Alonso’s lucky escape shows urgency for driver cockpit protection
Posted By: James Allen  |  03 Sep 2012   |  5:35 pm GMT  |  161 comments

Sometimes the goal of an innovation in F1 is not the pursuit of better performance, but rather of safety. There have been plenty of examples of that and now the F1 teams and the FIA are fairly urgently and closely working together to come up with a solution to the problem of driver vulnerability in the cockpit.

F1 has been lucky in recent years with several accidents which could have harmed or killed the driver due to his exposure in an open cockpit.

We had another on Sunday.

Fernando Alonso’s point of view as Romain Grosjean’s car smashed across the top of his chassis in a violent accident at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, with the car passing less than a metre from his head, makes for terrifying viewing and has redoubled efforts to find a solution which could be engineered into the new generation F1 cars in 2014 without unbalancing the design of the F1 cars.

Alonso was relieved to escape without serious injury, as he turned his car to the right to take the corner and Grosjean’s car hit him amidships,

“I’m lucky that I can be in the car in five days at Monza because looking at the image, we were turning in so you could have a problem with your hands or even your head because the car was so close,” he said. “I think we broke everything on top of the car. It was lucky in that aspect.”

The work on driver protection began in earnest after the incidents in 2009 where Felipe Massa in F1 and Henry Surtees in F2 were struck by objects, fatally in Surtees’ case.

The breakthrough, when it comes, will be adopted across other single seater categories, as the HANS device (which protects the drivers’ next in the event of a head on impact). On Saturday there was a nasty accident in the GP3 race in Belgium, when Robert Cregan, son of Abu Dhabi circuit boss Richard Cregan, was struck on the helmet by his left rear wheel after a heavy impact with a barrier. He has been released from hospital.

Since 2009, the FIA and the F1 Technical Working Group of engineers has been looking at two main options: canopies made of polycarbonate, similar to those used on the F-16 fighter jet and more recently a forward roll structure which is now the main avenue being pursued.

The main problems with canopies are around visibility, (they get dirty), what happens if they jam and weight distribution (they add a lot of weight high up on the car, when low centre of gravity is desirable)

Canopies were extensively tested by the FIA Institute last year, “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),” said the FIA Institute’s Andy Mellor.

The subject comes up fairly regular in drivers’ meetings and they seem to be reconciled with the fact that some kind of protection will be adopted soon.

The roll structure, like the canopy, has recently been tested with loads being fired at it to simulate an impact. The main challenge for the innovators of F1 will be to produce a structure which sits forward of the driver to protect him, but which allows him unrestricted visibility

One of the leading figures in the F1 Technical Working Group is McLaren’s Paddy Lowe, “Obviously, a driver ideally wants nothing in the way but in the same way we drive a road car with pillars, you just get used to it, don’t you?,” he said after the Belgian Grand Prix weekend.

“We started the project a year ago. Personally, I think something is inevitable because it is the one big exposure we’ve got. How many times have you looked at things including today and thought, that was lucky? One day it won’t be lucky and we’ll all be sitting there going: ‘We should have done something about that.'”

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How about using military tech to help driver protection… like tanks that have active armour! you can detect flying objects coming towards you – we have the tech for that , all you need then is to deploy a barrier/aribag/net/deflector or whatever – these things can react in milli seconds even before a driver is aware of something coming his way – could also be the same for colliding with barriers – bring in ithe airbag!?


Has anyone seen this? Sorry if it was posted before.


I wonder how it is possible that Formula 1 for 50 years now, and only in the last 3 years they intensified works on the protection of the driver’s head …. Why is it ?


I feel that there are dangers in incorporating a closed canopy ontop of a F1 car.

It was touched upon earlier but what happens if there is smoke or worse a fire in the cocpit area and the driver becomes traped inside. From memory, the major cause of F1 fatalities in the past were sadly the result of fire. Also an enclosed space, mixed with flamable gasses is a recipe for an explosion, so whilst there may be some form of impact protection, the driver may be as risk of fire/combustion related injuries.

I dare say that there is not quick release solution for a canopy that can take an impact whilst having safety measures to break off or be removed rapidly after a roll over or serious crash. What if the release mechanisms fail? Canopy technology derived from fighter planes is partially irrelivent in crash situation for a formula 1 car as the pilot is able to be ejected via his/her seat through the canopies orafice ater it blows off. the driver however need to exit the car from one way and one axis only.

What also comes to mid is what happens if the top decides to fracture? This protective barrier may form a sharp blade only centermetres from the driver, I fear the injuries could potentiall be quite severe.

Im all for increased safety but im sure there are some avenues yet to be explored. The enclosed canopy, could create more safety issues in the long run for the driver.

Being dangerous for the sake of entertainment is plain stupid and im sure any F1 fan, casual or not will still appreciate the thrill and specticle regardless of how safe the car is.



Sit a driver in the seat with his helmet on, strapped in as if he is racing. Map his full field of vision, including turning his head. Now build whatever crash-resistant structure you like outside that field of vision. The protection would be considerable, especially above the drivers head because he never looks up. Just make sure he can see the reds go out from the front row of the grid !! 😉


Wonder what Sid Watkins might have to say about this? A canopy or inproved windscreen would protect against intrusions of smaller objects, but to protect against a flying car? That would take an extended rollcage or protective hoop. I remember after Felipe was injured that Rubens commented ‘there are no accidents in Formula 1, everything happens for a reason.’ I’m a long time fan, and a purist at heart but I don’t want to see anyone have a traumatic brain injury or worse because it might offend the purists. The lives of the drivers and the teams in the pits comes first end of story.


Full-length side pods as seen during the 1970s would resolve a great many problems, not least by massively reducing the number of wheel-wheel interlock interactions. Such a design would have prevented Grosjean’s accident, would have prevented Coulthard-Wurz, would have prevented in fact most of the airborne incidents I can recall over the last few years.

More than that, I see no reason why the mirrors ought not to be structural pylons; there is no engineering reason why they shouldn’t be. They aralready there, could usefully be a little larger, and would have saved Alonso’s head had Grosjean’s car been a little closer

What of a Massa or Surtees incident?

I’m not all that convinced that anything much would have deflected the spring in Massa’s case and, frankly, designing-out a 0.00001% probability risk seems a touch pointless to me – there will always be freak accidents, whatever happens.

In terms of a loose wheel, these have always been a problem. But one doesn’t need all that much – a couple of vertical ‘blades’ of 2cm thick Lucite mounted either side of the Driver’s head on the removable cockpit coping would in all likelihood suffice.

All this talk of canopies seems, to me, as if somebody has a desire for a technologically over-complex solution to the problem.?


These days I am still more worried about the pit crews than I am the drivers.


It looks like the cowardice will prevail, and make no mistake, this is all about cowardice, and greed. The drivers are being paid more than ever, the cars are safer more than ever, the risk of cockpit intrusion is lower than ever, there has been no death from cockpit intrusion for decades, and barely any ever in history, and only one injury from a freakish flying bit of metal, in decades, yet the powers to be and drivers are pushing for enclosed cockpits.

Just think about that logic for a moment. The small amount of close calls in recent years, are nothing new, they have been occurring for 80 years, its always been an accepted risk but not anymore. Why? Because they are all cowards, there is no other reason.

This is all in accordance with the overall sanitation of the sport, where all walls on the outside of corners have been removed, curbs have been shrunk and gravel traps have been removed on the outsides of all corners, so the poor drivers dont have to worry about actually suffering consequences from mistakes, like in the past 80 years. Now they just run wide onto tarmac, and back on the track often making up time. Tracks are effectively becoming wide open car parks. Its not stopping its getting worse, because everyone is a coward, and allowing agendas and selfishness to undermine the essence of the sport which is the most important thing.

If they close the cockpits the sport is finished forever, and can never be taken seriously along with the drivers that allowed that. They are not heros, they will become over paid cowards.

The other issue is money because the money men of the sport are deadly scared of the negative publicity and hit to the bottom line if a driver was ever killed.


I would agree that drivers coming up from the F-1 feeder series drive like a bunch of lunatics, banging and chopping in front of one another. I’ve seen some horrendous wrecks in GP2, with cars upside down sliding along a saftey fence, and the like. This is due to youth and enthusiasm and lack of discipline on the part of the teams and the officials. Exceptional safety or not I think they’d still be driving like there was no tomorrow if all they had along the track were trees, cliffs and bales of hay, because they’re young inexperienced and they think they can do anything and live to tell about it.


I don’t mind canopies personally but lets sort out the simple things first. The quality of the driving in F1 is quite often absolutely appalling. Actions like what Rosberg did in Bahrain (twice!) should be race bans in my opinion. With all the increased safety (and drivers saying they want more safety) the actual behaviour of the drivers on the track has become increasingly wreckless. It seems to be perfectly accepted in F1 that drivers can run each other off the road.

They all do it, weaving aggressively to defend position and showing a complete lack of respect for the risks involved in the sport. I might bang the drum about this too much, but if you watch Indycar you generally see drivers all too aware of the risks and they show each other much more respect on the track where they don’t risk running into each other. This is not just enforced by mutual respect but covered in the rules and regulations of the sport. Indycar has many fatalities of course, but you are far less likely to see them from actions like Grosjean in Spa.

By all means add canopies, but unless you clamp down on driver behaviour then expect these “risks” to increase further as drivers push the boundaries.


This discussion should also include proposals for structures around the rear tires to prevent tire-tread to tire-tread contact (as opposed to sidewalls), and designs at the rear of the cars to prevent them from ramping over one another in a collision.

These structures would help prevent the contact between Grosjean and Hamilton’s tire treads at the very least. The accident would likely still have happened, of course, but had Grosjean’s car not launched over the back of a Sauber, Alonso would have been t-boned at ground level rather than at head-level.


James I realize that this is off topic, but I noticed that Martin Whitmarsh looks in very good shape for a man in his fifties.

I began looking for more healthy living now in my thirties.

I would appreciate if you could write something about nutrition and training for people in formula one,

not the drivers because they are super humans,but more about traveling and eating habits and training for normal f1 people . sorry for English(google translate).


Good idea. Will do


Had Grosjean’s car landed on Alonso’s face, I can’t see a canopy saving his life. They might deflect a wheel head on, but the body of a car(or 2)impacting side on?

Harsher penalties would be a step in the right direction…for the team as well as the driver, if the driver is banned, the car should be banned as well.


I think everyone should take a Valium on this one. There are many other high speed pro sports where the participant has virtually no protection. Stop meddling, otherwise an F-1 race will be held in front of computer displays ! As long as due diligence is being exercised then lets just sit on the edge of our armchair and enjoy it.


For anyone who believes driver cockpit protection is unnecessary in F1 take a look at this video from the 2007 Australian GP..


Can’t we have wind shields instead of canopies? Like the ones we used to have in F1 during the early eighties. Notice the upper nose part of those cars. They are rounded and designed with a steep angle. They look like a better solution than the stepped nose.


The issue with that design is that it places the driver too far forward in the car. His legs are ahead of the front axle and extremely vulnerable in a crash. Several drivers have had terrible injuries as a result (Johnny Herbert and Alex Zinardi spring readily to mind). So the current design ensures the legs and feet are protected in a survival cell style of cockpit. However, a windscreen that wraps around the cockpit slightly and incorporates a roll-over hoop might be a good solution that still allows for driver extraction in the event of a crash.


It is amazing how many people are so willing to attack Grosjean and Maldonado. They have made mistakes. They don’t sit there on the grid and think ‘who should I try and kill today?’. There is no malicious intent.

Ayrton Senna caused many incidents due to careless, dangerous driving, but because he was a triple world champion it seems that it makes it OK. Rubbish! Senna was probably the only driver in F1 history who deliberately and unapologetically caused a crash.

If Maldonado or Grosjean were triple world champions with the same personality status as Senna, but still caused all the incidents that they have, I think peoples opinions of them would be much more forgiving.


I am sorry this generates a lot of emotions for me.

Been watching F1 since the 70’s. The sport is infinitelty safer since then.

While I respect the desire for safety. F1 is in my opinion open wheel and cockpit period. Everyones messed with the tracks (taddy) and now we want to mess with the cars?

I think if we want to change F1 safety wise – then Gordon Murray’s concepts should be reviewed and considered.


I’ve read the first few comments – time does not permit me to read them all.

They should leave the cockpits, wheels, etc open. This is open wheel racing.

Sure there is a risk and sure, there is danger. But this is motor racing. No one is forcing the drivers to be there, or the spectators.

The modern world in general is becoming too PC and nanny-ish. I don’t want to see any more of this creep into F1.


Removing the amount of flying debris on the track caused by broken front wings would decrease the chances of a head injury I think.

These huge complicated wings are always getting broken and sending debris flying into other cars.

The pre-2009 wings were not so bad IIRC.


I can see there being multiple benefits to a full canopy option. On the one hand you get added protection for the driver but on the other, some of the existing protection could be reduced, e.g. the helmet could be lighter with a wider, clearer visor and possibly the sides of the cockpit could be lowered a bit. This could give the driver much greater visibility of what is going on around him and hence avoid some collisions.

Lastly, there is that ever present issue of rain, an aerodynamically shaped cockpit could provide a clearer view of the track than a helmet visor does.


No canopies.

No dangerous drivers.

If a driver acts dangerous, he is dangerous, there should be no place for him.


What about mechanical failure, car clips another or launched off kerb whatever completely unexpected- what then it’s just forgotten and someone dies without any action or even attempt just because a few F1 fans don’t want see a small protective shield around a race… I mean common are you people for real.we ate not just talking about reckless drivers , penalties need to be tougher but this is the entire safety improvement in the sport!


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Agreed. If a driver is dangerous, deal with him.

I think it’s a joke that Maldernardo has still escaped a ban.


James allow me to go a little way off topic

Is it OK that we look at the lap time trace that Hamilton put on twitter on sunday? I would love your input as to how to make sense of it.

the links for anyone interested:


I really do hope neither canopy nor roll structure will be introduced.

From my point of view, if it is inevitable to create some form of protection, then the changes must be made to the roll hoop, it should be made to extend (and cover) above driver’s head. That way any impacts (like in Spa with Alonso, or like flying wheels) will be mitigated by this extended roll hoop.

The main advantage of that:

it won’t constrain driver’s view in any way albeit providing sufficient protection.

Other advantages include – nearly unaltered center of gravity, cost efficiency (compared to some super-duper glass canopy), aesthetically it won’t be very “beautiful”, but anyway way better than canopy or any other solution.

The main disadvantage – it won’t be able to protect against “jumping springs”… but actually, as I understand, forward roll structure also won’t protect against such “things”.

The biggest unresolved question of such structure:

How it should be made not to obscure driver’s extraction from the cockpit in case of accident (and actually driver’s initial getting in the cockpit).

My idea is to make it detachable or movable without losing structural strength… I am not an engineer, but I think it’s quite possible.


My immediate thought here is this, kneejerk reaction!

F1 was very lucky on sunday, it dodged a bullet really but no matter what kind of canopy they introduce there will always be one accident that it cannot prevent.

People like Paddy Lowe seem to think they can make F1 completely safe and that is just not possible. Safer yes but not safe.

I’m all for safety introductions and agree bigger sidepods and headrests would be a good place to start. However a rollcage or canopy….well to me thats no longer Formula One.

Open wheel racing will always be the pinnacle of motorsport, F1 can either be this still or become the next LMP class racing

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