The accident which killed British racing driver Dan Whedon yesterday in an Indycar race at Las Vegas has raised a number of safety questions, including the wisdom of running 34 open wheel cars on a tight 1.5 mile oval track such as Las Vegas with an average speed of 220mph.
But it has also revived discussion about the possible use of canopies to make the drivers safer in the cockpit from flying wheels or debris, as happened with Felipe Massa and Henry Surtees.
The FIA Institute has done some work in this area and produced some interesting content in the current edition of its quarterly magazine, IQ. A video of their recent canopy test is posted below. There is no suggestion at this stage that a canopy might have saved Wheldon, but a moment like this always calls for the sport to reflect on safety issues and consider the work that’s already being done.
The work has been carried out by FIA Institute Technical Advisor, Andy Mellor, along with Institute Research Consultants Peter Wright and Hubert Gramlin. Prompted by the F1 Technical Working Group, which comprises senior engineers from F1 teams as well as FIA technical people, they’ve been looking into the possible benefits – and drawbacks – of adding some form of additional protection to the open-cockpit area of F1 cars.
According to IQ, “The aim was simple: to fire a Formula One wheel and tyre, together weighing 20kg, at 225km/h into, first, a polycarbonate windshield and, second, a jet fighter canopy made from aerospace-spec polycarbonate, and measure what happens (all close-up observations being recorded by strategically positioned high-speed film cameras).”
The canopy was the same as used on an F-16 fighter jet. The FIA Institute team wanted to see how it would cope with an F1 wheel and tyre.
The answer was that whereas the windshield shattered, the F-16 canopy deflected the object away from the cockpit where the driver would be seated, says Mellor, “It was possible to see that the windshield did manage to deflect the wheel over the space that would be occupied by the driver’s helmet, but in so doing it sustained significant damage.
“The canopy, however, deflected the wheel assembly suffering no permanent deformation. And viewing the canopy impact in slow motion shows it flexing to absorb impact energy, before ‘launching’ the wheel and tyre away. ”
The results are currently with the F1 Technical Working Group. It is is the first stage of the process. According to IQ, any debate on implementation would have to take account of a number of known drawbacks, such as: Visibility, Optical quality, Ventilation, Cleaning, Access and Emergency exit of the driver.
Wheldon’s accident is being investigated now. On board cameras show his car being launched over the back of another, rotating to the side and then going into the wall and fencing.