In the wake of Justin Wilson's tragic death last week, the conversation about closed cockpits in open-wheel racing has been renewed. Formula One's governing body, the FIA, will begin evaluating potential closed cockpit designs for single-seat racecars. It's a surprisingly controversial topic that seems to split the crowd, though the number of those in favor of closed-cockpit designs has been growing over the last few years.
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The arguments for such a design are quite clear. It's in the name of safety. With an open cockpit, the head of a driver is vulnerable to being hit. In 2009, Felipe Massa was hit with a nearly two-pound spring that bounced away from a competitors car. His helmet saved his life, but it very nearly wasn't enough. Also in 2009, young racer Henry Surtees was hit in the head by a wheel that had come loose from the car of Jack Clarke. Surtees wasn't as fortunate as Massa, and the rising star lost his life at just 18 years of age.
Still, the closing of the cockpit isn't as easy an argument as you'd expect it to be. Safety concerns arise from the fact it wouldn't be as easy for a driver to remove himself from a vehicle. Safety crews would take longer to get to the driver as well. Additionally, there's a concern that debris that bounces off a cockpit could then find itself flung into the stands where crowds are sitting.
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There have been a few concepts posited that alter the idea of a closed-cockpit and combine it with an open-style layout. The Mercedes-Benz concept seen above puts a halo around the driver, which could increase head safety while keeping the space open. It's a great start, and it's clear we have a long road ahead of us, but if it leads to greater safety for drivers, then it's a road we have to go down.