Formula One throughout its 65 year history has evolved greatly from the 1950 racing beasts with engines in the front and little but a single sheet of A4 in the way of design regulations.
The sport has always been about doing whatever it takes to win and this has meant pushing the automotive technological boundaries year on year. Whilst there have been many ‘major’ advances in F1 cars, the biggies were Bugatti’s introduction of the mid-engine cars (seen on 1930’s Porsches), the Lotus monocoque chassis and the aero foils of the late 1960’s.
Through it all there are certain aspects of Formula One, which have never changed and define the sport throughout its history. F1 cars have always been open wheel and open cockpit, which sets them apart from the other world prototype racing series, the WEC – where in the highest class of racing the cars are closed wheel and closed cockpit.
F1 is split at present over the proposed introduction of what in essence will result in a closed cockpit. Two solutions are on offer, the Halo and the Red Bull windscreen, which Lewis Hamilton described, as “crappy” and looking like a “police riot shield”. The merits of each can be discussed ad nauseam, but the real question is whether semi or fully closing the cockpits is a change to Formula One’s fundamental essence?
Since Jules Bianchi’s tragic accident in Suzuka, the FIA has appeared to find a renewed verve in advancing safety in F1. The virtual safety car has been introduced, though due to some inexplicable reason it does not function as proposed. The concept for the VSC was to slow the cars equally for a small section of the circuit affected by an incident and then allow them to race full speed for the rest of the lap.
What we actually have now is an average sector time VSC, which means the cars are not restricted to an identical speed through a small portion of the circuit under caution and, in fact, the drivers can decide in which part of any sector they put the hammer down and where they compensate and drive slowly. This was evident at last year’s British GP when Lewis Hamilton was the first on the scene of a stricken Toro Rosso. Marshalls were removing the car and under the VSC, Hamilton was still close to full racing speed.
There is no indication from the FIA that there is a fix on the horizon for the original VSC solution and the big focus on safety has now switched to the drivers’ heads.
The arguments for and against enclosing the cockpits of F1 cars have raged back and forth for a number of years now and the latest objection being debated was whether drivers would struggle – or take longer – to extract themselves (or be extracted) from a stricken vehicle following an accident.
Charlie Whiting, the FIA F1 safety delegate and race director is not concerned about this. “Teams will develop systems to make it easier for drivers to get out,” he argues. “But if we eventually needed to add a couple of seconds to the time required to get out, I think that would be a small price to pay for the added protection for the driver’s head.”
It’s all about balancing risk. Life and F1 racing will never be risk free and each action designed to improve safety will create consequences, which may also affect the risk profile of the sport.
Red Bull Racing released a test video of their windscreen during the weekend of the Chinese GP and this revealed a tyre was still capable of brushing the driver’s helmet. Whiting is not concerned: “The helmet is not fixed in those tests – it’s basically sat on a couple of pegs which locate it,” he said. “The contact with the driver’s head in that particular incident was absolutely minimal.
“But no safety device is going to cover every accident. We know that. That’s a fact of life”.
And this surely is the point. When a fundamental change to the essence of Formula One is under consideration, the risk profile must be properly considered. Given the hundred millions or so of kilometres driven by F1 cars since Ayrton Senna’s death, is addressing Felipe Massa’s accident – which many argue is the only instance where the Halo or aeroscreen would have made any difference to a driver’s safety – really necessary? The price being paid will be to remove the driver even further from the fans’ view and possibly decrease further the numbers of the viewing public.
Rick Ganan on twitter believes the FIA’s current high profile agenda on further enclosing the cockpits finds its source in Suzuka 2014. “This isn’t being done because of Felipe’s incident. It is only to cover the guilt of Charlie Whiting & Jean Todt over Suzuka: Having allowed the race to continue when it should have been stopped! They have blood on their hands!”
Of course neither the aeroscreen or the Halo would have saved Bianchi from his terrible injuries given the forces at play, but questions remain about the competence of Formula One’s safety delegate following that fateful day in Japan. Given the options available to Charlie Whiting to enhance safety in F1, it appears there are quicker wins to be had over issues with a far higher risk profile than open racing cockpits.
Fixing the VSC to operate as intended would be one, this would be beneficial to marshalls working on a live circuit and would ensure drivers are never on the same section of track, at near-racing speeds, as heavy lifting equipment which caused the loss of Bianchi’s life.
Engaging professional marshals to travel the world and make circuits safer so Jenson Button’s highly dangerous recent experience is not repeated.
The list goes on and you can again debate the others below.
Unfortunately, the inadequacy of the FIA enquiry following Bianchi’s crash and the complete lack of accountability being apportioned leads us to where we are now in F1. The person responsible for safety is clearly not up to the job because investing the amount of time and energy into enclosing F1 cockpits is risible given other obvious greater risks being run at present.
Enclosing F1 cockpits for many is fixing a problem that doesn’t really have much of a risk profile and if cockpits should be enclosed partly or fully then open wheel racing should definitely be banned as well. The interlocking/banging together of wheels during races causes more accidents than anything else. Reduce the number of accidents significantly and the possibility of flying debris hitting a helmet is reduced even further.
Of course this kind of statistical reasoning/analysis evades the FIA at present, because as Rick Ganan argues, their need to act is driven by something other than a risk analysis safety driven agenda. And by chasing the red herring, Charlie Whiting will again cost F1 lives.
Assuming only so many things can be done at a time to improve safety, the dollar spend per risk point reduction from enclosing cockpits is for many way out of line with a number of other options available which should now be pursued.