Striking the balance between safety and history

The new cockpit protection system that has been approved looks like a wishbone surrounding the driver’s head and was tested by Ferrari during the pre-season in Barcelona.

Safety is the priority for Formula 1.   -  Getty Images

The Monaco GP continued the trend this year of entertaining on-track action. But amidst the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera, there was a significant development off-track: the governing body FIA finally green-lit a new cockpit protection system to be introduced in 2017.Safety has come in leaps and bounds over the past two decades, with drivers walking away virtually unhurt after monstrous crashes. But even as the cars have ensured nearly every part of the driver is secured as best possible, the head still remains vulnerable.

Last year in IndyCar racing, British driver Justin Wilson lost his life after a piece of debris from another car hit his head, knocking him unconscious immediately. The new cockpit protection system that has been approved looks like a wishbone surrounding the driver’s head and was tested by Ferrari during the pre-season in Barcelona. Red Bull developed its own version, called ‘aeroscreen’, which looks like a semi windshield, and tested it during the Russian GP but the FIA has preferred Ferrari’s system for 2017.

Though the push towards safety is a no-brainer, the issue of cockpit protection is not as simple as it sounds. F1 cars have changed a lot over the 66 years the sport has been in existence, except for two things — the open top and open wheels. It is the challenge to these two facets that has left drivers, current and former, divided on the new system. Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton and Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg have been outspoken in their disapproval while the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso have come out in support.

Hulkenberg was quoted as saying, “It sends the wrong message. F1 is very safe at the moment. It looks horrible, I don’t like it and it’s just one of these little personal things that I wouldn’t like to see.” Former driver David Coulthard said during a teleconference, “There obviously is a historical sort of acceptance of what a Grand Prix car is. It’s an open-wheel, open-top car. If you start closing the wheels and closing the top, then it becomes a sports car, as we traditionally know it.”

But the past few years have seen dangerous crashes in which the drivers have been fortunate to escape serious head injuries. Romain Grosjean’s car being launched over Fernando Alonso in Belgium in 2012 was one such. Karun Chandhok’s near-miss when Jarno Trulli’s car went over the Indian in Monaco in 2010 was another.

Despite the accident, Chandhok says he still goes back and forth on the issue of balancing safety versus the sport’s DNA. “It was a lucky escape — I had tyre marks on my helmet! In all honesty, in the aftermath of that crash, never did I think that we should have a closed cockpit. I accept the risks involved with the cars I drive and it's the same for all drivers. However, I have to say that looking at Justin's accident where really he was a total bystander when that piece of bodywork hit him, made it feel totally unnecessary (the loss of life).”

But now that the FIA has decided to go down this route, they must also take into consideration aesthetics, for, one of the appeals of Grand Prix racing is how the cars look. The two solutions leave a lot to be desired in this regard. Chandhok feels the sport should take a slow and calibrated approach to such systems as it changes an important part of what F1 is.

“I think it needs to be carefully evaluated and not rushed in as a band-aid solution. My view is that whatever solution we come up with needs to be integrated into the design in a more aesthetically, pleasing way. Neither of the solutions [right now] looks particularly elegant!"

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