Analysis: Why cockpit changes should not be rushed

Justin Wilson's fatal accident has led to calls to act quickly to improve cockpit safety but, as Kate Walker explains, knee-jerk reactions are not the solution.

Analysis: Why cockpit changes should not be rushed
Red Bull Racing RB10 of Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing in parc ferme with leopard print cockpit seat
FIA closed cockpit testing
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 HANS device and helmet
Scuderia Toro Rosso STR10 engine cover and cockpit detail
HANS device
Helmets of Stéphane Sarrazin and Jacques Villeneuve
The helmet of Pastor Maldonado, Lotus F1 Team with a tribute to Jules Bianchi
Justin Wilson tribute
Justin Wilson, Andretti Autosport Honda
Stirling Moss in Fangio's car
Max Mosley, FIA President
Detail view of the cockpit of Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W05 cockpit screen detail
Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing takes a look inside the cockpit of the Mercedes AMG F1 W04 of Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 in qualifying parc ferme. 06.07.2013. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 9, German Grand Prix, Nurburgring, Germany, Qualifying Day. -

The death of Justin Wilson last month has brought cockpit protection to the attention of the general public, and has led to calls for the immediate introduction of a solution, any solution.

While this knee-jerk call for action is entirely understandable from an emotional perspective, safety solutions rely on science, on research, on concrete evidence if they are to be truly effective.

Despite the age old example of the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady rarely wins the race. But when it comes to the race to improve driver safety, slow and steady is the only way to go.

The concept of cockpit protection is nothing new. While active research into the possibility of fighter jet-style canopies, deflective blades, haloes, and forward-facing roll hoops has been ongoing since the 2009 accidents of Henry Surtees and Felipe Massa, a quick look at the evolution of cockpit design since the early days of motor-racing shows that it has long been a consideration.

At the beginning of the 20th century, grand prix racing was no stranger to the deaths of riding mechanics flung out of cockpits in the event of accidents or particularly vigorous cornering. The practice was banned in Europe in 1924, following the death of Tom Barrett in Spain.

In the early days of Formula 1, drivers clad in optional leather helmets raced with their upper torsos exposed and absolutely no protection worth mentioning. Footage of Juan Manuel Fangio putting the Maserati 250F through its paces at Modena in 1957 shows the Argentine clad only in a tee-shirt, goggles, and open-faced helmet.

Steady improvements

Over the years, the walls of the cockpits climbed higher and personal protective equipment became mandatory, from fire-proof racing overalls to full-face helmets which have themselves evolved in response to accidents and fatalities. We have seen the introduction of the HANS device and the cockpit survival cell, both technologies developed to protect drivers from what were once common injuries.

The increased focus on driver safety in Formula 1 from the 1960s onwards - spearheaded first by Jackie Stewart, and then accelerated by then-FIA president Max Mosley in the wake of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix - was not welcomed with open arms.

Stewart's attempts at improving circuit safety met with resistance among his own colleagues, while fans were not shy of complaining that increased cockpit protection diminished their ability to see their heroes as they wrestled with their wheels.

Where once upright drivers raced with their torsos exposed, today we see the bump of a helmet peeking above high cockpit walls. But the move from Fangio's fully open cockpit of the 1950s to the low-slung well-protected drivers we see today has been a slow one.

The HANS device now in common use was first designed in the early 1980s, but it was not until 1994 that it was first considered for widespread use in Formula 1. HANS use in F1 was made mandatory in 2003, nearly a decade after the FIA first showed an interest.

HANS example

The 10-year delay was the result of extensive testing. Despite the twin tragedies of Imola 1994, the Federation was loath to make any changes that were not conclusively proven to have a positive effect on driver safety.

Once the efficacy of the HANS device had been proven, the FIA met with significant resistance to its introduction from the very drivers it was designed to protect.

"If you get the old literature out from when they introduced crash helmets and when they introduced seat belts, all the same arguments are there," Mosley said in 2003.

"They said 'It's uncomfortable, it's impossible, I can't drive with this, this is ridiculous, I don't need this.' A lot of people said 'You need to be thrown clear, you shouldn't have seatbelts in a racing car'.

"We don't like interfering with anything but it's been pointed out also by a lot of the drivers that if you don't make it compulsory, nobody will wear it."

HANS devices are now part of the F1 furniture, and finding a current driver who objects to their use would be a struggle. Initial resistance to its introduction was soon silenced by the unignorable proof of its effectiveness, something that was only possible thanks to the reams of data resulting from the years of research conducted.

At present, the FIA is six years into researching the next level of driver protection inside the cockpit.

That the FIA has yet to mandate any form of closed cockpit or deflective device is not because the Federation is slow to act on safety. Far from it.

The past six years (and counting) of research into improved cockpit protection has seen the steady consideration, testing, and dismissal of options which, while effective on first sight, could not be proven to be any better than what we have at present.

Slow and steady wins the race to safety, even if that race becomes more marathon than sprint.

shares
comments
Old Ferrari regime to thank for F1 form, claims ex-designer

Previous article

Old Ferrari regime to thank for F1 form, claims ex-designer

Next article

Wolff wary of downsides of Red Bull tie-up

Wolff wary of downsides of Red Bull tie-up
Load comments
Why the end is nigh for F1’s most dependable design tool Prime

Why the end is nigh for F1’s most dependable design tool

Wind tunnel work forms the bedrock of aerodynamic development in Formula 1. But as Pat Symonds explains, advances in virtual research are signalling the end of these expensive and complicated relics.

Why Mosley’s legacy amounts to far more than tabloid rumour Prime

Why Mosley’s legacy amounts to far more than tabloid rumour

The newspapers, naturally, lingered over Max Mosley’s tainted family history and niche sexual practices. But this is to trivialise the legacy of a big beast of motor racing politics. Stuart Codling weighs the life of a man whose work for safety on both road and track has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but whose penchant for cruelty remains problematic and polarising.

Formula 1
Jun 12, 2021
Why pragmatic Perez isn't fazed by no-nonsense Red Bull F1 culture Prime

Why pragmatic Perez isn't fazed by no-nonsense Red Bull F1 culture

Sergio Perez has spent most of his career labouring in Formula 1’s midfield, wondering whether he’d ever get another shot at the big time. Red Bull has handed him that chance and, although life at the top is tough, the Baku winner is doing all the right things to get on terms with Max Verstappen, says BEN ANDERSON

Formula 1
Jun 11, 2021
What the data tells us about the F1 2021 title fight Prime

What the data tells us about the F1 2021 title fight

Formula 1 has been tracking car performance using timing loops mounted every 200m around each circuit – to the extent that it was able to anticipate Ferrari’s 'surprise’ pole in Monaco. PAT SYMONDS explains what this means for this season and beyond

Formula 1
Jun 10, 2021
The weighty issue F1 needs to find a balance with Prime

The weighty issue F1 needs to find a balance with

OPINION: After consecutive street races with contrasting highlights, one theme stood out which has become a prevalent issue with modern Formula 1 cars. But is there a way to solve it or, at least, reach a happy middle ground to help all parties?

Formula 1
Jun 10, 2021
The changes behind a 'feel-good' F1 result in Baku Prime

The changes behind a 'feel-good' F1 result in Baku

OPINION: The Azerbaijan Grand Prix had elements that make Formula 1 really exciting – unpredictability and shock results. This resulted in heartbreak for several of the championship’s regular contenders and joy for others who rarely reach the ultimate limelight. And one of those on the Baku podium is riding a wave of form he’s keen to continue

Formula 1
Jun 9, 2021
The human cost to replacing Formula 1's cancelled rounds Prime

The human cost to replacing Formula 1's cancelled rounds

OPINION: With the global pandemic still lingering, Singapore's grand prix has been cancelled for 2021, with more looking likely to follow. Although Formula 1 has TV deals and profits to chase, retaining a 23-race calendar could be most harmful to those who sacrifice the most for the championship.

Formula 1
Jun 8, 2021
Azerbaijan Grand Prix Driver Ratings Prime

Azerbaijan Grand Prix Driver Ratings

An eventful weekend in Baku full of incident and drama lent the race result an unusual feel, as three drivers scored their first podiums of the year. But it wasn't the eventual race winner who scored top marks in our driver ratings

Formula 1
Jun 7, 2021