What? You’re not for safety? The near-miss at the Belgian Grand Prix that saw Romain Grosjean’s Lotus F1 car fly over the top of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari has renewed the talk of a canopy or cage system to protect the driver. The discussion started back in 2009 when Henry Surtees was killed by an errant wheel and Felipe Massa suffered a sever head injury from a flying part from the car ahead of him. This weekend’s incident has prompted the press to ask questions about the need for protecting the driver and McLaren’s Paddy Lowe was all to happy to comment saying:
“We started the project a year ago,” he said. “We’ll see. Personally, I think something is inevitable because it is the one big exposure we’ve got.
“How many times have you looked at things including today and thought, that was lucky? One day it won’t be lucky and we’ll all be sitting there going: ‘We should have done something about that.'”
“Obviously, a driver ideally wants nothing in the way but in the same way we drive a road car with pillars, you just get used to it, don’t you?
“Your mind works out a way around it. That’s what we found in our simulator, provided the pillars don’t get too big. The next bit is to try to produce a more optimal design. The current test piece looks very ugly but is really a very early prototype to assess forces.”
Lowe figures a new system could be ready for the 2014 season but it brings us some serious talking points about being pragmatic over prudent and Formula One has a rich history of that. No one want anyone injured or killed in motor sport but it is a dangerous activity. You can never remove all danger but many would argue that you have to die trying and that is the charge of the Technical Working Group and regulatory body, the FIA. Always a champion of safety, the FIA have turned their gaze toward Sustainability lately and some safety initiatives have been started but never completed. The canopy or cage system is one of them.
While saving lives, eliminating risks and protecting drivers is something we can all get behind, I am concerned over the type of system they would deploy. Sure, Lowe is right in saying that drivers don’t want anything in front of them and if you speak with drivers, they will tell you it’s already difficult to see out of an F1 cockpit. Adding more structure to their view isn’t a positive thing.
What I also worry about is the structure itself. In a high-speed crash, the energy dissipated has the ability to deform of shatter even the strongest of materials and what would happen if the canopy/cage structure was deformed to a point that the lock/unlock mechanism didn’t work? Like a car door after an accident that doesn’t open. I’m reminded of the American NHRA dragster series and how the “jaws of life” have had to be used to get drivers out of their cockpit by cutting through mangled roll cage structure to get to them. Is Formula One prepared to have these types of systems dispersed around the circuit to extract drivers from mangled roll cage metal and better yet, would they have time to do so?
If you look back to the beginning of the 2012 season, fans around the globe were disgusted with the new look of the Formula One cars. The stepped nose was an anathema but it was designed this way for one purpose…safety. The reason was that the higher nosed cars would have a tendency to slide over the top of another car’s chassis in the event of a side impact and that placed the nose of the car at the driver’s head. By lowering the nose, the intent was to prevent this from happening and you could argue that Sunday’s incident at Spa Francorchamps worked according to plan.
I’m certainly not advocating research and deployment of a safer cockpit system but I know that F1 has offered knee-jerk reaction too many times and their pragmatism has created more problems than solved. Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali is on the same page, saying:
“We were lucky because nothing happened to Fernando on the head,” he said.
“We are working with the federation to work on the right system of protection, because on what we are testing and working on, there are also some problems that you may have – like moving the protection in the event of a fire or worse. So we need to be very careful on all these devices.”
What do you think? Should F1 have a canopy or roll cage? The canopy tests the FIA held were not encouraging and the more current thought is a roll cage of sorts. Let us know what you think in the comment section below.