Race Blog
Abu Dhabi 2015

The wrong side of history

Closed-cockpit Formula 1 cars? What? You must be mad. We can’t have the world’s premier automotive racing series masquerading as ‘sports car racing – light’! Drivers disappearing behind human-element-hiding aeroplane-style canopies. No chance.

This used to be me. Ignorant of progress and dismissive of safety concerns. No way could I countenance my beloved open-wheeled passion becoming a closed-cockpit formula. Well I admit it, I was wrong and am now utterly convinced. Canopies are the only option. There is NO alternative. 

Circuit Of The Americas media centre, Saturday evening 24 October 2015, and a select few F1 press regulars are gathered to be informed. I say a select few because the turnout is – sadly – disappointing; safety, I guess, just isn’t as interesting as Austin’s downtown BBQ and live music hangouts.

No matter, some serious F1 writers and a couple of photographers are in attendance, keen to see, hear and be educated as to how our sport will likely look in the years ahead.

The FIA’s Head of F1 Communications Matteo Bonciani takes to the stage and gets the presentation underway. The tall Italian’s racing-safety-expert colleagues quickly get into their stride. Diagrams are unveiled, pictures displayed and videos played.

As is always the case with research – the clue is in the word! – getting to the final decision is a laborious process of testing, results, analysis, modification, manufacturing, more testing, results, analysis… You get my drift: due scientific rigour must be followed before all the numbers come together and a finished product can be delivered.

Aware of this process we watch and listen, questions are asked and answers given. To have the FIA present their findings in a wholly professional manner – to the F1 media minded to care about such issues – is both rewarding and revealing, showing that the sport’s governing body can be inclusive of and respectful to those that report on Formula 1. 

We are only in the early stages of the process. Canopies will of course be embraced and subsequently raced, but alternative safety-promoting designs need to be considered.

The options – shown at Austin – consisted of ugly-looking cages, front and rear rollover-hoop extensions, and Mercedes’ so-called ‘Halo’ concept. While all are undoubtedly laudable in their intentions, there is considerable room for improvement.

As a photographer interested in portraying the many beautiful elements of F1 cars and the sport as a whole, you can imagine how my heart sank when images of otherwise gorgeous racing thoroughbreds appeared festooned with god-awful scaffolding look-a-like appendages sitting atop their svelte carbonfibre bodywork.

Safety is of paramount importance – we all know that – but F1 is a sport appreciated by those with an aesthetic mien, and heaven knows, in a world of dwindling fan interest and declining television audiences, we don’t need ugly cars giving viewers yet another reason to switch off…

You may not care what an F1 car looks like – if so then you’re obviously mad! – but perhaps you’ll mind about shunts and drivers’ excuses. “I didn't see him,” bewails the guilty party, “the lack of visibility I suffered owing to the wrought iron Meccano set blocking my view caused me to crash into the other car, you see.” 

About three minutes into Free Practice One, race one you’ll be hearing that excuse – and again, and again, and again…

F18A supersonic-fighter-like canopies have none of these drawbacks. They look good, the driver is ultimately protected, and visibility is unhindered. He can see out and we can see in.

Safety doesn't have to be boring... Think about the theatre for a moment: the resplendent racing machines sitting primed and ready on the lit-by-a-golden-setting-sun Yas Marina starting grid, cockpit canopies agape, ready to accept their gladiatorial contenders.   

Belts fastened, steering wheel in place, the driver thumbs the cockpit-close button. Descending in a slow, smooth and purposeful glide, the beautifully aero-contoured Perspex dome snaps shut. LED lights bathe the cocooned driver in a colour-coded-helmet-illuminating glow.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Millions of young – and old! – kids endlessly play games that look like this, and we all flock to the cinema to see Jedi warriors in their X-Wing fighters do just as I describe, so why not see F1 drivers do it every other week?

The symbolism is intense, the safety argument insurmountable.

Purists will of course moan, but their dismissive and ill-informed opinions will fall on the deaf ears of those of us who know we’re right. This traditionalist argument is nothing new. Back in the 1960s, genuine F1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart urged circuit owners and race promoters to improve trackside safety, and cajoled the sport’s law makers and car designers to fit proper seat belts and legislate helmets that were a little more effective – at saving lives – than the flimsy and ineffective open-face items of the period. All obvious requirements that no one could imagine F1 without now.

Tell that to many in the specialist press of the time: Motor Sport magazine described Stewart – when he led the drivers’ boycott of the treacherous Spa-Francorchamps circuit in 1969 – as “a pious little Scot with beady eyes who should take up knitting using needles without sharp points.”

Oh how those conservative dinosaurs sound so foolish and imprudent now. Can you imagine future generations looking back at similarly contemptuous attitudes to progressive safety measures being proposed in 2015?

Long-time advocate of cockpit canopies, Le Mans winner and ex-F1 driver Alex Wurz and I have discussed and argued the pros (him) and cons (me) a number of times – and every time, I can see now, he was right.

So think on and be like Alex.

You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history… Do you?


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