It is two years to the day since we tragically lost rising British talent Henry Surtees at Brands Hatch after he was struck by an errant wheel from another Formula 2 car. That means it is also around two years since Felipe Massa was hit by a piece of suspension at the Hungarian Grand Prix, his survival being a testament to the helmets sported by drivers in contemporary racing. Since that dark month the FIA has looked into cockpit protection and has released footage of an initial test that involved a big cannon, a wheel and a piece of an aeroplane.
The FIA video shows tests that featured slamming a wheel into a jet canopy at 225km/h – a modest speed in F1 terms but still plenty quick. The good news is that the wheel bounced off, the bad news is that an aircraft canopy is probably the wrong place to start – simply using an enclosed carbon fibre racing car would seem more relevant. It’s certainly taken a long time for what looked like the very early stages of real-life research to materialise, but at least it’s underway. The FIA listed a number of downsides to having such a strong structure above a driver including egress, access, visibility and so forth; all factors that don’t seem to bother any of the multitude of series where the driver is hidden behind a windscreen. A fighter jet’s canopy seems like overkill, surely something more akin to a Le Mans-style sportscar would do the trick? Maybe I’m wrong, I’m just shocked at such an extreme idea being the first we see of this initiative.
Some observers have already bemoaned the idea of an F1 car with a lid on, saying that it would become the aforementioned sportscar. For me this is nonsense. It is open wheels rather than the amount of protection above a driver’s head that defines the nature of formula racing. The action on track didn’t radically change due to the shift from cloth caps to proper helmets in the 1960s and nor would it if the driver was further protected. As long as open wheels are still present and correct we won’t see bumper-to-bumper rubbing, so what’s the fuss?
I’m also a bit miffed when debris entering the cockpit is dismissed as a freak accident. Maybe it is a freak, but it isn’t unique. As if the two incidents so close together in 2009 weren’t enough, Ayrton Senna would have stepped out of his accident at Imola in 1994 had his head been protected by a windscreen and a roof. Instead of addressing this directly the cars were slowed (for a time) and circuits were emasculated. Maybe these changes would have occurred anyway, but it certainly didn’t seem like the most logical of tactics to my young mind. Wheel tethers are a good idea and better helmets are always welcome, but these noble measures haven’t stopped this rare problem from recurring.
As for those who use the tradition argument, it seems they are watching the wrong sport. F1 moves on at such a staggering pace that traditions are eradicated year in year out. Even a circuit as enshrined in history as Monte Carlo makes minor changes on a nearly annual basis, hardly anything is sacrosanct in the Grand Prix world. One constant in F1, at least from the late-1960s onwards, is the advancement of safety for both the sport and often helping those on the road too. Now that is a tradition worth keeping.