Many noises came from the Sochi paddock early on Thursday morning as Red Bull finally unveiled the live prototype of their cockpit protecting ‘aeroscreen’. The design looks very slick compared to the halo tested by Ferrari earlier in the year and seems to have won over a decent number of fans who are worried canopy devices take something away from F1 tradition.
There has been many an argument over how F1 should proceed with cockpit protection. Fans have have defended their opinions until they are blue in the face but should it really be up to them to decide on safety measures in the sport? Absolutely not. Having a canopy won’t change the quality of the racing and therefore won’t have a huge impact on the fans, other than drivers perhaps being a little more difficult to identify from afar. That’s a problem that can be fixed rather easily with some neon stickers.
The drivers have also been divided on how the sport should best move forward with cockpit safety. Lewis Hamilton absolutely detested the Ferrari trialled halo and resolutely refused to drive a car with one attached to it. This weekend in Russia he again reiterated his point upon viewing Red Bull’s aeroscreen for the first time, he claimed the device “looks like a riot shield”. Hamilton believes it should be his choice to risk his own safety. Sadly for the reigning world champion the majority of his peers don’t agree with him and are under the opinion that safety must come first for everyone.
One of the biggest champions of the canopy idea has been Daniel Ricciardo;
“Whether it changes the look of the car or whatever, the cars went through some pretty major changes in the aesthetics back in 2009, and at first it was “Wow,they’re ugly”, but then you get used to it.”
The Red Bull star is absolutely right. We will get used to it, just like we got used to narrow track cars in 1998, and higher cockpit sides in 1996. Ricciardo’s former team-mate Sebastian Vettel has also been strongly in favour of introducing more cockpit protection sooner rather than later. The four time champion tested Ferrari’s halo concept earlier in the year and agreed the design was rather unappealing.
But if it helps increase the safety and helps save lives, there would be at least two drivers who would still be around — Henry Surtees and Justin Wilson — if we had this type of system. It can be ugly but nothing justifies not having these two guys around anymore.”
It’s very hard indeed to argue with Vettel’s point. However the halo concept would have done nothing to help Felipe Massa when a spring struck his head during Hungarian Grand prix qualifying in 2009. It may not even have been enough to save Justin Wilson from being struck with a flying piece of nosecone at IndyCar’s Pocono 500 last year. Red Bull’s aeroscreen may just have been enough to prevent both drivers suffering from serious injury given it’s design features a wraparound screen leaving no gaps from debris to hit the driver face on.
It isn’t just Formula One the FIA has to think about either. Just a week before Massa was struck by that infamous spring Henry Surtees was fatally struck on the head by a flying wheel during a F2 round at Brands Hatch. With an aeroscreen present it’s highly likely Surtees could have walked away from the crash. The tyre might have bounced off the screen and dissipated the energy away from Surtees. Drivers in junior formulae tend to have huge accidents far more regularly than those who are in F1. If anything they need cockpit protection the most. It isn’t just about protecting the current generation, but also about ensuring the safety of the future generation.
No solution is going to be completely foolproof. The halo is rather ugly and seems to limit visibility, while not completely protecting the entire cockpit face. The aeroscreen is sleeker and has better visibility, yet may be problematic should oil or mud attach itself to it during a race. There is also the issue of where the debris that bounces off these canopy solutions would land. It’s clear the FIA and the teams won’t half-arse this; the chosen design will only be introduced when they feel it delivers the biggest benefit for the smallest risk.
But let’s not forget, despite the FIA’s best efforts, crashing a 200mph-capable Formula One car will always, on occasion, end with someone being hurt.