Drivers are protected from all angles except for their exposed helmets, and with the passing of Justin Wilson, we can't ignore it any longer. Proposed solutions are all over the board, but here are a few that stick out:
A Simple Polycarbonate Windshield
Of all possible solutions, the concept of putting a windshield in front of the driver of an open wheel car is the most simple and the one with the most history. After all, the Indianapolis 500 winners from 1970 to 1986 all had something resembling a windscreen in front of at least part of the driver's head (Though that was more for speed than safety).
While it might not be easy to retrofit onto a current chassis, like IndyCar's DW12 safety cell or the just-revealed Dallara GP3/16, it would be a more straightforward process than introducing a canopy and would introduce a relatively small number of unknowns. By leaving the top of the roof open, it could ease fears about extraction in emergencies and evacuation in case of fire. However, such a windscreen only encloses part of the car, and as an FIA Institute test proved in 2011, could be prone to shattering when hit by debris.
Importantly, the same test also shows the simple windshield is successful in deflecting larger debris, like a full tire, and the shattered windscreen that results is a far smaller issue than the alternative. It leaves a driver vulnerable to a second strike, but in the vast majority of cases a dangerously-sized piece of debris won't be immediately followed by a second following the same trajectory.
Worth noting, however, is that while the windshield worked for a tire, the FIA's polycarbonate solution has reportedly faced issues stopping smaller debris, such as the wing endplate that hit James Hinchcliffe in the 2014 Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
There's also something to be said for the added effectiveness of a simple support down the middle of a windshield, as shown in 2005 when the "Larry Bar" down the middle of Craig Lowndes's windscreen helped catch and deflect a tire hit windshield-first without so much as damaging any other part of the car. It may add little value to a modern polycarbonate windscreen, but for the purposes of trying everything, it is something to be considered.
A Full Polycarbonate Canopy
The FIA Institute tested a full-length, fighter jet-style canopy in their same 2011 test shown above, and it passed their tire deflection test with flying colors (Though the same concerns about smaller debris exist). Implementation has been delayed, however, amid concerns about potential issues with driver extraction. The worry comes down to the possibility of delays when removing a damaged canopy, as echoed by F1's Charlie Whiting, a potentially major issue when cars are on fire or when, after rolling, they come to rest on the wrong plane.
One possible solution for such concerns are the exploding bolts in use on the Mercedes SLS AMG road car. By providing immediate removal of the canopy at the push of a button (Or the activation of a sensor), the bolts could greatly mitigate the time needed to remove the enclosure for extraction, immediately rendering the primary concern with canopies a moot point.
The NHRA's previously open-cockpit Top Fuel class implemented optional canopies in 2012, and they've been considered a success by most. Only a few drivers were using them in 2013, but they've gradually gained favor with the field and are slowly becoming the industry standard. The manufacturer of those canopies is already an IndyCar collision center of sorts, and with a knowledge of both canopy implementation onto cars initially designed for an open cockpit and the spec DW12, they'd be the ideal partner for both a canopy adaptation for the DW12 and a canopy built into a potential new car in the near future.
A Protective Bar (Or Halo)
An intriguing third idea, far easier to implement on current cars than either a windscreen or a full canopy, was recently brought to the attention of the FIA, and it certainly deserves consideration.
The concept is simple: Instead of building a windshield around a support bar, implement only the support bar. Where a windshield or canopy would deflect debris, the "Blade" would simply intercept it by hitting it first. It also adds extra structural integrity to the top of the car in case of a rollover and helps with the surprisingly prevalent issue of cars coming to rest atop other cars, adding a support for the weight of part of a stationary car that a canopy likely couldn't provide. Such a system would also make recovery no more difficult than before, and the "Halo" concept floated by Mercedes AMG F1, which anchors the "Blade" to the rear of the car's tub through an additional support that goes over the driver's head, would even add some protection above the driver's helmet for the nightmare scenario of a car making first impact with a fence or wall above the nosecone.
The drawback in this case is reduced visibility, particularly directly in front of the driver, also echoed by Whiting. As junior formula team owner Trevor Carlin points out, however, a similar argument was made when the bodywork of Formula 1 cars finally covered the shoulders of drivers (And, in due time, the sides of the helmet), and drivers quickly adapted without any notable increase in visibility-related collisions in the interim. This would be a more major change to a driver's total field of vision, but if implemented correctly, the system could still have little overall effect.
Fully Enclosed Tubs
Of course, all of these ideas come short of doing the obvious: Simply phasing out current cars and building around a fully enclosed tub, with traditional doors. It's the avenue the ACO took to eliminate open-cockpit cars at Le Mans (Though, obviously, coupe-style sport prototypes existed alongside open-cockpit examples for years before the latter was banned), and it seems to have been a runaway success.
Such an idea is likely too extreme for open wheel racing. It solves all of the issues presented by the other three concepts immediately, as well as providing additional support above the driver's head, but the cost would be far higher than the other proposals and the change far larger.
Apart from the issues presented by individual solutions, two arguments against protecting the cockpit seem to be hard to escape: That all solutions are ultimately futile because they do not eliminate all risks and that a fully open cockpit is an intrinsic part of open wheel racing.
The former is simple to dispel. It's an obvious truth, but an irrelevant one. That we cannot eliminate all risk is not now, and never has been, a reason to avoid mitigating every risk we can, as soon as we can. Were we to accept this as a reason not to advance, we'd still be racing cars without doors or seat belts around tracks lined with only hay bales. Racing involves danger, sure, and at one point it may well have been about danger, but times have changed, and while it will always be something that must be accepted, it is no longer something that can be embraced.
The latter, however, has been a sticking point among many since the idea of a canopy was first brought up. Those who would defend the unprotected open cockpit see a common thread of open cockpit cars and assume that it is a core tradition of their particular corner of motorsports, but by doing so they overlook the actual founding idea of open wheel racing: Advancement. We will move past open cockpits for the same reason we moved past bias ply tires, front-mounted engines and knock-off wheels; We found something better.
A Plan For IndyCar
There's plenty of options to protect drivers of open wheel race cars, and though there's individual drawbacks to each idea presented, there aren't any big enough to keep any given engineering firm from trying. Of course, that doesn't mean they're viable for IndyCar's specific case, where smaller budgets and the timeline for the both continuation and replacement of the spec DW12 safety cell are a concern. To work around those issues, I propose the following:
2016: Find a way to immediately retrofit the current fleet of DW12s over the long offseason with a "Blade" system that would at least provide a minimal level of protection from debris strikes. It doesn't cover all variables, but as a stopgap solution, it greatly increases safety and immediately negates a glaring flaw in design that has continued in various forms for nearly a century.
2017: Accelerate the introduction of a new spec chassis, originally scheduled for 2018, to 2017. Keep the competition ideas of manufacturer-specific engines and open aero kits that the DW12 was originally built around, then focus all other design elements around safety. Attempt to develop a spec floor with the primary goal of not producing lift when cars spin or hit a wall at odd angles at Indianapolis or Fontana speed. Implement something like the Mercedes AMG "Halo" design to act as protection for cars hitting a fence or wall roof-first, adding the protection of cars falling on the driver compartment or hitting a fence roof-first that a roll cage would traditionally provide in a stock car (If you're wondering what value that would bring, see how the roof of the #39 Chevrolet briefly supports the #78 in this 2013 NASCAR incident). Put a canopy fastened by explosive bolts over that, providing the best possible deflection technology.
Implementing canopies has a secondary advantage of fulfilling the initial goal for the 2012 car introduction, which was to create something that would be unique among the racing world. Though they may not be as extreme as the DeltaWing concept presented in that round of bidding, nothing in the world yet looks like the F-Zero-esque renderings of current open-wheeled cars with enclosed cockpits.
Building around safety measures where possible could also give IndyCar a chance to address their other obvious safety concerns, namely by keeping cars out of fences whenever possible. It would be expensive, likely far more than the development of the DW12, but IndyCar happily paid for major safety advances between 1998 and 2002, when they worked with various universities to develop the wildly successful SAFER barrier and preceding PEDS barrier. As 2014 series champion Will Power alluded to in a column for RACER earlier this year, this is an opportunity for IndyCar to lead the way when many expect it to follow, and to make all of racing safer as a result. Road & Track Magazine