Consensus has been hard to find in recent years but in one area Formula One has remained united. Since the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, the FIA’s drive to improve safety has been almost entirely unopposed and highly successful. Yet here in Sochi this weekend the proposed cockpit innovation for protecting drivers in 2017 was dividing the paddock.
Red Bull tested their aeroscreen design – a high-strength windshield designed to deflect front-on impacts – here in practice. Ferrari ran their “halo” device during pre-season testing, but Lewis Hamilton, who had already expressed his distaste for the halo, was just as scathing about the alternative. “That screen looks so bad. It looks like a bloody riot shield,” the world champion said. “You’ve got this cool, elegant futuristic Formula 1 car, and you’ve got a riot shield sitting on top of it.”
In stark contrast, his former McLaren team-mate Jenson Button believed the design would come to be accepted. “It looks pretty, it looks better than a normal Formula 1 car,” he said. “In a couple of years if we did go for that design that was on the Red Bull, we’ll look back and we’ll think the cars look weird without it.”
The move to institute cockpit protection has not come out of the blue, nor is it a kneejerk reaction to the death of Justin Wilson, after he was hit by a piece of flying debris in an IndyCar race at the Pocono Raceway last year. Head injuries have long been of concern to the FIA, not least when Felipe Massa suffered a skull fracture after being hit by a spring during qualifying in 2009 at Hungary. An incident compounded in that it occurred two weeks after Henry Surtees, son of the former world-champion John, was killed at Brands Hatch during a Formula Tworace having been struck by a wheel that had broken free from another car.
Massa was fortunate to recover and continue racing. But the incidents continued. By the time Dan Wheldon died in an accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October 2011, when his car landed cockpit-first in the catch netting, the FIA had undertaken tests and engaged in considerable discussion with the teams about canopies. The accident at Suzuka in 2014 that ultimately to Jules Bianchi’s death last year has also been cited, although such were the forces involved in that impact it has not been suggested that the current proposals would have made a difference.
So the move to implement a new system for 2017 has long been on the cards. Fernando Alonso’s huge crash in Australia in the opening round this season highlighted just how strong the current cars are in withstanding side, frontal and inverted impacts, but the cockpit and the driver’s head remain, as the Mercedes technical director, Paddy Lowe, put it, “The major risk remaining in Formula 1 and other forms of single-seater racing”.
Among the drivers the subject remains contentious. Kimi Raikkonen, who tested the halo, was happy with the visibility it offered, as was Daniel Ricciardo with the aeroscreen this weekend. For some, open-cockpit racing is part and parcel of F1. Force India’s Nico Hülkenberg, who won Le Mans in a closed-cockpit Porsche last year, has spoken out against cockpit protection. “I just don’t like it,” he said in February. “Single-seater racing has always been open and in my eyes I would like to see it remain open.”
This view was echoed by Hamilton here, where he insisted that danger was a fundamental element of F1. “When I get in that car, I know that there is a danger,” he said. “That’s been the same since I started when I was eight years old. That’s a risk that I am willing to take and that every single driver that’s ever got in the car has been willing to take.
“Everyone comes to me who’s just started watching Formula 1 and says: ‘Oh, it’s so dangerous.’ That’s a large part of why they are so in awe of what you do. Take away all that and that person could do it, almost.”
Yet Button’s team-mate, Alonso, favoured the move toward cockpit safety and the aeroscreen, while, having seen the alternatives, Massa preferred the halo as did Haas’s Romain Grosjean. Either way, a decision is required sooner or later as the aero effects of any device must be incorporated into the design of next year’s cars.
Ultimately, despite the volume of opinion the proposals have generated their positions may yet prove moot. Halo remains the FIA’s preferred option and the organisation will brook no dissent.
Hamilton’s protestations that, given the option, he would not have a device fitted have been given short shrift by F1’s race director, Charlie Whiting. “Wearing a helmet is not voluntary. Hans [head and neck support] is not voluntary. So I can hardly imagine that we will make halo voluntary,” he said. “In terms of safety, we will not compromise.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010