Open-wheel racing discussing safety, canopy options (Update)


While materials today are much stronger, this design canopy would never offer the driver enough protection

The 1967 Italian Grand Prix free practice saw renowned engineer Ron Tauranac fit a closed cockpit on his friend Jack Brabham's BT24.

The Monza test was only carried out to monitor any potential aerodynamic gains, and never followed up.


Cars with canopies look 'cool'
Cars with canopies look 'cool'

James Hinchcliffe doesn't remember what happened for a few hours on May 10 in Indianapolis. From the moment a piece of Justin Wilson's wing hit his helmet during the Indianapolis Grand Prix until he was leaving the hospital later that day, Hinchliffe has no recollection.

"There's nothing that I remember," he told USA TODAY Sports. "I don't recall anything until I was at the hospital getting discharged. The prevailing theory was I was knocked out briefly when it hit me and came to when I ran into Oriol Servia's car. The first thing I started talking about over the radio was wanting to get my helmet off, but I don't remember that."

On the other hand, Antron Brown remembers everything that happened May 16 at Atlanta Dragway. He remembers seeing his car's front wing fly toward him, strike the bulletproof Plexiglas on the canopy of his Top Fuel dragster with a frightening thud and bounce away.

"It wasn't actually that bad initially because I was into the wall, which started to scrub off some speed," Brown told USA TODAY Sports. "But that's when my front wing came off and headed right back at me and hit the canopy. It hit so hard that it buckled it but didn't break it. I was going 315 mph at the time. If the canopy hadn't been there to stop the wing, it would have hit me in the head. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today."

Since Jules Bianchi's horrifying crash Oct. 5 at the Japanese Grand Prix, officials of Formula One and the Verizon IndyCar Series have acknowledged they're looking into derivations of canopies similar to those used by NHRA teams like Brown's. Formula One has done some testing of full enclosures over the cockpits of its cars, while IndyCar's safety committee is discussing the possibility of a partial canopy [Editor's Note: Big mistake. Not strong enough.].

"The first step would be the front half of a canopy, but a complete canopy I don't think is necessary," IndyCar president of operations and competition Derrick Walker told USA TODAY Sports. "Getting out of the car as quickly as possible is the first priority, so a front deflector section seems to be a logical step. … It would be quite an exercise to install as an add-on piece, so it would have to be a part of the chassis design. Since the next generation of Dallara chassis isn't expected for some time, 2018 probably presents the soonest opportunity." [Editor's Note: The drivers are not able to get out of the car quickly when they wreck today. The safety crew is always on the scene to help them – 100% of the time. So the idea of being able to extricate yourself quickly is a moot point.]

Bianchi's crash, in which his car slid under a large tractor removing another crashed car, drew criticism of F1 safety procedures, Bianchi's team, Marussia F1 Team, and the Suzuka Circuit. It also brought about renewed calls for canopies on F1 cars.

American driver Alexander Rossi, who was set to replace Bianchi in the Russian Grand Prix on Oct. 12 and in Austin before Marussia encountered financial difficulties and parked Rossi's car in Russia and later backed out of the USGP altogether, said he backs any safety decisions made by Federation Internationale de L'Automobile (FIA) in response to Bianchi's crash.

"The FIA has done a fabulous job in addressing safety issues," Rossi told USA TODAY Sports. "I have full faith in the direction they go. I can't really comment directly (on canopies), but I've driven under FIA sanction for years in various series and trust they'll make the right call."

As the NHRA Toyota Nationals get underway this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a handful of Top Fuel drivers, including Brown and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher, are advocating the use of canopy technology on F1 and IndyCar equipment.

"In my career I've hit two birds and something else that I didn't know quite what it was," Schumacher told USA TODAY Sports. "I was lucky in all three cases. A helmet is not meant take a violent hit at the high speeds we run, but with a canopy I'm much safer. If you're going to swing a sledgehammer at me now, I'm going to win every time. I'm inside a much safer car now."

The issues regarding canopies in F1 and IndyCar racing are different than those in drag racing. Visibility, especially in the rain, and the ability to escape, especially if the car is upside down or on fire, are among the first concerns raised by open-wheel drivers. Some, like Hinchcliffe, think a system of deflectors or a partial canopy in front of the cockpit would be more practical, especially in preventing debris from striking drivers.

"As drivers, we're the ones pushing for safety more than anyone," Hinchcliffe said. "My concern is that the right solution hasn't been presented yet. … The biggest concern with a canopy would be getting out of the car after a crash and what happens when it's raining. I'm for anything that helps with safety; I'm just not sure that it doesn't cause more problems than it prevents." [Editor's Note: The drivers are not able to get out of the car quickly when they wreck today. The safety crew is always on the scene to help them – 100% of the time. So the idea of being able to extricate yourself quickly is a moot point. As for oil on the canopy, they could include tear offs like NASCAR windshields – what do NASCAR drivers do when they get oil on their windshield? As driving in the rain, I am sure some sort of wiper system could be devised. – sportscars have wipers.]

Walker says he favors a partial canopy that would deflect debris but still allow drivers clear visibility and an easier escape. [Editor's Note: AR1 disagrees with Walker. FIA tests show that a partial canopy is too weak and we have video to prove it, and we addressed the escape issue already.]

"You have to look at how vulnerable these guys are in an open cockpit and come up with the proper solution," Walker said. "A canopy in concept sounds like the way to go, but you can't put too much of a structure in front of them. You're really talking about something that has to be pretty damned bulletproof without being obstructive. Whatever you put in front of a driver's face, it can't be a disadvantage for them. They have to be able to see through it and get out of it in an emergency."

Canopies remain optional in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series since being introduced in 2013. Brown and Schumacher say technology like on-board fire extinguishers and ventilation are effective on their cars, making canopies a viable solution for open-wheel racing.

"There's always the devil's advocate in every situation, but this can work for open-wheel cars," Schumacher said. "The most difficult problem they'll have is that a bigger curvature will require the glass to get thinner and thinner. But with the money they spend on those cars, they'll figure it out.

"When they first try it, they'll be amazed. The parts and pieces are away from you; they aren't going to fly back into you. It's quiet in the cockpit, too. You can concentrate at a much higher level. Once they try it and give it a shot, they'll like it. They'll get through the trials and tribulations of R&D, and they'll come up with something that makes them safer."

Also at issue are the fundamentals of the sport itself. The history of Formula One and IndyCar is that of exposed wheels and single-seat, exposed cockpits. Enclosing the wheels — which IndyCar has partly accomplished with pods surrounding the rear wheels on its latest generation of chassis — and enclosing the cockpit are radical changes to the sport's historic form. [Editor's Note: Lame argument. The current IndyCars have closed off the rear wheels completely. They are open wheel cars, not open cockpit cars.]

"We could do more damage to the form of open-wheel racing than we're helping," Hinchcliffe said. "It's a tough one because I'm a fan of the history of the sport but I also want to have the best possible protection. Where do you draw the line? If you close the wheels and close the cockpit, it's a sports car."

That leads to another issue: Whether a canopy is used for protection or increased performance. Enclosing the cockpit is bound to improve aerodynamics.

"I haven't addressed that side of it, but it's a big consideration," Walker said. "You can't ignore it. When you do a full canopy, you're getting a higher level of efficiency. What we're trying to address is safety and not performance. How do we get something in front of a driver's face without changing the nature of the sport? It's not a small task. It has to be thought through carefully." (See related article on how the canopies will function)

FIA director Jean Todt has summoned a 10-man commission to look into the procedures surrounding Bianchi's crash. The committee also is being asked to consider prevention of serious injuries in the future. It's likely, then, that canopies will be part of the discussion.

If so, Brown — racing a few hundred miles away from Austin– has an opinion on the matter.

"I would not be alive right now without the canopy on my car," he said. "I'm convinced of that. It saved my life." Jeff Olsen/USA Today

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