An Enclosed Cockpit I Could Live With

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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.

Halo

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.

halo-window-01

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.

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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.

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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.

1991 Lola
1992 Indy 500 Galmer Al Unser Jr 01

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.

George Phillips

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25 Responses to “An Enclosed Cockpit I Could Live With”

  1. AJ Foyt liked being out in front of “God and everybody.” I am inclined to agree with him.

      • Wish I could be a “fly on the wall” when you guys get to work today to hear the convo over that comment, lol.

        I think John was talking about the days of the sprint cars and roadsters where the driver was pretty much exposed from the waist up. And if one was around back then and took notice, nobody sat up straighter in his seat that the great Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr.

        • Thank you Phil! That is exactly what Super Tex meant! We will discuss this further in the Pagoda Plaza over some tenderloins!

  2. James T Suel Says:

    Iam not a fan of any kind of canopies, open wheel ,open cockpit race cars are at the top of the pecking order for a reason. BUT IF YOUR GOING TO ENCLOSE THE COCKPIT, then we on longer have the pure form of the sport. If we must do something put a dam rollcage on the cars. No race car will ever be 100% safe. I think we are killing this highest form of our sport. Yes iam a old school guy, i miss the old cars been around since 1960 my first race. Saftey yes killing true open wheel ,opencockpit cars NO!

  3. Maybe my distaste for canopies stems from the methods, , the self proclaimed, pro-canopy pundits use to further their cause as George cited with the JW situation. Justin’s car might of as well still been idling as the knee- jerks (the media) frantically, ignorantly jump in and clamor (again) for an immediate solution to a problem that has no immediate solution. It’s the lack of logic, fueled by emotion and complete idiocy that fuels my distaste for the whole controversy. Current mindsets , driven by emotion (now add Fernando Alonso’s crash to the list) dictate this new safety climate we find ourselves living in. The wussification (there I said it, because it’s true) of our safety obsessed society is fueling this demand for canopies. Next they will push for killing the sport altogether because it is dangerous. In my opinion, they don’t have a clue what danger is. It doesn’t matter to them if studies, collected data, tests, retests are conducted first and then a design, just slap an F-16 canopy on it and be done with it so we all can feel better about ourselves. My suggestion to them is watch some old film of crashes in the 40′, 50’s for some perspective if you think the current ones are bad. Again, the current cars are safer than they have ever been in the history of open wheel racing so everyone just chill and wait for a well thought out solution.

    We have reached a point where a complete redesign needs to happen in IndyCar and F1 to incorporate a closed cockpit into the current formulas instead of slapping some jerry rig onto a car that was not designed for it in the first place.

  4. Regarding the need for the driver to get out of the car fast, the DSR top fuel cars have a canopy and I think it was Anton Brown who rather speedily got out when the car got it’s head last season after a 300mph wreck. I do agree that it would require a complete redesign but Le Mans cars are not unexciting and maybe there’s a compromise to be had.

  5. A fighter jet style canopy might be cool, but a “halo” is one of the most awful looking things I can imagine.

  6. Now Indycar has rear fenders and a back “bumper” just like Nascar. Now we want an enclosed cockpit just like Nascar.

    Why not just Nascar? They even run better on road courses. Allows for more bumping.

    How do these Indy car drivers even see now? And one suggestion is a pole at 12 O’clock?

    If we slow the cars down to under 100 MPH, it will really reduce injuries. Is that next?

    We could even start putting armor on the cars and make them look like a battle tank.

    Ok, enough. You get my drift.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    Put me in the no canopy camp, but any final decision should be in the hands of the drivers. From a fan’s perspective, the less you can see of the driver the more a car will look like one of those driverless cars. A canopy would significantly hamper the ability of a driver to deliver a emphatic one finger salute. Not a good thing IMHO.

    A good outline of the discussion George. Regarding being chastised on social media: Simplify. You might try not reading social media. I set up only a Facebook account at the urging of my children. As a consequence of that, each morning a dozen or more people show up at my door wishing to “share” a link, a photo, a “like”, or whatever before I can send them on their way. So that is 30 minutes of my day lost with only marginal benefit. I can only imagine how much time you spend reading social media each day.

    George, perhaps you might consider a post after the 500 that would provide us with a bit of insight as to where the 2018 car redesign process is currently.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    Some type of canopy, halo, or roll cage will be added to the car when it is proven to be effective on both the function and cost fronts. That day is likely much closer than I thought in years past.

    I would expect it to be more like a roll cage than a full canopy or halo, but I’ve never been accused of being a successful gambler.

    • It will be interesting to see what F1 decides. The crash yesterday with Gutierrez and Alonso made me wonder if the halo would have delayed Alonso’s ability to crawl out of his wrecked car. There wasn’t much left of it. I am relieved that he was able to walk away.

      • Br!an McKay Says:

        I just returned viewed the F1 race. Holy moly. Horrifying crash. THANKS, Gutierrez, for BLOCKING, deliberately or distractedly.
        Alonso was lucky to not be killed or horribly injured. I’m glad that a ‘halo’ didn’t break and ram him helmet or shoulder to injure him or to ‘pin’ him in the cockpit.

  9. The Halo is terrible. I don’t want to see any type of canopy, but I could also live with the Red Bull design if one had to be used. I do think the drivers should have the most input into whether or not to incorporate something.

  10. I prefer the looks of the canopies, but here’s the problem with every one I’ve seen so far: they’re literally just drawings on a piece of paper or a computer screen. They haven’t been prototyped or tested in a physical state yet, so you can take all of those things as completely unproven theories. I hope that such a thing pans out someday, because I think they look cool (arguably even cooler than the cars currently to) and they could solve a bunch of safety problems, but they’re not here yet. I think folks can put the idea of seeing those on an open wheel car on the backburner for another 3-4 years, at least. And the windshields that we used to see on cars were mostly for aerodynamic trimming, not some sort of structural piece meant to deflect impacts from loose pieces of 10 pounds or more. That clear material would have to be beefed up considerably, even to work against a 1-2 lb spring, like in Felipe Massa’s accident, let alone a wheel or a 20+ lb nose cone.

    In the meantime, the “halos” seem like a decent intermediate solution. No, they don’t look very good, but the one that was spliced onto the Ferrari a few weeks ago was just an initial study to see if such a thing would badly impede the drivers’ vision. According to Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, initial impressions were that it wasn’t so bad, though they didn’t test it on a track with much elevation change, or certainly any banking (which would be a prerequisite for implication on an IndyCar). Before they get put on all the cars, it’ll be necessary for even the halos to be put through tests on more types of tracks. If problems pop up, they’ll have to be addressed and the halos will have to be revised, reprototyped and retested. Repeat as necessary until you’ve solved more problems than you’ve introduced. That’s how engineering works.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      Dragsters and racing boats and airplanes have canopies.

      • Yes, but are said canopies on those vehicles designed to withstand impacts from objects some 20-30 lbs (or more, in the case of a wheel/tire) that are traveling at up to 200 MPH (or, at least at a differential speed of 200 MPH, in the case that it’s the car going 200 and the heavy object is nearly stationary)? Dragsters are almost never in close vicinity with another car, and the odds of the car in the other lane blowing an engine and sending large shrapnel at the cockpit of the trailing car with the canopy are pretty small. Impacts to the cockpit area of a racing boat are likely even smaller yet. And airplanes do have canopies, but they have wider cockpit areas (meaning that there’s more surface area to deform, so that the impact can be better absorbed) and they also weigh a LOT more than an IndyCar (IndyCar = about 1,600 lbs; F-18 = about 59,000 lbs), meaning that a canopy that’s a couple hundred pounds is not as big a deal to hang on the top. An IndyCar/F1 car has some pretty extreme design constraints that you have to keep in mind, or else you’re not really accomplishing what you’re intending to by introducing a canopy.

        • Brian McKay Says:

          I agree that a ‘halo’ or half rollover cage could be a good stopgap implement until another Dalkara chassis is introduced in or near 2020.

          I’d intended to answer someone that last year Ganassi and Penske (and others?) told Derrick Walker that they didn’t want to replace the IR12 chassis in 2018:

  11. I actually like the Red Bull design from an aesthetic standpoint. Never understood why they moved away from windscreens in the first place. Now, if we could just get rid of the rear bumper pods, and the ridiculous rear winglets that seem to grow bigger every year.

    More horespower, less downforce, fewer ridiculous aero bits sticking everywhich way and Indycar and F1 would look much better.

  12. ecurie415 Says:

    Whenever someone says that a head protection system “isn’t open wheel racing”, I ask them to look at the DW12 rear wheel guards and side pods, and re-think that statement. If the drivers, teams and sanctioning body agree on it, I’m not going to say a word. I am not the one (literally) sticking my neck out.

  13. Br!an McKay Says:

    I agree with George that Adrian Newey’s proposal looks better than the M-B proposal and looks most like a windscreen that you’d expect to see on a car. One large, strong, wraparound Lexan shield would allow the use of large, clear ‘tear-offs’ (as seen on other racing series’ windscreens).
    HOWEVER, as Hinchcliffe told us over a week ago, unlike Formula One racers, IndyCar racers don’t need a bar, band, brace, or rim that blocks a view up-and-left (where they look into turns on banked speedways).

    Incidentally, Dallara IR-12 chassis has been equipped with windscreens, even if shorter racers such as Montoya don’t want or need them. At the Indy 500, you may see taller racers, such as Townsend Bell and Ryan Hunter-Reay, seated behind short windscreens which have several tear-offs mounted.

  14. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Diversionary and tangential arguments aside (concern for killing the sport outweighing killing drivers, et. al.) the fact remains that the details of such a thing aren’t really up to the fans to decide.

    It will be a fan-focused issue ONLY when the primary reason significantly fewer people go to a race is because of the perceived aesthetics, purity, or “wussification”. Some may be surprised to learn that it would be possible that a vehicle with an enclosed canopy (using the RedBull X-1 as a design example, if deemed practical, not theoretical) could even attract fans.

    Regardless, it’s not for anyone who has never strapped in and driven one of these insanely-performing machines competitively to determine what is acceptable.

    It’s truly up to those who put their life on the line every time they strap in, and it’s up to those that design, build, and pay for the vehicles to determine how they best want to be associated.

    If they can put their head on the pillow every night, satisfied that what they’ve done is “enough and acceptable”, then you will have your answer.

    Personally, I’m tired of watching drivers die and watching what remains of their families in the wake of these tragedies to wonder if what we as a sport are doing is “enough”.

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