By John Leicester
AP Sports Columnist
MONZA, Italy (AP) — The idea of enveloping Formula One drivers in closed cockpits to better protect them from flying debris and crashes is more complicated than it sounds.
The governing body of motorsport, the FIA, has tried, and for the moment, rejected closed cockpits for F1 after they tested one concept by firing heavy tires at the canopy of an F-16 fighter jet.
F1 is, however, working toward a compromise that will increase driver protection while keeping cockpits open, says race director Charlie Whiting.
Tradition and aesthetics are considerations, too. Since the shockingly unsafe early days of F1 when drivers raced without safety belts and in flimsy leather caps, cockpits have always been open, allowing spectators to see the men battling to control their speedy machines.
Bolting a transparent dome or clunky safety bars onto F1 cars will ruin their sleek lines. A debris-deflecting pyramid-shaped contraption already tested by the FIA on a car that Lotus driver Romain Grosjean tested looked awful and restricted his visibility.
The death last month in IndyCar of British driver Justin Wilson after a flying piece of crash debris struck his helmet is, understandably, prompting renewed calls for greater protection.
“You have got to get a canopy on the car of some sort because we can’t have this happening as much as it has over the past few years,” McLaren-Honda driver and former world champion Jenson Button, said in Monza ahead of the Italian Grand Prix this weekend. “There has been a lot of head injuries which have ended up in death, so it has to change.”
But based on FIA testing so far, the solution isn’t likely to be a closed canopy.
“We’ve looked at fully closed cockpits … and we’ve rejected them for a number of reasons,” F1 race director Whiting said in an interview Friday at Monza with The Associated Press.
TOO HEAVY: Tires fired at the F-16 canopy did bounce harmlessly off. But the glass needs to be thick. That would make them heavy. Like peering through the bottom of a bottle, thick glass could also hinder drivers’ vision.
To be suitable in F1, the canopy would “need to have very high optical quality,” said Whiting, “and for that it would be massively heavy.”
DEATH TRAP? Another concern is that drivers could become trapped under canopies meant to protect them.
“There are major problems extracting injured drivers from closed cars,” said Whiting. “If the car was slightly damaged and was on fire, and you couldn’t get it (the canopy) off, no one would be able to take the driver out.”
OTHER CONCEPTS: The FIA experimented a couple of years ago with thick bars and struts attached to the top of a car, directly in front of the driver. The contraption could deflect large objects, like flying tires, protecting the occupant, but looked ugly.
“It was a pretty chunky and, dare I say it, horrible-looking thing,” said Whiting.
More recent concepts are more elegant.
They include a hoop, shaped like a chicken wishbone, that would wrap around in front of the driver at head level and rest on a central strut.
Another idea is to have two thin blades that would poke up from the flat space in front of the driver’s steering wheel, again to deflect away debris.
More tests are scheduled for this month.
“It’s not going to be as good as a canopy but it won’t have the disadvantages that the canopy has,” said Whiting.
MIDDLE GROUND: In short, F1 seems headed for a compromise solution that will both respect its open-cockpit tradition and look but also offer drivers better protection without fully enveloping them.
Whiting says that if this month’s tests are successful, the technology could be introduced for 2017.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce the risk while accepting the fact that it’s an open-cockpit formula,” Whiting said. “It’s inevitable that we will end up with something that will protect the driver more, but not as a closed cockpit, unless something miraculous happens and we can overcome those problems.”