The astonishing crash at the start of the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix highlighted the ever-burning question, should F1 have cockpit canopies? Since Henry Surtees’ tragic death and Felipe Massa’s serious accident, both in 2009, the FIA has stepped up its research on cockpit canopies, culminating in a test of a canopy vs. an F1 tire travelling at 225km/h to test its worth. As of now, there is no indication that we are on the verge of seeing them introduced, but yet it was only a few inches that saved Fernando Alonso from certain death.
And with both pundits and fans split on whether or not a canopy should be introduced, we take a look at both sides of the argument.
A Pro is quite obviously that it would be safer. The way an F1 car is designed means that if a car should get airborne and land upside down, the drivers head should be nowhere near the ground, a la Mark Webber’s skyward journey in Valencia. But yet, Felipe Massa’s head was completely exposed when a stray Brawn spring hurtled down the track towards him. Although not killed, he did miss the rest of the season while recovering from the serious accident.
A strip is now placed above the top of the visor in an attempt to deflect any spare wheel nuts from the weak point of the helmet, around the visor. Yet, a small strip on the helmet would do nothing to help a driver should a tire or a car come towards his head. A cockpit canopy, similar to that of a fighter jet, would send any stray car parts safely away from the driver. Similarly, any car mounting another car (remember Schumacher and Liuzzi in Abu Dhabi 2010), would end in a relatively happy outcome, with both drivers walking away.
On the other hand, there are numerous cons associated with cockpit canopies.
Fires are one big danger with cockpit canopies. Currently, a driver must be able to get out of the car in under 8 seconds, or he will not be allowed to race. And the reason behind this is simple; If a car explodes as a result of a fire, and the driver can’t get out of the car quickly enough, it could have serious consequences. Remember for example, Nick Heidfeld in 2011. The German had two scary experiences, one being in Catalunya, the other being in Hungary. If Heidfeld had still been in his car in Hungary before the sidepod blew out, he could have had very serious injuries.
A cockpit canopy would provide two risks with a fire. On one hand, could a driver really remove his seatbelt, open a cockpit canopy, and jump safely from the car in eight seconds? And what would happen if the cockpit failed to open, creating a furnace, leaving the driver trapped in a fiery car until help arrived, which would be a lot longer than eight seconds. KERS can fail, DRS can fail, a gearbox can fail and a cockpit is no exception.
A flip could also be tragic. As I have mentioned already, a car is designed to protect a driver should the car land upside down, But if the same thing happens with a cockpit canopy, could it prevent the canopy from opening. Picture the scene. Mark Webber in 2010 is racing down the straight in Valencia with a cockpit canopy on his car. A miscommunication between himself and Heikki Kovalainen sees the Aussie launched into the air, before landing upside down and swiveling into a barrier.
Imagine the difficulties Dr. Gary Hartstein would’ve faced. Presumably with the cockpit pinned to the ground, Mark would’ve been unable to open it himself. A rescue team would have to very carefully turn the car the right way around before they could do anything. Then what happens? As Gary Hartstein told me, “I was the person responsible for pulling people out of cockpits, and the less I’d have to worry about to get them out, the better I like it. A car with a canopy on its roof poses potential problems.” Would it take longer to remove a damaged cockpit? All in all, the extraction time for an injured driver would take far longer than ideal.
A car crashing into barriers could provide yet another risk. Heikki Kovalainen suffered a very serious crash when a puncture sent him into the gravel and straight under a barrier, in Spain 2008. The crash was so severe and the car was sent so far under the barrier, that all one could see of his McLaren was the roll bar and the rear wing. Eventually, the emergency crews pulled Heikki from his car. But had he been running with a canopy, he would’ve had to wait until a crane could arrive to pull the car from the barriers, before work could start on extracting him. If he had suffered any serious injuries, this would’ve been far too long a wait.
As for the crash in Belgium 2012, a cockpit canopy isn’t really needed for that. The issue you have to address, is cars getting launched. In the words of Dr. Gary Hartstein, “ I think if we can avoid cars getting launched, and I think the physics and mechanics of that are very close to being very well understood by the engineers who work for the FIA institute. That’s going to avoid a lot of things like the Fernando/Romain thing that happened.”
Essentially, cockpit canopies would provide more risks than they would get rid of. You’re never going to eliminate every conceivable risk from motorsport; racing has always been, and will always be dangerous and there are steps being taken to reduce risk. As for canopies? It’s not the solution Formula One needs.
By Ben Sweeney. Follow him on twitter @BenSweeneyF1