An Enclosed Cockpit I Could Live With
Following the fatal injuries to Dan Wheldon in the 2011 IndyCar finale at Las Vegas, there was an immediate and knee-jerk outcry for all open wheel cars to have some sort of enclosed cockpit. There was no adequate solution proposed by this side, but there were many reasonable arguments to suggest that the unintended consequences of an enclosed canopy could pose many more problems than it could solve.
It took a while, but the fervor eventually died down. The Wheldon incident of 2011, with the top of his head striking a pole supporting the catch fence, appeared to be an isolated incident. That is until the bouncing nosecone of a crashed car was hit by the trailing car of Justin Wilson. Fate would dictate that the cone would take the unluckiest of bounces and directly strike the helmet of Wilson head-on. Wilson would succumb to his head injuries the next day.
In what I thought was in somewhat poor taste; Wilson had barely been extricated from his car, when the same people climbed back onto their enclosed-canopy soap-box – seizing upon the opportunity of Wilson’s tragedy in order to make their point. There was a time and place for the renewed discussion, but it wasn’t while the unconscious Wilson was being transported to the hospital.
With the DW12 entering its fifth year of service in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year, it was not practical to drastically redesign a car that may be going away in the next two to three years. Any discussion would apply to the next generation Indy car that would not be on the scene until 2018 at the earliest.
In the meantime, Formula One has had its own set of head traumas to deal with. Since they have new cars every year, it was much easier to incorporate a new design into their cars much quicker. Many designs have been proposed, but those under the most serious of considerations do not involve canopies. Most sensible people agree that a fully enclosed canopy presents far greater danger to the driver that needs to exit a car quickly, than the possibility of being struck in the head.
The design that many consider to be the front-runner is the halo that has been proposed by Ferrari.
Personally, I don’t care for it. Not necessarily for aesthetic reasons, but because it looks like it would hamper a driver’s vision. I don’t pretend to claim that I know what a driver sees, but I do know that when I drove the IndyCar one-seater at IMS in 2008 – I was shocked at how restricted my vision was. My head was held in place by side-restraints and my vision was pretty much limited to what I could see straight ahead. Of course, if you saw yesterday’s (Saturday night’s?) Formula One race from Australia, Fernando Alonso was wondering how much the halo would have hampered his quick escape after his massive impact in the race.
I have an idea that real drivers are much more limited in what they can see than I was. To put a thick bar in the center of the field of vision seems very obstructive – almost like a T-Bar on a facemask of a football helmet, where you see not one, but two of them. Chances are, though, that it sits out far enough that the double-vision phenomenon does not occur.
The one proposed by Mercedes looks a little more interesting. The center post is much narrower and there is actually some sort of windshield. This would offer some protection against a bolt or screw hitting the driver at 200 mph.
It looks a little more integrated into the chassis, but in all honesty does not appear as sturdy as the Ferrari concept. Probably the biggest fear is a tire coming into the cockpit area and striking the driver in the head. As ugly and obstructive as it looks, the halo on the Ferrari appears more capable of protecting a driver in that event.
So far, Formula One’s Red Bull team has come up with the design that I like the best.
It looks more substantial than the one from Mercedes, has a windshield to give protection from smaller pieces of debris yet has no post in the center to obstruct the driver’s view.
If IndyCar were to incorporate this design into their next generation of cars, I could live with it. It doesn’t take away from the aesthetics of the car that much. It does not appear to restrict a driver’s vision. It offers the protection that canopy advocates have been screaming for and appears easy to escape from in a hurry.
Some may wonder why I keep bringing up the aesthetics or looks of the car. They say safety should trump aesthetics ten out of ten times. While I agree, the aesthetics of a car still plays a major role. If you don’t believe me, listen to the drivers who are not wild about enclosed cockpits on a car. The aesthetics of the car is usually the first or second thing mentioned when listing their objections. If it’s important to drivers, I think it’s also important to fans.
Many of the pro-canopy set have chastised me personally on social media, because they know what a traditionalist and purist I am. They’ve told me to pull my head out of the sand, get out of the sixties and embrace today’s new world of racing.
Let’s get one thing clear. While I do appreciate the history and the nostalgia of the way things were when I was growing up in the sixties, fatalities were way too common then. While I hardened myself against it even as an adolescent, as I knew there would be six to seven drivers to lose their lives each year – that doesn’t mean that I liked it or even accepted it.
In my time of going to Indianapolis as a child (1965-1972 – I was thirteen at my last race as a kid), I saw many safety measures introduced and didn’t reject any of them. The most visible was the introduction of full-frontal helmets. Before Dan Gurney introduced them in the late sixties, no one ever gave a thought to such a thing. But they quickly caught on and were eventually mandated. I don’t recall anyone at the time saying they should go back to goggles and bandanas.
As time marched on, I was in favor of the HANS Device and the SAFER Barrier that was developed at IMS. The fact that these weren’t in use in the sixties, had nothing to do with my thinking, as some have suggested. To suggest that anyone would stand in the way of safety just because “…it’s always been that way”, is ludicrous.
But having said all that, there’s nothing that says I’m opposed to reverting to a look that was common in the past, if it offers an element of safety along with it.
For decades, some sort of windshield was common place on most open wheel cars. That’s not a blanket statement because even the iconic Marmon Wasp that won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 did not have a windshield. It had the famous rear-view mirror, but no windshield. As unstreamlined as it was, Joe Dawson’s 1912 winning National had one, though. Throughout the early days, the use of a windshield was sporadic. By the late thirties, however, their use became pretty much standard.
Ol’ Calhoun of Parnelli Jones had one. Bobby Rahal’s 1986 winner had one too.
That trend continued into the nineties. The first Indy car that I ever saw in my lifetime without a windshield, was Al Unser, Jr.’s 1992 Indianapolis 500 winning Galmer. Here’s a comparison between his 1991 Lola at Michigan and his 1992 Galmer at Indianapolis. Note the complete absence of a windshield on the Galmer.
While the Galmer was considered a sled, I guess that was considered innovative to not have a windshield. The introductory 1994 Reynard hardly had a mention of a windshield and by 1995. it was gone completely. Lola ditched their windshield by 1997and the last Penske in 1999 had none either. The Swift never used one. The very first generation IRL cars had one, but they too went by the wayside. In this millennium, no cars in CART/Champ Car or IndyCar have used a windshield.
Would a windshield have saved Dan Wheldon or Justin Wilson? The respective answers are no and probably not. Windshields had gotten so small that they offered little or no protection from debris, whatsoever.
It’s debatable if any of these current designs being brought forth by Formula One would have saved Dan Wheldon. But I think most would agree that Justin Wilson’s chances of survival in his incident last August would have been far greater had one of these designs been on his car. Perhaps if such a device is ever put into use on an Indy car, it can be dubbed the Wilson Device.
Have I flip-flopped on my earlier position? No. I’ve always been against canopies and still am. The jury may still be out on these designs, but it’s a start. But I can tell you, whether you like it or not – some type of cockpit enclosure is coming to IndyCar. IndyCar will not sit by and let Formula One be lauded for being safety-minded, while IndyCar stands still.
Safety in racing is a moving target, at best. This sport will never become death or injury proof. Some say that danger is what adds to its allure. Whether or not that’s the case is another debate for another time. But I do feel that safety in racing should always be evolving and always be open for discussion. That open discussion also means that both sides need to take the time to look at all possible scenarios and solutions. That means don’t jump to a knee-jerk reaction just because something happened one time.
But as for the designs coming out of Formula One, I like the retro look and the safety designs that the Red Bull design brings. It’s something I could live with.