Safety in F1 – The ever moving target

Recent events at Spa have once again bought into question the safety aspect of Formula One, with many asking for the FIA to look into the use of closed cockpits. This however may not only be a question of safety but one of perception. Formula 1 has always been about open wheel and cockpit racing but has the time come to look into the option of closed cockpits in order to safeguard the stars who drive these cars?

Perception is something F1 has to work hard at to keep the sponsors interested and so anything that may harm the show will always be given a large consideration anyway. In the case of Closed Cockpits I can see things from both sides of the argument but inevitably if the FIA mandate it’s usage the fans, teams, drivers and sponsors alike will get used to it and F1 will continue to be the Formula it always has been.

Although fans are always looking to advocate safety in F1 they are also the first ones to jump up and down when circuits have mass run off area’s instead of gravel traps or car’s are designed with step noses even though it’s because it’s more aerodynamically efficient with the bulkhead needing to be higher for safety standards. Run off area’s are not used simply because there is the space for them they are a more efficient way of dealing with a car that is off line or out of control. Gravel Traps still remain a real threat with cars that approach them sideways as the car will most likely roll over. Most fans see run off area’s as a way of cars staying in a race but for me they a much safer alternative than gravel traps.

In 2011 the FIA institute tested 2 polycarbonate canopies in order to evaluate the effectiveness of deflection at high speed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-h6GHEEWR_U

Furthermore earlier this year the FIA institute tested a forward roll hoop http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgHh4V0WYCs this ungainly looking device although effective at deflecting a forward projectile, would most certainly impair the driver’s field of vision. It does however highlight the fact that the FIA are looking into measures to protect drivers further. The problem facing the FIA and TWG (Technical Working Group) is how far do you take head protection and how will it further impact other design aspects of the car?

  • With enclosed cockpits there are other pitfalls:
  • Driver extraction in a crash scenario
  • Field of Vision being distorted
  • Weather & Other Environmental Effects
  • Circulation of fresh air into the cockpit
  • Aerodynamic Influence

Many ask why not simply go for a halfway house and have an enlarged windscreen but these offer just the same complications seen with full cockpit enclosure and still leave part of the risk exposed.

The best halfway house interpretation I have seen was presented by Machin over on the www.F1Technical.net forum and uses both a carbon roll hoop and polycarbonate screen in order to deflect any debris/errant components. He goes on to explain that the canopy be hinged from the front of the cockpit when not in use but I’d go on to say that it could also be slid along the top of the bulkhead helping with extraction should the car end up overturned.

It could be argued that the largest risk to a driver’s head is a wheel striking their helmet and so the other plausible solution would be to investigate a wheel shroud that vastly reduces the chances of a wheel detaching. This however massively detracts from the Formula of open wheel racing and I personally would find this a bitter pill to swallow. Also worth noting is that inertia should decrease when a tyre deflates (reduction in mass) and so I’m left wondering why wheel/tyres are not intrinsically designed to deflate the tyre should a wheel become detached. This would also lead to the wheel / tyres loosing energy quicker as they bounce around the circuit making them less liable to cause an incident.

The one thing that is apparent to me is that when an accident ensues in F1 the kinetic energy of the car almost always results in the car taking off. We see this all the time when drivers get it wrong over kerbs or in the worse case like Mark Webber in 2011 the car actually flips over. Until the FIA / TWG find a way to regulate ways of decreasing this I see no reason to further look into closed cockpits. It’s like a buttered piece of toast will always land on the buttered side when dropped, an F1 car will always head skywards due to the engine weighting the rear of the car along with the aero being heavily attributed to the rear.

Due to the regulations cars flipping are now far less likely to end with a driver injury due to the geometry involved in height of the bulkhead and the airbox roll over bar which creates a buffer zone preventing a driver from their head being impacted. This has been seen to work on various occasions but none more drastically so than Robert Kubica’s accident at Montreal in 2007.

One things for certain, things that seem controversial now will seem imperative in 20 years time just look at the HANS device, once looked at with disdain you wouldn’t get a driver climbing aboard the car without one now. Safety in Motorsport is a multi faceted and complex scenario with cars, track design and even the drivers themselves always needing revision. When I think of safety in F1 it always brings to mind Jackie Stewart with a spanner taped to his steering wheel in case he got trapped in his car, knowing he needed to help himself as much as others did their job to help him.

To think that adding a canopy to F1 cars will make them safe is a fool hardy judgment and careful consideration and testing should be done before hastily adapting the cars. Afterall an accident cannot be planned for, otherwise it wouldn’t be an accident. The variables are so large that all that can be done is for the sport to reduce the risk on team & track personnel.

Author: Matthew Somerfield

Leave a Reply