cockpit i.e. as we are? Or do we want to go properly closed cockpit for safety reasons and then come up with a serious, credible, proper solution, that can take Formula One in that direction?

“And stop having this half-arsed approach when you try to please all camps because it never works.”

Details about a closed cockpit would need to be resolved – vision, speed of extraction, what happens if fumes or similar get into the cockpit, and not least what happens when it rains… But these presumably are solvable; WEC has licked most of them, as have those who design fighter planes.

And as the sage Anthony Davidson has explained, all of the solutions will have downsides (and that applies to doing nothing as well) so it is a matter of balancing off considerations. Maybe even of taking the least worst option.

Not for the first time it seems a matter for deciding a direction and committing to it. But also not for the first time, it seems F1 falters at such moments.


500
Leave a comment...