The FIA is set to conduct closed cockpit tests next month, according to a report from Motorsport.com’s F1 editor Jonathan Noble.
In the last seven or eight years, there have been increased instances of drivers’ helmets being hit by debris in open-cockpit cars. Henry Surtees lost his life in a Formula 2 race, hit by a loose wheel in 2009, and most recently Justin Wilson has lost his life after being struck by an errant nosecone Sunday in the latest IndyCar race at Pocono.
There was Jules Bianchi’s striking a crane, going underneath that, in his accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix that ultimately claimed his life this July.
Felipe Massa (hit in the helmet by a spring during the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix weekend) and James Hinchcliffe (hit in the helmet by, ironically, a piece of debris of Wilson’s car in the 2014 Grand Prix of Indianapolis) have also been struck, although both have recovered. Massa is active once again in F1 after returning to action beginning with the 2010 season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, while Hinchcliffe resumed a little more than a week after his accident and raced in the 2014 Indianapolis 500.
Previous approaches have been tried – including a fighter jet cockpit approach – but been deemed too unsafe as either the polycarbonate cover would shatter, or debris would fly higher and pose a threat to fans or track workers.
As it is, debris has flown quite a bit in IndyCar this year, particularly with the introduction of manufacturer aero kits which see a higher number of aero appendages added to the base Dallara DW12 chassis.
FIA technical director and Formula 1 race director Charlie Whiting told Autosport in a separate report that given all the work the FIA has done for years, there eventually needs to be a way forward to see an enhanced form of cockpit protection.
“We have put in a huge amount of time, effort and research into this project, which has not been easy, in fact bloody hard,” Whiting told Autosport.
“But I can definitely see the day when this will happen. One day there will be something that will decrease a driver’s risk of injury.”
Pocono race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay pondered what could happen during the post-race press conference.
“So, you know, these cars are inherently dangerous with the open cockpit like that, head exposed. Maybe in the future we can work towards some type of — we’ve seen some concept renderings of something that resemble as canopy, not a full jet fighter canopy, but something that can give us a little protection but keep the tradition of the sport,” Hunter-Reay said.
Hunter-Reay has noted that INDYCAR has made some good safety advances in the past, notably the creation of the SAFER Barrier which debuted at the 2002 Indianapolis 500.
“Credit to the Verizon IndyCar Series and everybody involved. We’re always looking at ways to make this sport safer. First we had the innovation with the SAFER Barrier. Oval tracks in general we need to start looking into the next 20 years, maybe making the walls a little bit higher. Maybe coming up with something a little bit better than just mesh fencing and poles.
“But, we need to start moving forward on it. And INDYCAR has always been at the forefront of safety. I give them a lot of credit for that.
“When it comes to open-wheel cars, open-wheel is an open cockpit, always has been. But there’s been some renderings of almost like a boomerang looking device in front of the driver that wouldn’t block the vision but would deflect something like this.
“There’s been many renderings I’ve seen. Unfortunately it’s only natural that when there is a situation like this, a dire situation, that breeds innovation. You know, it’s unfortunate, but I think that’s the way life is in general. I think that’s the way everything works.”
NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell also expressed his personal desire for canopies when reflecting on Wilson’s life and career during a Monday night interview on NASCAR AMERICA.
There will be drivers who may not prefer a closed-cockpit future, and that’s to be expected – nothing is unanimous.
However it appears the time has come when the discussion stage looks set to move to an action stage.