With any tragedy in motor racing, there are always calls to improve safety. Now one of the biggest debates in racing has been reignited by the death of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson: whether to phase out the open cockpit race cars found in Formula One, IndyCar and similar series in favor of cars with closed cockpits.

Open cockpits have been a source of heated discussion for years, and after Wilson’s death from a head injury caused by loose race car debris, many are wondering: Are open cockpits just part of the risk drivers willingly take, or should racing series require more protection for drivers to prevent similar accidents in the future?

A Troubled History

Wilson’s accident is hardly the first of its kind — rather, it’s the latest in a long string of high profile injuries that resulted from drivers’ heads and bodies being exposed.

Advertisement

F1 driver Felipe Massa took a spring to the helmet in 2009, an injury that required life-saving surgery and a titanium plate in his skull. This led to improvements in open-cockpit series’ helmets with the FIA’s release of the 8860-2010 standard. Henry Surtees was less lucky that year, as he was killed by a loose wheel in a Formula Two race. That accident increased scrutiny on wheel tethers, leading F1 to add a second tether to their cars.

IndyCar in particular is still on edge from Dan Wheldon’s death in 2011. Wheldon went airborne after hitting another car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, flying into a catch fence around the oval track. He died from head injuries after his head slammed into a fence post.

Advertisement

In response, chassis builder Dallara named IndyCar’s next generation cars the DW12 in Wheldon’s honor, and incorporated several features into the design aimed at preventing single-seater accidents like Wheldon’s fatal crash.

More recently in the series, James Hinchcliffe suffered a concussion after being hit in the head by debris on track at last year’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Not all open-cockpit-related accidents involved loose debris on track. Maria de Villota’s Marussia Formula One car suddenly accelerated into the back of a truck in 2012, severely fracturing her skull in the process. While she initially survived and appeared to have recovered from the hit, she died less than a year later.

Last year, Jules Bianchi’s car crashed into a recovery vehicle at Suzuka, succumbing to severe head trauma nine months afterwards. In response, Formula One revised their yellow flag procedures and implemented a new virtual safety car system (among other things) to ensure that drivers remain under a certain speed while recovery vehicles are near the track.

There have also been several open cockpit close calls as well. One of the most memorable F1 wrecks this year was in Formula One when Fernando Alonso’s car went over Kimi Räikkönen’s cockpit, barely missing the Finnish driver.

Just last year in IndyCar, for example, Sebastián Saavedra had this frightening crash after stalling on the grid for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Carlos Muñoz hit Saavedra from behind. Saavedra spun from the hit and Mikhail Aleshin’s car went up and over the front of Saavedra’s car. That was by no means the only lucky close call for these series in recent history, either.

Advertisement

While injuries from such racing incidents are somewhat rare, they happen far more often than many in motorsports would prefer.

Why Stay Open?

For open-cockpit cars everywhere, the debate remains much the same as it has been.

Advertisement

Detractors maintain that a cockpit would make the cars heavier, impact the car’s aerodynamics and hinder driver visibility. Cockpit durability and the ability to escape in an emergency situation are other concerns often stated about closing the cockpit.

“Is a canopy a good idea?” retired driver Eddie Cheever told ESPN. “Immediately, you would say in this case, it’s a great idea. But again, you don’t know what the consequences will be. I’d hate to be in one of those canopies and it doesn’t open and the car catches fire or the canopy breaks apart. Nothing is that simple in racing.”

In an interview with Will Power from January, Racer’s David Malsher also mentions that “the purists would hate it” if the cockpits were closed, but that is by far the weakest of all the arguments put forth against any move to close or strengthen the driver’s cockpits in F1 or IndyCar.

The World Endurance Championship went to closed-cockpit prototypes a few years ago, and while there was an uproar at the time, most sportscar fans seem fine with the idea now. I too remember bemoaning the strange looks of the first closed-cockpit LMP1s at first, but now, it looks normal. Teams adjusted their designs not only to make the closed cockpits work, but work well.

Examining Closed Cockpits

After Bianchi’s crash, the FIA (who governs F1, but not IndyCar) once again examined the idea of closed cockpits. That wasn’t the first time the FIA had looked into it. In 2011, they did extensive testing on jet fighter style canopies and polycarbonate windscreens as possible solutions that could protect drivers’ upper bodies better than today’s open cockpit. Wheels were tossed at the canopies to see how they would hold up.

CNET detailed the tests with a video of wheels being lobbed at the two possible see-through means of protection, but reported that F1’s leadership still wasn’t sold on the idea at the time. Chief among Formula One’s concerns was the driver’s ability to escape in case of an accident, especially one that involved fire. The jet fighter canopy held up much better than the polycarbonate sheet, however, it was a big, bulky single piece that could be pinned shut in the case of an accident where a car flips.

Advertisement

Furthermore, they worried about objects deflecting off the canopies and into spectator areas given the way the tire bounced off of the jet fighter canopy. The thinner polycarbonate canopy fared worse, as it shattered on impact instead. Neither of those were possibilities that F1 wanted on track.

According to Motorsport.com, F1 teams have shied away from adding a canopy because many see open cockpits as part of the sport. It’s a risk that drivers and teams assume whenever they enter an open-cockpit series. But is it still an acceptable risk?

The FIA passed on the closed cockpit idea in 2011, but revisited it again in 2014 in the Accident Panel’s examination of Jules Bianchi’s crash. Once again, the accident that spawned the debate involved an intrusion into the open cockpit of the car, thus, closed cockpits became a popular idea among fans. However, Bianchi hit a recovery vehicle, not an errant piece of debris, and the FIA concluded, “It is not feasible to mitigate the injuries Bianchi suffered by either enclosing the driver’s cockpit, or fitting skirts to the crane.”

Advertisement

This time, it was an IndyCar crash that fired up the debate over open cockpits. Like Bianchi, Wilson died from a head injury, however, his freak accident was closer to Massa’s than anything else. It was an errant chunk of debris — the nosecone of Sage Karam’s wrecked car — that hit Wilson’s helmet.

Motorsport.com reports that several new concepts are in the works for F1’s latest exploration into improving cockpit safety. One idea calls for a series of vertical blades of varying heights around the front of the cockpit that would deflect debris but still allow for drivers to be extracted from the car easily in emergency situations. A second idea put forth by Mercedes involves a halo of sorts to be fitted around the cockpit.

Interestingly, Wilson’s crash didn’t prompt F1’s tests themselves—it merely publicized F1’s ongoing debate. According to Motorsport.com, Formula One’s technical chiefs discussed testing these ideas with the FIA last week, before Wilson’s crash. Testing is planned for next month.

Advertisement

FIA technical director Charlie Whiting is adamant that more protection of the cockpit is on the way for Formula One. Whiting told Autosport yesterday:

We have put in a huge amount of time, effort and research into this project, which has not been easy, in fact bloody hard.

But I can definitely see the day when this will happen. One day there will be something that will decrease a driver’s risk of injury.

Whether it will be as good at protecting a driver from an object coming towards him as a fighter jet cockpit, I doubt that, but it will offer him protection.

We have to persevere. We must make something, even if it’s not 100 percent in terms of protecting the driver under all circumstances.

But if it improves the situation it has to be good. There must be a way.

Whiting also told Autosport that “some fairly ugly looking roll structures in front of the drivers” had been tested by the FIA in the past, but were rejected because they blocked the driver’s view.

Advertisement

Whatever solution Formula One implements needs to maintain good driver visibility given the speeds at which the cars travel, however, it looks as if protecting all of the driver — head included — is gaining traction.

Other Solutions

Where will IndyCar go from here? ESPN suggests the two most obvious solutions at play: adding a tether to prevent the nosecone from becoming a projectile as it did in the Wilson crash, and closing the cockpit on the cars themselves to better shield the drivers.

Advertisement

“Every accident is different,” Mario Andretti told ESPN. “Whether it’s NASCAR, whether it’s any form of the sport, you always learn something. On this instance, who would have ever thought a nose would come off and hit somebody? I’m sure that is going to be addressed vigorously.”

A nosecone tether would be a simpler solution that could be implemented while a more long-term solution such as a closed cockpit is investigated.

Some in IndyCar would certainly like more protection for the drivers in the cars, much like F1 is currently examining. In fact, Racer reported that the series was investigating the addition of canopies to their cars in 2014, ahead of the catastrophic Bianchi F1 accident but following several close calls in the IndyCar series that year.

Advertisement

“It is being considered; it’s been on my radar ever since I came to IndyCar,” IndyCar President of Competition Derrick Walker told Racer. “I’ve had discussions with Dallara about trying to design a partial canopy, not a fully enclosed, but a partial one that would serve as a deflector for debris that comes at the driver. It’s on the radar.”

Maintaining good visibility was also paramount for IndyCar, and Walker mentioned the use of armored glass as one possibility for the series. Retrofitting the DW12 was one of the concerns in 2014, but the DW12 is even longer in the tooth this year. Perhaps the next generation of cars for the series could integrate better upper body protection for the drivers as part of their design.

Some drivers have expressed support for IndyCar adding a canopy.

“I feel like it should be a priority; we and Formula 1 are the only big series in the world racing with our heads fully exposed,” driver Ryan Hunter-Reay explained to Racer. “The [NHRA] Top Fuel guys are now protected with a canopy, and it’s something we absolutely have to start developing seriously. Especially if we’re going to be running on superspeedways at 240 mph.”

Advertisement

Ovals have become singled out in particular in the debate over IndyCar’s future. Is running at IndyCar’s speeds on ovals with next to no runoff part of the sport, or dangerous to the point where the series should stick to road courses only?

One thing seems certain: support for the idea of a canopy or other means of driver protection is growing among the IndyCar faithful after this latest round of open-cockpit catastrophes and close calls.

“We’ve gotta have something – whether it’s a helmet within a helmet or whatever, I think all open-wheel cars will eventually have it, and it would be nice to see IndyCar start a trend,” said driver Will Power in his discussion with Racer of what he’d like to see in the upcoming generation of IndyCar racecars back in January.

Advertisement

“I’m sure the engineers could come up with something and I think they’ve got to because it’s the only thing left that hasn’t changed since open-wheel cars first got rollhoops – the driver’s head hanging out of the cockpit,” Power continued.

Power mentioned much of the recent object-to-helmet carnage as the reason why IndyCar needed to get ahead of the problems inherent in open-cockpit cars. Many hope that Wilson’s fatal crash finally brings the issue to the top of IndyCar’s to-do list.

Change is hard. Change annoys die-hards and purists who want to remember their sport as it always has been.

Advertisement

I love cars like the Audi R10 TDI and the Porsche RS Spyder, but I knew cars couldn’t look like that forever. Needs evolve, technology evolves and the level of acceptable risk that drivers and teams wish to assume changes over the years. Maybe we didn’t have the right solutions for these kinds of racing incidents in 2011, but something else would be possible now.

Sometimes, change is needed, and we’ll see over the next few weeks what may be proposed by experts, drivers, teams and series officials. One thing is for sure: no one involved in motorsport at any level wants to have to go to more funerals.

[H/T DannyCatSteve for the IndyCar 2018 interview]

Photo credit: AP Images


Contact the author at stef.schrader@jalopnik.com.