Monday, February 29, 2016

Open Cockpit Safety - Active Cockpit Protection

In recent times there has been plenty of debate about improving safety in Formula One and open wheel racing.  The reason of course has the death of 5 drivers in open cockpits since 2009.

Henry Surtees, Dan Wheldon, Maria de Villota, Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson.

A lot of this debate has centred around 2 particular ideas which involve a permanent addition to the car while racing: the halo and the canopy.  But perhaps there is a compromise?

The idea is now being dubbed "Active Cockpit Protection".  This involves the car itself providing maximum protection to the driver when they need it most - in a very big accident.

Consider this ... the driver has had a bad accident or there is a dangerous, life threatening hazard ahead.  They have a critical few seconds or less until disaster...

So what can they do?  At the moment they can do nothing.

Perhaps, with imminent disaster looming they could push a button or pull a lever and this deploys the car itself into "accident mode".  The car then instantly creates the safest possible environment for the driver to survive.

This could be much more than just an airbag which happens in road cars at the point of impact.  This is technology could be deployed BEFORE, during and after impact.  Once initiated, in microseconds a screen could deploy to increase safety substantially.  The car could change from being a aerodynamic device to the ultimate safety cell, cushioning the driver and protecting exposed areas.   

Take the example of Ayrton Senna's death.  There was a crucial time between when his Williams was on the circuit lapping normally and when Senna knew that he was going to connect with the wall very hard indeed.  It is during those key moments, given modern technology, something could be deployed to provide maximum safety and maximum chance of survival.  It's about "telling" the car that a big accident is about to happen.  This kind of technology could have saved Senna's life.

In fact Active Cockpit Protection could have potentially saved the lives of all 5 drivers mentioned above with the possible exception of Maria de Villota.

An issue with this idea could be additional safety concerns, i.e. what about the drivers arms?  The system would have to include a safeguard to ensure the arms don't extend beyond the cockpit.

In summary, head protection in open cockpits is clearly an area that needs improvement.  Why not give the driver every chance of survival when they need it the most?

For more on F1 safety, please read my blog "Improving Safety in Formula One".

(UPDATE: July 2016)

F1, via Charlie Whiting, has reviewed this technology and has so far deemed it to be "impractical".  He has said; "I cannot see how you can deploy it in the right amount of time".

Thanks for reading, please leave your comments.

Pep, F1 Podcast.

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