Monday, July 09, 2007

Open cockpits - a risk worth taking?

Motorsport is so safe these days. Or so we're led to believe. I believe we may very well be in the same place as we were prior to the tragic weekend at Imola in 1994 in which both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed. Prior to their accidents, Formula had had no race weekend fatalities for twelve years, and everyone involved with the sport felt that safety was at a high enough level that there would never again be a death in the sport. Sound familiar? Ask anyone in Formula 1 for example if any major changes could be made to improve safety and you will probably get an answer that goes something like this: "no"...

The accidents of Robert Kubica in Canada and Ernesto Viso in Magny-Cours (and come to think of it, Katherine Legge's Champcar crash at Road America last year) were as much examples of how luck plays a part as how strong the cars are these days. I have little doubt that improvements in safety cell technology saved all three drivers' lives, but there remains one huge risk factor to open-wheel drivers, and that is a situation where the top of the head makes a direct, high-speed impact with something immovable. Viso's crash showed this most visibly: once the car was airborne and upside-down it landed on the top of a concrete wall. Had it made the impact six inches further forward, it would have been his head that took the brunt of the force as opposed to the roll hoop and surrounding safety cell structure.

The collision between Alex Wurz and David Coulthard at the Australian Grand Prix this year is another example of how objects are still able to get into the cockpit and make contact with the driver. The vectors of that impact were such the Wurz was uninjured, but the fact remains that cars without roofs introduce an additional safety risk factor that is not present on those with roofs.

Open wheel motorsport is not the only place where this is an issue. The plans of the ACO, organizers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, call for the elimination of open-topped cars in their top class by 2010. Whilst their reasons for doing so are varied and include responding to the majority opinion of fans who prefer the aesthetics of closed-top prototypes, the safety benefit is worth noting.

There are numerous ways to address this safety issue. Concrete walls played a major role in the crashes of Kubica, Viso and Legge, and repositioning, redesigning or simply removing such walls would be a good start. The addition of a lateral roll hoop to these cars would be a major step forward in risk alleviation, but would be an aesthetic challenge that would no doubt incense fans of F1, Champcar, GP2, IRL or anyone else who might implement the idea.

So I'm not going to advocate for any changes right here. Instead, I'm simply going to suggest that sanctioning bodies are ignoring a major safety concern in just the same way that things were ignored prior to Imola 1994, and that discussion of this topic by the powers-that-be should be happening right now. The clock is ticking before we have another fatality.

1 comment:

Clive said...

I have that same feeling - the sudden occurrence of so many serious accidents in so short a time does look like a warning. But it's a difficult subject. The idea of closing in the cockpit is unthinkable to the F1 fan and, I've no doubt, fans of other open wheel racers. It raises the question of just what is an F1 car and what isn't.

Sure, it's a matter of aesthetics, something that we ought to be prepared to throw away in the interests of saving lives, but we are talking about changing the nature of racing at this level too. Close in the cockpit and you have a Le Mans car, not an F1 car.

That's the feeling, anyway. There is also the matter of how far down the road of safety we can travel in the quest for perfection. In an imperfect world, there will always be accidents that have not been foreseen and that cause death and injury. Ultimately, we might as well say that we have virtual reality racing games that are truly safe (apart from the possibility of spilling hot coffee over oneself at a tense moment) - why not abandon the race tracks as too dangerous and revert to the computer?

I know you're waiting for me to say that "racing is dangerous", so I will. Without an element of danger, surely motor racing becomes as anodyne as video racing games? There has to be a limit set somewhere and I think we approach it.

What the recent accidents have demonstrated is that concrete walls are outdated in modern racing. I agree with you that they should go. But the accidents also showed the incredible strength of today's safety cells - they saved the lives of the drivers. Let's not react like the FIA and rush in panic measures that destroy the sport. Let those who race have a say - they are the ones taking the risk and I'm sure they'll reject the idea of closed cockpits.