There had been another fatal and horrific accident in Formula One on Tuesday. The Marussia F1 team’s test driver, Maria de Villota, involved in a crash at Duxford Aerodrome Airfield, Cambrigdeshire, UK.
The Spanish test driver was heavily injured on the head and facial area after the car she had driven on a straight-line test collided onto the stationary team’s support truck. The Marussia team reported the accident happened after the car’s anti-stall system was kicking in then made the car accelerated automatically, unfortunately, onto the rear folding platform deck of the truck that had surprisingly same height level as de Villota’s eyes sight while sitting on the bucket seat. She was transferred to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. She now remains critical and has lost her right eye, but the condition is stable. Irony. It was the first time for de Villota piloting the car since she joined the team in March 2012, but instead she experienced such dreadful accident.
As people read the story about de Villota’s crash, the accident Felipe Massa had in 2009, and the late Henry Surtees had on the same year are swirling inside their head. These accidents involved major head injuries and one of them even claimed a life. Henry Surtees’ death was so tragic because his father, John Surtees, a former Formula One world champion, survived after a quite similar life-threatening crash while testing at the Mosport Circuit in Canada, 1965. After a long period, in the much more developed and more advanced rules of safety in motor sport, such accident still happened and took his teenage son’s life. Surtees’ helmet was struck by a loose flying wheel from another car that was having an accident at the first place during the Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch, in July 2009. He was weaving from the stranded car when the flying wheel hit his crash-helmet directly from above. He was killed instantly, noticed when his car drove by itself which then collided onto the barriers.
Felipe Massa’s accident in the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix happened just six days after Surtees’ death. When the paddock of Formula One mourned the death of Henry Surtees throughout the weekend Grand Prix, Felipe Massa suffered a serious head injury in the qualifying session. He was hit by a flying part of the rear suspension of Rubens Barrichello’s car at 200 kph. The image after the crash was so horrible, showing Massa’s swollen left eye and the heavily damaged helmet’s visor and the dented helmet itself to make the viewers noticed how hard the spring hit his head. Felipe Massa then diagnosed having a fractured skull and frontal lobe damage, which made him to undergo an emergency surgery after he was brought to the hospital by helicopter. He was fully rested from the rest of the 2009 season’s races and replaced temporarily by Ferrari test driver Marc Gene (which then replaced by Giancarlo Fisichella to the end of the season).
Three major accidents above were so terrifying, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) considers to improve safety provisions for the sport, especially on the driver’s head area. In year 2008, the height of the cockpit sides had been raised after Coulthard’s rear wheel nearly missed Wurz’s head with only few inches when they both bumped into each other at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix.
But it did not stop the terror. In year 2010, Michael Schumacher’s head luckily missed Vitantonio Liuzzi’s front wing that went on top of his helmet after their car crashed face-to-face in the opening lap of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. On this year’s GP3 race in Monaco, there had been a massive crash suffered by Conor Daly. His cars flew at high speed after clipping other driver’s rear wheel, and then smashed onto the upper side of the safety fence on the side tracks. A lot of debris scattered around, including the loose wheels that nearly caught other drivers racing behind him. It missed from the television view since the cameras were mainly focusing the stranded and heavily damaged Daly’s car.
Those accidents were not enough to make the teams close their cars’ cockpits. Why have been the cockpits left uncovered after all this time? It’s simple: the open cockpits allow the drivers to get themselves out from the car as soon as possible when there might be a fire on board or the car itself is in a dangerous position. Due to that reason, closed-cockpits idea has been questioned because most of the drivers fear they cannot extract themselves quickly when something dangerous happens.
Nevertheless, after many accidents happened, the idea of closed-cockpits is now emerging again. Regarding to de Villota’s accident, today’s Formula One drivers, such as Felipe Massa and Pedro de la Rosa, are demanding stricter investigation to make the sport safer, even though they did not explicitly say the closed-cockpit is one of the solutions. Surely, because the idea is conflicting with the principle of driver’s quick-escape, the discussion always have been blunt. Yet, the case of drivers escaping from burning fires is even rarer than it once was. Few occasions happened mainly were pit lane fire, in which case, the closed-cockpits would have made the drivers safer. Plus, there is no refueling on the race, so the chance of pit lane fire during the race is very little.
FIA had published some researches and discussions of protecting drivers head into feasibility and practicality. There were few suggestions: fully-enclosed canopy, visor in front of the drivers’ head but is still open above and a roll structure in the front to deflect away the objects coming towards the drivers’ head.
The front roll-hoop test gained a lot of negative reviews from the readers in many Web sites showing the news despite the fact that the test went well after it succeeded to deflect away a 20-pound wheel fired at the structure. It was deemed too ugly, may develop blinds pots and ruin the beauty of the car. The closed-cockpits test was using a polycarbonate windshield, the same windshield used on a fighter jet. It went on the same test, and the outcome was satisfying.
The closed canopy is durable, lighter, as well as offering benefits for aerodynamic. The airflow would be easier to be managed rather than the other two options. Moreover, while the closed canopy offered the same strength to repel object from the front, the other two failed to protect the drivers’ head from objects that is falling directly from above as the closed one did.
Nonetheless, the closed canopy missed one point of safety besides its inability to let the drivers escape quickly: it is the way of keeping the canopy always crystal clear for the drivers to notice the circumstances on the track. The problem is, Formula cars have narrow front structure. Thus, it is never easy to place a windscreen wiper that can cope such shape of canopy to be cleaned like wipers on normal car can do.
FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety and Sustainability has been stating the closed canopy is now the most suitable option to be implemented to safe the drivers’ head. But still, when the idea is offered to the teams, again they still concern about the drivers’ quick manner exit. The teams then proposed a semi-closed partial windscreen rather than totally close.
It may be still as blunt as before and not in the near future it is to be implemented. But the idea of closed-cockpit is now narrowed to the partially-closed and fully-enclosed. There would be fruitful debates talking about the tradeoffs between them, but we might see no more open-top cockpits racing cars in the future. Maybe Adrian Newey’s Red Bull X1 design concept really is the future for Formula One.