More driver head protection inevitable in future

BY TONY DODGINS

The first lap accident in the Belgian GP in which Romain Grosjean's Lotus narrowly missed contact with Fernando Alonso's crash helmet gave rise to more talk about either fully-enclosed cockpits or 'crash bars' to combat the vulnerability of drivers' exposed heads. /p>

Given the nature of Formula 1, many have expressed surprise that drivers do not suffer more injuries through flying debris (such as the Brawn spring that injured Felipe Massa at Hungary in 2009) or indeed through contact with another car. The Belgian GP incident was a further example of a lucky escape.

For the past year, F1's technical working group (TWG) has been looking at two different avenues to afford drivers greater protection: the closed canopy cockpit as employed on fighter aircaraft, and some sort of set of bars in front of the driver that would deflect any incoming foreign object.

McLaren's technical director Paddy Lowe explained that it is the latter idea that has the higher currency. He views its future introduction as 'inevitable,' with 2014 being a likely time frame.

"We've made a test piece that has been tested structurally with various impacts, such as firing wheels at it," Lowe explained. "That was successful and so we have understood some of the parameters in terms of the angles we need and the strength of the pieces.

"The next piece of work that's in progress is assessing the visibility and we've done some work on that in our simulator. Obviously a driver ideally wants nothing in front of him but in the same way that you drive a road car with pillars or even one of those old split screen VW campers with a central pillar, you just get used to it. It's one of those things your mind works around and that's what we've found in our simulator.

"The next step is to produce a more optimal design and see if we can produce something more practical, then see what that looks like. Currently the test piece looks pretty ugly but it's really just an early prototype to assess forces. Personally I think its introduction is inevitable. One day we won't be so lucky."

It is understood that the closed canopy idea is unpoular on a number of levels. As well as F1 historically being an open cockpit formula, there are issues with visability and concerns over the egress of drivers trapped in inverted cars or with smoke-filled cockpits.

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