Time for cockpit canopies

There will and should be much investigation and deliberation of the tragic events on Sunday that left promising F1 driver Jules Bianchi with serious head injuries. Mitigating circumstances – the weather, car recovery procedures, timing of the race and more – will be considered and addressed but the accident again has brought in to sharp focus the need to look seriously at cockpit canopies for single-seater racing.

Whilst we all keep Jules in our prayers and thoughts, and hope for a full recovery, this accident alone is not the sole reason to take this course of action. Ayrton Senna’s death at Imola was caused by a broken suspension rod piercing his visor just above the eye. Yet nothing done in the name of safety since has addressed that scenario of trauma to a driver’s head. Worryingly, if the same incident occurred now – in F1, GP2 or Formula E – little of what has been done since 1994 would help the driver. A cockpit canopy could however have helped both at Imola and Suzuka.

This of course is not to diminish the safety efforts in F1 and other single-seater championships in recent years. Undoubtedly these measures have dealt with many other significant safety concerns. Thankfully incidents since Imola 1994 have, as a consequence, been few and far between. Nevertheless, the fundamental issue around open cockpits still casts a shadow over single-seater racing.

Karl Wendlinger’s Monaco accident in 1994, Luciano Burti’s terrifying shunt at Spa in 2001, Felipe Massa’s horrific accident at the Hungaroring in 2009, and Dario Franchitti’s career-ending shunt in IndyCar at Houston in 2013 all have a commonality; the drivers’ head being struck with a massive impact. Nothing can ever guarantee complete safety in motor sport – that danger is intrinsic to the appeal for both drivers and fans – but cockpit canopies could have made a positive safety contribution to all.

The IndyCar series is actively examining cockpit canopies – similar to fighter jets – for their cars following the death of Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. Their focus is in relation to the catch fencing that surrounds oval circuits but the principle is still the same; protecting a driver’s head from blunt-force trauma. Now is the time for the FIA, for F1 and for IndyCar to join forces to find a real and prompt solution to this problem.

I hope measures are taken in F1 to ensure safety car periods are mandatory whilst any recovery vehicle is in front of safety barriers. But even if this horrific accident had not occurred and the impact had not been with such a large and non-deformable structure as a tractor, the need to further protect drivers’ heads is not going away.

Please pray for Jules Bianchi, his family and his team.

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