Whiting’s ‘red herring’ will cost F1 lives

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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.

alonso crash

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.

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52 responses to “Whiting’s ‘red herring’ will cost F1 lives

  1. Tell my why the Fia wec series can have these so called slow zones at Le mans which work perfectly with just less than 60 cars on the track, all of different speeds capable. Even when it’s a bigger track there are always a bigger spread of cars than in f1. And f1 can’t get it to work. When f1 is also relegated by Fia.

    • 100% agree. The VSC was always a bad idea. Slow zones are a no brainer. The WEC use them on the F1 circuits aswell and they work exactly as intended, so there is no issue whatsoever. A circuit map is published during the course of the weekend clearly displaying where the zones are. It’s clear cut, concise, and effective.
      The only issue seems to be with people who don’t understand how they work.

  2. “The contact with the driver’s head in that particular incident was absolutely minimal”….

    Is the aim of the device, to prevent any form of contact to the drivers head at all? so to just pass it off as just being ‘normal’ is rather ridiculous as that ‘minimal’ contact can still cause severe damage to someone, especially from a projectile travelling at such a speed.

      • Like we saw with Bianchi’s accident. It’s rather callous for the sports safety delegate to say such a thing, if anything he should’ve been very concerned that contact was made, because that means the device has failed at it’s intended purpose.

        As for the video, not many people realized that there was contact with the helmet, i surely didn’t until i saw SomersF1 tweet about it and i went back and slowed down the video saw it, and it didn’t just look like ‘minmal contact’

        • I fully agree and I am not so sure a halo/canopy or shield would have saved JB, from the photos the top roll bar and intake was pretty much destroyed and the whole truck lifted and shifted as he wedged under the counter weight so the rushed safety binge just doesnt add up,the only way to stop that one was to limit heavy trucks to the roads not a bloody race track. 10tonne of steel hitting carbon fibre..something had to give and sadly we know the outcome

          • the carbon fibre was the thing hitting the 10tonnne of steel and not the other way round, and that was mostly as a cause of the carbon fibre totally ignoring the safety car yellow lights.

  3. “Enclosing F1 cockpits for many is fixing a problem that doesn’t really have much of a risk profile…”
    Well, you cannot accuse them of inconsistency, they have been fixing things that aren’t broken for ages now, no? 😉

    Have fun 🙂

  4. For the sake of parity, I think it would be fruitful to have an article that for once supports the idea or at least sees it in a more positive light. I think we have had several articles about the ‘against’ position and these have nearly overturned my initial reaction the initial idea. Now I start to think maybe it’s not the best idea.

    But I would welcome the ‘other’ position too.

    …and do not reply ‘you write it then’! Just sharing a proposal.

    • I totally agree. When I first heard about the idea I wasn’t too bothered either way but thought improving safety couldn’t be a bad thing, but since I’ve read so many negative articles I too am now starting to feel like it’s not a great idea. I would love to see something clearly laying out the positives as well as the negatives, I would also love to see some more in depth driver opinions.

  5. I may be unusual in this but when I watch F1 racing I see the car. I may vaguely notice the driver but it is the car and what it is doing that I watch. It is nice to see the various on-car and close-up cameras showing the driver now and then but these could be made to work the same whether we had a closed cockpit or not.

    To me, if they are going to do it, go fully enclosed cockpit rather than some daft half-way house. I suspect it will have something approaching zero effect on the appeal of the sport to the public, provided the racing is good. That tends to be what fans want after all.

  6. Has anyone taken into account that any ‘bit and pieces’ added to the cars will mostly fall off in an accident, look at Indy Cars now covered in wheel guards etc. The more clearing needed, means any Safety car will be out even longer than they are now, also didn’t Costin develope an enclosed cockpit for British F3 back in the late 60’s, I wondered what happened to that?

  7. What i find misleading is this repetitious mantra of ‘F1 DNA’ rubbish. i have been watching F1 since inception and there have been many and varied changes over that time. to suggest that it is tantamount to ‘enclosed’ cockpits it not only stupid but erroneous. the cars cockpits are still ‘open’ !!!!! the screen is a no brainer and whiting confirmed that ricciardo had no problem with exiting the cockpit within the allowable time limit. i fully support the idea of the screen and suggest that it actually improves the looks of the car as an additional benefit. as for some people who say that what happens if a car catches fire? the screen may actually save a life as it could prevent the fire actually getting to the driver in time to allow the righting of the car and the drivers extraction. to cap that off, when was the last time we saw an F1 car actually on fire as a result of an accident?

        • The same thing did happen when they banned open cars in wec. Somehow people love open cars in racing…

        • Important note. There have been canopies and windscreens tried before, generally discarded when the team discovered it didn’t make the cars any faster. The era we currently experience is all a reaction to Imola. Up until then safety was viewed differently but the FIA became concerned about EU interference and subsequently each and every change will have safety as part of discussion.

      • The DNA of F1 is speed, always has been and always be. Doesn’t matter if you have open cockpits or enclosed cockpits racing at 200+mph is always going to mean you risk serious injury or death if things go catastrophically wrong. All you can do is minimise the risk. What the FIA needs is some fresh thinking from younger engineers and other experts on safety measures. Not the old boys club.

        The desire to go faster is what drives the evolution of F1 car design. Otherwise we’d still have the cars of the 1960’s and not the carbon fibre composite cars of today with the associated aerodynamic technologies. I think it’s fairly clear given the concept images from Red Bull, McLaren and so on that enclosed cockpits is where the teams will likely want to go, given the aerodynamic benefits of enclosed cockpits. They won’t of course say that in public. They’ll grumble about it, but ultimately accept it for performance gains.

        Though tbh F1 has a lot of safety issues to contend with. I do think the day is coming when the FIA, FOM and the teams will have to deal with the issue of concussions like other sports are doing at the moment. There always seems to be a pressure on drivers to get back into the cockpit even after low or high speed accidents without giving the brain time to recover properly.

        • This is really the crux of the situation. Of course the engineers want closed cockpits because of the enormous aerodynamic gains, but if it can be slipped in under the guise of ‘safety’ then it can’t be outlawed.
          I have no doubt that F1 cars will eventually look like the RB concept and McLaren copy of that concept. They’ll probably be electric too.
          My arguments against closed cockpits are:
          1. The current designs wouldn’t have actually preveneted the death of JB.
          2. Why is F1 introducing this when it was actually other formulas where lives were lost due to head injury?
          3. What part of open-wheel open-cockpit do people not understand?

          If this is going to happen then retire the F1 brand and make it an historic racing class (or would that be banned too?)

      • hello judge, no, i wouldn’t necessarily object to having fully enclosed cockpits but i don’t see why, ATM, that would be necessary. the aeroscreen is perhaps the best of both worlds as it provides very good protection and stays with the ‘openness’ that seems to be a problem for a lot of people. what we’ve seen so far is a prototype and given the opportunity to finesse this concept i do believe that it will look great. TBH….i lived through the periods where we lost so many drivers that it seemed to never end. i wasn’t a pleasant time. if, as ricciardo says, if it saves one life then it has all been worthwhile. despite the added screen F1 is still a very dangerous sport.

    • It strikes me that a canopy would slow escape from the car, especially if upside down, and prevent it if resting on the canopy. In case of fire, that could mean a dead driver. IIRC, fuel is all behind the driver now, and I don’t see a canopy or screen preventing the fire from getting to the driver.

      • @ sam L…..there is no canopy. there is a screen. a canopy is ,in this sense, a fully enclosed space..or
        at least an overhead cover.

    • Just a query about the screen and driver’s visibility, what about all the debris thrown up during a race? Oil,tyre rubber,insects.

        • Rain doesn’t stick with the proper coating, the same could be said about helmets. But other debris is an issue. Helmets have tear offs, you cant have a screen have a tear off, so now we will have another pit crew person to clean the windshield, making pits more dangerous, and then there is screen glare…

  8. If and it’s a big if the FIA are truly bothered about drivers safety and not just their insurance premiums neither of these driver protection devices are any use. While they may stop a wheel striking the driver from the front of the device they wont make much difference to tryes/other cars from a side impact!
    While none of us want to see drivers hurt the proposed solutions won’t make enough difference to the actual dangers involved in F1 racing.
    Marshals and trackside vehicles seem to be the most dangerous and the cheapest to solve!!! The VSC needs to automatically reduce all car speeds to pit lane speed through out the lap. At least that way all drivers have no choice on speed and no one is disadvantaged. OK so it wouldn’t help with wheels/cars hitting the driver but how many deaths would be avoided by the proposed solutions?
    FIA need to deal with the biggest threat to all people involved in F1 not just drivers heads!

    • That is a good point. With all this technology, just have VSC turn on a 50 mph limiter on the car that all cars have to enforce. Simple solution that takes away driver interaction as well, so less trying to find out who is cheating the system.

      • the rules does not permit two was telemetry between cars and pit/race control, if it was permitted it would amount to controlling the cars from the pits/race control, the question asked should have been why drivers were totally ignoring safety car yellow lights.

        • Since they all use the same McLaren produced ECU’s, it could work by programming such a function that’s only accessible by race stewards.

          • yes I know that it will work by programing the ECU, being of the same make or not, but that will amount to controlling the cars on track by remote control from race control, and all this just because the drivers chose to breach/ignore the safety car lights speed limit.

        • It appears you are saying it is possible to change the rules, to allow for new head protection measures, but impossible to change the rules so as to allow for automatic speed control under VSC. Or did I misunderstand?

          • Isn’t this the FIA being their usual useless selves. They will happily impose new rules to force the use of head protection, of dubious benefit and which few people want. But fail to update existing technology which would force speed reduction when the VSC is used. A technology that would almost certainly make it safer for drivers and which could well have prevented the death of Jules Bianchi.

          • the dead of Jules Bianchi could have been avoided if the safety car yellow lights had been respect instead of abused.

  9. Interesting article. F1 history is always muddied in some way to deflect from the real issue and cause debate.
    A 10 tonne tractor is stupidly deployed on the track for ‘safety reasons’, but it’s presence results in the death of a diver. The obvious solution: Introduce head protection that can deflect a 20kg F1 wheel, almost…

    BTW, the line, ‘Bugatti’s introduction of the mid-engined cars (seen on 1930’s Porsches)’ should actually read, ‘Porsche’s design of the mid-engined cars (used by 1930’s Auto Unions)’. Just trying to keep the history a little more intact…

    • “Bugatti introduction of the mid-engine cars seen in 1930”.
      it is much better to say nothing when one have nothing to say!

          • The article writer.., in the second paragraph…
            The example was used to demonstrate that F1 has continually evolved throughout the years. However, it would have had more validity if:
            A. It was actually correct
            B. F1 had actually existed in the 1930’s

  10. I’ve said it for years and I still say it now: Charlie Whiting needs to retire. He is useless and incompetent who is only in the job because of the old boys club. He is weak when it comes to putting his foot down on FIA policies and wasn’t even him who suggested the new qualifying format? Seriously, give him and good pension package and get someone younger like Wurz to take his place. He has had this time. Its time to leave Whiting…you know it!

    • Why did Whiting permit the race to start/go ahead at that particular time?, Whiting is not actually “useless and incompetent” he is part of the Bernie “strategy” inside the FIA exactly like most of the media F1 accreditation is.

  11. The solution is simple. F1 must go CGI.
    Virtual racing will eliminate risk entirely, other than that posed to programmers existing on an unhealthy diet of pizza and coffee. With a little ingenuity (plentiful in F1 circles, other than at the highest management level) it should be possible to elevate the cost of virtual-reality competition to at least the same level as the current series, thereby meeting the needs of the many interested parties. Such a solution would also enable the immediate inclusion of previously under-represented elements (women, transgender persons, inhabitants of under-developed regions, the differently-abled etc) thereby meeting “diversity” requirements which so far have been scandalously neglected.

  12. Am I alone in not considering F1 to be particularly dangerous in the first place?

    That’s not to take the risks involved in F1 lightly, but there are other sports out there that put F1 in the shade for extremity and repeat wow factor, for mine.

    I often think that MotoGP riders and the dudes in the big-wave riding scene definitely have bollocks the size of space hoppers, frinstance. I rarely get that “holy f moly!” feel from F1, especially in more recent times.

  13. So the 20kg wheel & tyre get deflected away from the driver. Good stuff so far. Now where do they go? I deflection is not an obliteration. The 20kg is now on a different (and more upwards) trajectory to………. – what goes up……..

  14. To my mind, the incident that any future safety improvements should be addressing is the Grosjean Alonso La Source incident in, I think, 2012?

  15. g*d d*mn, isn’t this f**king racing? Isn’t is supposed to involve risks? Go watch a MotoGP race and tell me how much protection those guys have. They are doing way more insane things (like lean angle down to the elbow) than F1 is any more.

    I want to be clear: I don’t want to see any driver die in F1 on the track. But we must accept that this sport, like many other things in life, is not without risk, and whilst we should minimize those risks to an acceptable extent, we should also not go overboard. I will make a simple analogy; it would be possible but cost-prohibitive to put ejection seats and parachutes on every passenger airplane. It would probably save many lives. But yet we don’t do it because the costs are too high. We accept the risk of flying in a plane, and live with it.

    Can we NOT accept the fact that the drivers have CHOSEN this profession, and therefore ASSUMED the risk?

  16. well what’s the problem with RB riot screen ? for sure Fer halo wouldn’t have done any good in Massa’s case but neater and fine tuned a bit smaller riot shield of RB would! And it would look as nice and cool as that of 70’s McLaren’s for instance. As for Bianchi’s accident no kind of shield would have stood – that was just absolute idiotism to bring those excavators on the track and the same in different way applies to an fatal accident in Canada when Guttie’s car was being evacuated – what shield you want for this ? Proper an many enough CRANES with long enough reach are needed to clear stranded cars without going onto track by fair distance. Yes, they are far more expensive but F1 is expensive in first place! And how much is Bianchi’s and that Marshall’s life?

  17. I have just found the new system proposed by the FIA, the Halo and screen failed in a number of key areas which the new system hopes to eliminate

    The new/radical design will prevent the car from toppling over if it becomes involved in any altercation on track while allowing the driver to enhance their visibility.
    The futuristic construction complies with current environment thinking and only uses carbon neutral materials while it’s integrated crash structure will provide above industry standard deflection.
    I can only hope that the design is given the same thought and support it deserves

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