It Is Time to Enclose the Cockpit on Open Wheel Racing Cars

Justin WilsonWith the recent passing of Justin Wilson, this is going to be a trendy topic for a little while now, but it is actually one I considered lending my voice to for quite a while.

I fell in love with auto racing watching Formula 1 at the turn of the 21st century. I was drawn to the personalities of the drivers, the technology of the cars, the sounds on race day, and, yes, the look of the cars. That unbridled technical aggression appealed to me like nothing I had seen before. After watching a few F1 races, I started to gobble up other similar forms of racing: CART, Indy Car, etc.

In those 15 years or so I also saw some pretty unfortunate incidents. Felipe Massa in 2009, Dan Wheldon in 2011, Jules Bianchi last year, and now Wilson are the most obvious examples. But there are others, and they have a common factor: impact trauma directly to the head.


de Villota

I think the one that bothers me the most is the story of Maria de Villota, who was test-driving a car for the Marussia F1 team in 2012. With the test session completed, she returned to the pit area and collided with a stationary truck. Her head was driven in to the vehicle’s service lift. Though de Villota survived, she lost her right eye and suffered numerous complications (loss of taste and smell, intense headaches, etc.). Within 15 months she was dead – killed by a heart attack that many attribute to complications from her accident. The kicker? She was traveling less than 40 mph at the time of the crash and was in the process of stopping the car.

Though incidents like that are few and far between in modern racing, it starts one thinking: why are open wheel cars also open cockpit? Hasn’t history proven that leaving a driver’s head exposed is asking for something to hit it? The injuries to de Villota and the drivers I listed above could all have been prevented, or at least mitigated, by canopy protection.

Though I love the look of modern open wheel racers, it is past time to enclose the cockpit.

Those with more time and experience in the sport have raised some legitimate concerns: how do you extricate a trapped driver? Would a broken canopy just become another source of injury?

Those are legitimate concerns that, with some ingenuity and patience, I expect can be addressed. There is one argument against enclosed canopies that really bugs me though: that it damages the heritage of the sport.

This, put simply, is total drivel.

The early days of aviation, like motorsport, were dominated by open cockpits as well. The first time a pilot got hit in the teeth with a huge wad of pigeon shit, I doubt his first thought was, “well, I can’t compromise the heritage of flight for something as selfish as my own comfort and safety.” More likely it was,”GACK, [GAG] [HEAVE], BLECH,” followed closely by, “why the hell haven’t I put a canopy on this flying death trap yet?”

And so he did.

It’s not a perfect parallel, obviously, but the point is clear. Moreover, what “heritage” are we preserving here, exactly? The one where spectator and driver deaths at racing events were the norm, not the exception? The one where, if a driver lost control, his death was nearly assured?

That kind of heritage belongs in the history books, not dictating current or future design, especially when we know so much about car design, material technology, and how delicate the human body (and especially the head) is.

I suspect these are the same people who watch racing for the crashes, not the actual art of traversing a circuit. When someone suggests that we lessen the chance of death, it somehow takes away from the sport in their minds, and so they hide behind this old “heritage” argument rather than admitting that they are simply fatalists.

Fortunately, sounder minds will ultimately prevail. I’ve seen some examples of what a canopied open wheel car would look like. I am pleased to say, the future still looks great. In the mean time, if you need to advocate for the risk of severe injury and death in sport, go call for a return to leather helmets in football.

About Chris Nelson

Chris is a writer and communicator with backgrounds in public relations, communication, political science and automotive technology. He holds an M.A. from Rowan University and a B.A. from Susquehanna University in addition to a certificate in Auto Tech from Lincoln Technical Institute.

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